Camp: The Great Unknown

By Jonathan “J.C.” Cohen

As the school year begins to wind down, and summer fast approaches, kids start thinking about camp.

For experienced campers, thoughts turn to last summer’s friends, favorite activities, and so many cherished memories. It’s all about anticipation, with every passing day getting them one day closer to their return to Jacobs.

Replace FearFor first-time campers, thoughts run the gamut from excitement to fear, and so many places in between – and for some, they change from moment to moment. Camp is “the great unknown,” and in their young minds they are just trying to sort out what it all means.  Which drives their parents crazy!

How do I know? Because those parents contact me to ask for help!

This time of year, I get a lot of calls and emails from parents of first-time campers. They recount to me what their children are saying about camp – the questions they are asking, the “fears” they are expressing, the emotions they are sharing – and look to me to give them the words to respond.

Don’t get wrapped up in the emotions. Our kids are very good (from a very young age) at using emotional language, so they tend to frame their questions about camp (and more) in emotional terms. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are emotionally troubled! It just means they don’t always have the language to express themselves. So parents need to stay calm. (They can have their emotional breakdown on their own time away from their kids!)

Provide plenty of details. The more detailed the responses to questions and concerns, the better. A parent’s words will help kids draw the picture in their head of what camp is going to look like. Not sure how to answer? Then tell them in time you’ll find out and get back to them. (Mmm… delayed gratification.) Then do a little research: Maybe the camp webpage has the answer. Perhaps an experienced camp parent can help. (We have a Facebook group just for our 2013 Camp Parents, where they can talk to other parents.) Or, send the question my way and I’ll help with the words.

Encourage them to replace fear of the unknown with curiosity. Just because camp is strange and different doesn’t mean that it’s bad; actually, it’s quite the opposite! It’s camp’s uniqueness – as a setting, as a community, as a world – that makes it so special. Use their questions to build anticipation.

Focus on the benefits. There are so many reasons why parents decide to send their children to camp, or that kids decided they wanted to go to camp. Even in the face of expressed fears, parents must focus their attention to those reasons: The fun, the friendship, all of the activities, the new skills, the independence, the Jewish spirit – whatever resonates for a particular child, make those the themes of the pre-camp pep talks – both for the children, and for the parents.

Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazeik. In our tradition, when we finish one Book of the Torah and begin reading the next, we say these Hebrew words which mean: “Be strong, be strong, so that we may be strengthened.” For parents of questioning first-time campers, the most important thing they can do is be strong. As long as parents stay “on message” they can get their kids through the front gate on opening day. I guarantee it.

Camp may be the “great unknown” for first-time campers and their parents. But, once they get to camp, and get into the routine, camp quickly turns from the “great unknown” to a great home away from home. Those final weeks before opening day can sometimes be a struggle, fraught with emotion. But, it’s just a little short-term hardship for a long-term gain:  A life enriched and transformed by the opportunity to spend the summer in the safe, caring Jewish community that is Jacobs Camp.

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