Your 7- or 8-year-old has been bitten by the sleepaway-camp bug -- and has been talking nonstop about s'mores, swimming in the lake, and singing songs around the campfire -- but you may not be sure he's mature enough to be away from home for so long. Before you make the decision and start ironing those labels in his underwear, consider this laundry list.
It's not always easy to know how your child will react to being away for an extended amount of time, but if he does well on sleepovers with friends or with his grandparents he's likely to feel comfortable bunking elsewhere. "He should also be able to shower or bathe on his own and be able to read the daily camp schedule," says Will Rubenstein, co-owner of coed Camp Wingate Kirkland, on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. If he tends to cling when you're in new situations, is picky about what he eats, or is an occasional bedwetter, have a conversation with the camp director about the possibility of making accommodations.
Since going to sleepaway camp may be the first time a child this age is away from her family, handling that separation successfully is a big achievement. Indeed, without their parents nearby to solve problems big and small, kids have to figure out how to work collaboratively, alongside children and adults with whom they may not have very much in common. The sense of self-reliance that develops from this sort of experience tends to be long-lasting. "Once they return home, campers are often more comfortable and confident when speaking to a teacher, a coach, or friends' parents, and they're better able to cooperate with other kids," says Rubenstein.
"Roughing it" means your kid will have to unhook herself from her portable video-game player and do without television and the computer, not to mention air-conditioning. Nudged out of her comfort zone, she may discover that she loves books when she reads by flashlight at night, enjoys writing letters she'd never find time (or have a reason) to pen otherwise, and likes to try new sports, hobbies, and maybe even foods.
With more than 7,000 resident camps around the country, there are plenty of possibilities. There are one-week camps or multiple-week camp options. You can choose one that specializes in a sport, performing arts, or other interests and select coed or single-sex camps. (Visit the American Camp Association's family resource website, campparents.org, to learn more.) Personal recommendations are one of the best ways to find a potential camp. No matter how you hear about it, before you sign up meet or talk on the phone with the director -- and if you're not able to take a tour of the camp, ask for a DVD or take a virtual tour on their website.
What happens if loneliness strikes? Camps have strategies to help kids face their fears. Younger children may be paired with a "big brother" or a "big sister" camper who helps them learn the ropes. Counselors are trained to pull campers into activities that will distract them from their worries and help them feel more connected to the camp, says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. "When kids have a packed schedule of fun activities, they're unlikely to have enough time to start missing home," she adds.
Your child may be less likely to want to return home early if he signs up with a friend. This may help ease the transition; however, be sure to reinforce the idea that camp is also about making new friends. Carefully consider all the possible scenarios. For example, what if his BFF suddenly becomes buddies with someone else? He could feel left out and vice versa. Talk it over with your child to see what he thinks. "Some kids want to reinvent themselves at camp and try out new social skills in a fresh setting, but others are just more comfortable knowing they'll see a familiar face," says Smith.