Q. Last winter my son, who is in the 5th grade, said he wanted to go to a real camp instead of a day camp this summer--an idea that fit well with my own work plans. We chose the place together a few months ago and he was excited about it, but now he seems more and more uneasy about the idea. Should we cancel the plan? He is supposed to leave in three weeks.
A. All children are timid about camp before they go--a nervousness that usually leaves after the first few days. This is because anything strange scares a child, at least a little bit. You're probably a little uneasy about it yourself, which he must sense, and this only adds to his uneasiness.
Ask the camp for names of a few old campers or counselers in this area so you and your son can get some firsthand information. Whatever you can do to make it seem less foreign--including a tour of the place--will take away a good deal of the anxiety.
A few good long talks will help too. Your child needs to know that everyone also will be just as nervous as he is. Even the kids who are returning are uncertain if they will have as good a time and as much status as last year seemed to promise.
If you encourage your child to talk about his anxieties, without interrupting him to promise that it will be just wonderful, he'll be able to explore his fears enough to tell you exactly what may be bothering him. It might be that he's never ridden a horse before and he's sure he'll fall off; that he's scared of a bunkhouse without a nightlight or that you won't remember to feed his dog. And so you promise him a half-hour session at a riding stable, so he won't feel like such a novice; give him a flashlight to keep by his bed so he can shine it if he gets scared, and have him make a big DON'T FORGET TO FEED OSCAR! poster to hang on the refrigerator.
You'll also want to talk about the good times he'll have and the things he'll learn and the extras he'll be taking--the books you'll let him buy and the new pocketknife.
And then you'll promise to call a couple of times a week--you make exact phone dates after he's arrived and knows his schedule better--and send cards and letters too. One a day is about the best vitamin for this camper, especially if he is anxious about leaving his family, or if he has any idea that you want him to go to camp because he's in the way. That worry probably sours more children about camp than anything else.
Your letters will be treasured most if they're mostly about him--the good time he must be having, the way he's missed--but any excitement at home should be downplayed, so he won't get more homesick.
His letters--if he sends any at all--will be full of gripes and so will his phone calls. Don't be too alarmed. Just keep on being a good listener, and give him the encouragement he needs. After all, if a child can't moan to his mom, who can he moan to at all?
And if his complaints seem excessive, you of course will want to ask the camp director to investigate--a request your child shouldn't know about or he may be afraid to tell you anything, or may dramatize it even more. However, he should know that if camp seems like a disaster after a couple of weeks, you not only would want him to come home, you'd insist on it, and you want him to know that now. This, in itself, should give him the courage to go forth.
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