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The prospect of a no-kids week in the summer might have you hurrying to find a sleep-away slot for your child. Or your child might already be part of a Scout troop or other group that includes a summer sleep-away camping opportunity. Maybe the family of your child’s best friend has offered to include him in their vacation this year.

But you hesitate. How can you tell if your child is ready?

A quick rule-of-thumb is age. A week away from home is often too much to manage for kids younger than nine, unless the excursion is with a grandparent or someone else that’s family or as-good-as-family. Nine-year-olds have enough experience under their belts to adapt to most situations and they understand their own feelings well enough to soothe the inevitable homesickness. They have a good command of time and can tell “how long there is left to go” before the vacation comes to an end.

A second consideration is experience: has your child slept over at a friend’s house without problems? Is your child able to handle her affairs without her parents around, can she adapt to another set of rules and customs, and can she sleep in a strange bed without tears? A child who has never slept over at the home of a friend might find sleep-away camp too big a leap this summer.

Third, is the camp you’re thinking of a good fit for your child? If your kid is a bold adventurer eager for a challenge, he might love to rough it in the wilderness. But if your child likes his creature-comforts, enrolling him in a rugged experience “for his own good” is unlikely to make him a happy camper. There is a wide range of camps, suiting kids of every taste. And every camp – even one that seemingly presents little challenge – will stretch your child and teach him new things. Try to find a camp that will make your child happy.

Fourth, does your child want to go? If your child is dead-set against sleep-away camp then there is little to be accomplished by forcing her to go. Of course, as soon as you sign up your child, she will experience “buyer’s remorse.” Cold feet are to be expected and usually are not a reason to withdraw. But if sleep-away camp is the last thing your child wants this summer, then see what other options are open that she’ll find more acceptable.

Finally, are you ready? Can you be happy without knowing what your child is doing every minute of the day? Can you survive without knowing if he’s eating well or sleeping well and if the other kids are being nice to him? It goes without saying that you’ll choose a camp wisely. A good camp that’s well supervised and fun can create wonderful memories and a wish to return next year. But the other secret to a great camp experience is the readiness of the child and his parents. Sleep-away camp is a big step, a rite of passage.

If both of you are ready, then sleep-away camp can be a summer treat for the whole family.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.

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.