Stephanie Salvatore wasn't sure whether her then-9-year-old daughter, Lily, was ready for sleepaway camp. But the tears were a good sign.
Lily was crying because she didn't want to go home, says Salvatore, a Bethesda mother of three.
"It has given my daughter such confidence," Salvatore says. "It's been the best thing ever."
How do you know if your child is ready for this milestone?
"Every child is different, of course," says Peg Smith, chief executive officer of the American Camp Association. "It depends on their interest and whether they have had overnight experience." (It's never a good idea for the first night away from parents to be camp, experts agree.)
"First, ask the child. Is she or he interested?" says Amy Marshall, administrative assistant for the Baltimore-Washington United Methodist Church camps.
Children who are fairly independent — can brush their own teeth, shower and dress — and who have spent a night or two away from parents may very well be ready, says Marshall.
Some camps have open houses so families can tour the facility and see where their children will be sleeping, playing and eating. It can make kids less apprehensive because they know some of what to expect, she says.
Some camps also offer one-week or mini-camps that may appeal to first-time campers.
"One of the best ways to ensure a positive experience is to make the decision with the child," Smith says.
Children should want to go, and they should be part of the conversation about choosing the camp, she and other experts say.
"Do your homework," says Smith. "Visit camp. Talk with parents of campers. Talk with staff. It's an important decision."
Having a favorite stuffed animal or a family photo helps some children coping with homesickness.
"I also remind parents being homesick is not fatal," says Smith. "Less than 7 percent of kids have to go home."
A lot of a child's attitude depends on the parents' reaction, Smith says.
"If I'd wrung my hands when my 9-year-old son told me he wanted to go to camp and said, 'Are you sure?'… it may have influenced [his outlook]," she says. "You want to keep it positive, not 'I don't know what I'll do without you.' "
And don't be surprised if your child wants to stay at camp all summer, says Thedra Nichols, nurse at Camp Rim Rock in West Virginia, who sent her older daughter to camp at age 8. "At pickup," she says, "my daughter hid because she didn't want to come home."
Some of the sleepaway camps in and around Maryland:
Camp Hidden Meadows
June 14-Aug. 15
Camp Tall Timbers
High View, W.Va.
June 21-Aug. 1
Echo Hill Camp on the Chesapeake Bay
June 21-Aug. 15
Manidokan Camp & Retreat Center
800-922-6795 or 410-867-0991
June 21-Aug. 14