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Sleep-Away Camp Is Crucial For Kids, But What Is the Right Age?

Dr. Seth Meyers

Development & Learning

Allowing your child to have the sleep-away camp experience is one of the best things you can do for your child. The experience offers so many important lessons and also gives overwhelmed parents a much-needed break. How old should your child be when you send him or her away for the first time? Keep reading and you’ll understand the most important factors to consider.

Kids sometimes need a break from their parents

Having dinner with a group of parents recently, the conversation turned to sleepaway camp. One parent shared how much she treasured the few days each year her child went to camp so that she could get a break. Another parent made a point I wish I had made myself: “You know, our kids probably need an occasional break from us, too!” Yes, it’s a lot to be the parent who manages all things children, but we must take a moment and think about what it’s like for our children to always be told what to do by the same two or three people (usually parents and a teacher). Giving your kids the chance to take a break from you for a few days allows someone else to be the manager so that you don’t have to be the master for once.

Teaching the importance of independence

Good parents want their children to become independent, even though it pulls on the heart strings a bit to see that your child might not always need you. When you send your child to sleepaway camp, your child faces a new social situation with a set of expectations and rules particular to that place. The experience overall requires flexibility and adaptability, and these are traits you want to start teaching early so that your child has some of these traits internalized by the time they are teenagers.

Why some parents don’t want their children to go to sleepaway camp

I know, I know: You love your children and would do anything to protect them. Many parents don’t send their kids away to camp because, they say, they are afraid of what influences they may be subjected to at camp. The truth behind this is actually about the parent’s fear and wish to control every influence their child experiences. Some parents will say they don’t send their kids away because they don’t think their child is ready, but it’s often actually the parent who isn’t ready to let go. Parents, give your children a few days each year where they get to experience the big, wide world in the safe context of camp. Your child will develop thicker skin and better social skills if you occasionally let them leave the nest for a bit.

How young is too young?

Most sleepaway camps have a minimum age of six or seven years, and having this standard is healthy and necessary. There may be five-year olds who want to go away for a week, but kids that age are still learning so many basic lessons that it’s better to wait a little longer. The first step is to ask your child if he or she would like to go to sleepaway camp. If your six-year old says yes – which both of my kids did – it’s worth giving it a try. Some camps offer sleepaway camp weekends as opposed to a full-fledged week. As a rule, I believe the best practice is to try sleepaway camp for two or three nights to see how they like it. (After all, a week is a long time to go away at six- or seven-years old.) If your child wants to wait a year, don’t push them and try again in a year. If you can’t find an option that offers sleepaway camp for a few days, call the camp of your choice and ask if you could try the camp for two or three nights. The point is to make your child feel like you are thinking first about their feelings, so if you have managed this, you will be doing your job as a parent.

Final tip

When you start thinking about sending your child to camp, first plant the seed by mentioning it a few different times over the course of a month or so. Next, check out the website for the camp and review it with your child. Finally, ask your child what kinds of things they would like to pack for camp if they decide to go. By following this series of steps, you will be setting the stage for one of life’s greatest experiences.

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Dr. Seth Meyers

Dr. Seth Meyers is a licensed clinical psychologist and author in Los Angeles, California. He specializes in parenting and relationships, and he is trained in multiple evidence-based parenting interventions. Dr. Seth earned his B.A. in psychology from Vassar College and earned his Psy.D. in clinical psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. He appears regularly on television programs, including Good Morning America, 20/20, ABC News, The Doctors, Nancy Grace, Dr. Drew and others. Dr. Seth is the author of Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.