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Today's Family Magazine

Choosing the perfect camp for each child in the family

By Christina Katz
A mistake parents can make when choosing a camp is confusing their child's needs with their own needs.  If you want your child to be happy at camp, focus on who he or she is rather than on who you were as a camper.  Your goal is to create a harmonious relationship between each of your children and the camp experience, not for your child to follow in your well-worn hiking boots.

Going to camp should be a choice for every child.  Don't force camp on a child who is terrified by the idea.  At the same time, feel free to plant the seed in your children's minds from an early age that camp is a fun, life-enhancing adventure for those willing to try it.  If older siblings have gone to camp and liked it, then younger siblings may already be eager to go themselves.  But if your child is not enthusiastic, don't push camp on them without learning more.
Camp considerations
Feel free to present your camp experiences and what you got out of them to your kids, and invite others in the family to do the same.  At the same time, however, communicate clearly your understanding that your child is not you or anyone else, and that you like and respect the person your child is already.  Sending a child to camp to correct or fix things about them is backwards.  The person who needs to change their attitude in this scenario is the parent, not the child.

If you have worries or concerns about your child, don't send your child to camp to address those feelings.  Find someone you can talk to so you can learn to accept your children for who they are and meet their range of individual needs.  Kids who are secure and comfortable in their own skin thrive at camp, whereas kids who are insecure and anxious may flounder.
A range of choices
Sending kids to camp may have been your idea, but in order for kids to feel good about the adventure, they need to buy in to the idea, as well. The first question to ask yourself is, which types of camps are best suited to your child's physical, emotional, and mental needs?  Would day camp or overnight camp be the better choice at this developmental stage?  If choosing overnight camp, would your child prefer to be close or far from home?  Also consider the mission and style of the camp.  Would your child prefer to rough it for a week in the White Mountains or stay in a cozy, family-style camp with modern amenities closer to home?

Parents may need to let go of the idea that what was good for them as children is good for their kids.  What was good for you as a child may traumatize a sensitive child or a child with special needs.  Strive to meet your kids where they are.  Parents may experience some grieving in letting go of preconceived notions of sharing childhood experiences with their children.  But try to leave the past in the past, so you can make the healthiest choices for your family in the present.

For example, if you were a rugged and athletic child, these traits may have been widely admired, as they usually are.  If your family of origin had a bias against sensitive or artsy kids, you will want to be aware of a possible subconscious tendency in yourself.  You may also need to steel your mind against what others think about who your child is.  You are not taking a poll.  This is not the 1950s or even the 1980s.  Try to view the camp landscape through the eyes of each of your children instead of through the eyes of others or tradition.

Be respectful
Children know intuitively when they are liked and accepted.  They also know when parts of them are disliked and rejected.  To look at a child and compare him or her to your childhood self or to siblings or peers is disrespectful and hurtful.  To really see your child and accept him or her for who she is means loving and respecting your child as is.  Each child is an individual with so much to offer the world, whether you can see and accept this or not.  If you choose the best camp for your child, you can relax knowing the folks in charge will see the value in your child.  When you can see the value in your child, others see it, too.

Trying to force a child to be more like you, when the child is not you, may seem harmless and common in our society, but there is a cost.  A child can feel when she is being criticized, so even if you are trying to bring the two of you closer together by putting your child through paces you were put through as a kid, your child may feel unseen and unknown.

Take a good, long look at each of your children.  Resist the urge to see them as a version of yourself.  None of them are you.  There will never be another you in all the world.  Once you see, understand, and accept each of your children, then you can work together to choose the perfect camp.