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Happy Campers

What you need to know to make sure your child has a great time at camp

My cousin Lisa and I climbed out of my aunt's station wagon and walked to the camp office. I was 10 years old and this looked like my kind of place?a sparkling lake, a really cute boating instructor and a soda fountain (where they served ice cream!) right outside my cabin.

The week had its ups and downs. I missed my family, but I loved spending the entire day running around, swimming and playing Capture the Flag. I hated the food, but I loved the soda fountain (Did I mention it was right outside my cabin?). I got bored during the daily chapel talks, but I made the decision to give my life to Christ.

I spent at least a week at camp every summer after that. And once I outgrew being a camper, I spent six summers on staff. Camp was the site of incredible spiritual growth for me, and for the thousands of campers I met there.

If you've got a child heading to camp this summer, whether for the first time or for the fifth summer in a row, here's what you can do to help your child have a fantastic time.

Preparing Your Child

The first year 8-year-old Jackson went to camp, his parents knew he was a little nervous. To help him get ready for a week away from home, they had him do a few "test runs" by staying over night with his grandparents. When those went well, they talked to him about the camp itself. They focused on the activities, and even asked Jackson to pick two or three he was really excited about. Jackson's parents also involved him in shopping for camp, talked through ways he could handle situations he was worried about, like not feeling well or not knowing where to find something. They let Jackson know that they'd be praying for him every day while he was gone. All those pieces added up to a kid who had a great time at camp and can't wait to go back.

But beyond the emotional preparations, make sure you consider what your child will be doing at camp. If he's heading to Bible camp, he'll probably have a quiet time every day where he'll be expected to read the Bible, do some kind of devotional and pray. In the weeks before camp, encourage your child to practice sitting quietly for a few minutes reading the Bible (make sure he knows how to find a verse) and praying by himself, then talking to you about what he's read.

It's also important that your child has a translation of the Bible he can understand and read on his own. I had a young camper who was always running around during the daily devotional time. After a few days, I discovered she had a King James Version of the Bible, which she could hardly read. Once we found her a Bible she could understand, she got much more out of her quiet times.

Since your child's counselor will be his primary authority figure for a while, make sure your child understands that the counselor, and other camp staff, deserve respect. Talk about ways your child can be respectful, like listening during cabin devotions instead of giggling, following instructions for games and sitting still in chapel.

One more note about counselors: You're entrusting your child to this person, so it's worth your while to do a little schmoozing. Send a little note along for your child to give to his counselor, offering any information about your child you think the counselor should know. One of my campers, Amanda, was dropped off by her aunt. The aunt told me that Amanda's father had died just a few months earlier and that Amanda was still struggling to deal with it. Amanda never said a word about her dad, but the insight her aunt had given me helped me see her quietness as the grief it was, rather than sulleness or shyness.

Even a little encouragement can go a long way. I had a camper's mom write to me during the week telling me how glad she was that her child was in my cabin and that she appreciated my willingness to serve God that summer.

Of course if you really want to make a good impression, send snacks.

Dealing with Homesickness

For whatever reason, I was often the designated comforter of homesick campers. The first thing I told them was that homesickness is a perfectly normal feeling. It means you love your family and miss them. It's actually a good thing. If your child is worried about getting homesick, assure him that there's nothing wrong with feeling a little lonesome.

One little boy, Charlie, showed up at the camp office right before bedtime. He asked if he could call home. When I told him no, his lip started to quiver and within minutes, he was snuggled up next to me, telling me how dumb he felt for being homesick. In his mind, he was acting like a baby. That thought had made him more miserable and hesitant to talk to anyone about how he felt. We talked for a while, wrote a letter to his parents and prayed. I gave him my stuffed bear to sleep with and by the next day, he was happy as a clam. The lesson? Homesickness usually fades fast.

You can help ease the transition to camp by sending your child a letter at camp before she leaves home. That way, she'll have mail from you within the first few days at camp.

In your letter, try not to talk too much about what's happening at home. Instead, keep your child focused on what she's doing. Ask questions about her cabinmates, the chapel services, the food, any activities you know she'll be involved in. Make sure you pack a few pre-addressed stamped envelopes in her suitcase so she can write back.

Nightimes are usually the most difficult time for kids, so pack a little some thing just for bedtime. A new flashlight, a special pillowcase, or a favorite book can make lights out a little easier.

You might be tempted to give your child permission to call home if she gets homesick. But many camps discourage campers from using the phone, which leaves your child's counselor in the awkward position of having to go against camp policy or go against you. The truth is, a phone call home rarely helps a homesick child feel better. If there's a problem or your child is truly miserable, the camp staff will call you to find a solution.

I had a 10-year-old camper who cried every single day. After the second day, I called her mom to get her input on Megan's feelings about camp. Her mom assurred me that Megan really wanted to be at camp, but had never been away from home before. With a little extra attention from me and the friendship of the other girls in the cabin, she cried a little less each day and ended the week having had a good time.

Packing Up

When it comes time to load your child's duffle bag, try not to pack too much stuff. Kids typically have to haul their own gear to their cabins, and they don't change clothes nearly as often as you'd like to think.

Zeb, a fourth grader, swam, fished (knee-deep in the water) and slept in the same clothes all week. One afternoon, he told his counselor that his feet hurt. The counselor mentioned that it might help if Zeb stopped sleeping with his shoes on.

Older kids will probably pack their own bags, but remind them not to bring anything they'd hate to see lost or ruined. During a week of senior high camp, we had a camper who snuck into the cabins while the other kids were in chapel. She stole every piece of name-brand clothing she could find. Even if clothes don't get stolen, they're bound to get messy. I can't remember a single event at camp that didn't involve sweat, dirt or water, so encourage your child to pack for fun, not fashion.

Preparing Yourself

When I worked at camp, I remember lots of moms crying in the parking lot as they left their children behind. At the time, I thought, Come on, he's in third grade. He'll have a blast. Of course, that was before I became a mother. Now, the idea of leaving my baby in the hands of college students I've never met makes me a little nervous, too.

Still, I can't wait for my children to have the experience I had. I can't wait for them to see God in a whole new way and develop friendships that will last their whole lives. As you prepare to send your child off to camp, spend time asking God to calm your fears, as well as those of your child. Remind yourself that God can do amazing things through this experience. Most of all, pray with your child. Pray that her heart will be open to all God has to show her at camp. Whether she's there to play soccer, learn ballet or make picture frames out of popsicle sticks, God will be there, guiding her and growing her in incredible ways.

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