This is how we idealize it: Kids lazing by the camp pool, playing softball until dark, hiking and exploring nature trails, making new friends, sleeping under the stars.
Parents eagerly anticipate a few weeks without the kids while the offspring look forward to escaping the harsh restrictions of home, such as showering and brushing teeth. Change your underwear each day? Forget it.
Then reality hits -- summer camp can be horrible, for both parents and kids.
Fear of the unknown, separation anxiety and old-fashioned homesickness can make sleep-away camp stressful at best and downright agonizing at worst. And it's not just the kids who have a hard time, say camp directors and psychologists. Some parents suffer the same sleepless nights, stomachaches and tearful longings for reunion as do their children.
"I'm the one who really suffered," says mother Barbara Johnson, only half-joking. "The most outstanding memory I have is dropping the kids off in the [YMCA] parking lot," Johnson says, about leaving her two children, Nell, 12, and Lucas, 14, to catch the camp bus last summer.
"I put on this brave front with a big smile for them," she says. "Then we drove through the parking lot, and I could see them with their groups, and I had this enormous lump in my throat. I was so choked up."
To survive the summer-camp blues, experts say, it helps to know what's normal, and when homesickness has gone to such extremes that it's time to bring a child home.
"You consider a shortened stay if homesickness is preventing a child from getting involved in fun activities, or if a child is refusing to eat for more than a day," says psychologist Christopher Thurber.
One in 14 kids experiences such serious bouts of homesickness that it almost ruins his or her camp stay, Thurber found. But for the other 13, a few tearful moments are as bad as it gets.
According to the American Camping Association, more than 5 million children attended one of 8,500 camps in the United States last year. And the trend is 10 percent growth every year. Surveys show that the five worst parental fears about summer camp include safety, supervision, socialization, boredom and - you guessed it - homesickness.
"If the parents find they can't enjoy themselves while their child is at camp, or they can't stop thinking about the child, they are probably the ones not ready for the separation," advises Thurber, who surveyed more than 4,000 boys and girls daily while they were at camp over a two-week period.
Carol Koffel, whose 10-year-old daughter suffered a serious bout of homesickness last summer, remembers only too well the call in the night.
"They told me I should be around to receive a phone call from my daughter," says Koffel. "She was pretty miserable, and she told me she wanted to come home."
Having loved camp herself as a youngster, Koffel decided her daughter should tough it out. Camp director Lowell Fitch agreed it was the right approach even though, a year later, Koffel's daughter still complains, "There wasn't even a toilet or anything fun to do."
"If there is persistent sadness, we try to see if the child maybe needs more attention, or if they're scared at night, maybe their flashlight is broken," says Fitch. "Generally, then, I talk to the parent first, and we try to figure out what they want to do. We've had very few kids go home."
In Koffel's case, even though her daughter pleaded to come home, the parents told her she was going to stay. Once she knew that, remembers Fitch, she stopped concentrating on leaving and made the best of the rest of her stay.
Telling kids they can come home if they don't like camp sends the wrong message, say camp directors. "It's like admitting you don't think they can handle it," says Thurber. "As soon as you do that, you plant the seed of doubt in the child's mind about their own ability to handle being away."
Allowing campers to call home when they are unhappy is also a double-edged sword, since for many just hearing the sound of a parent's voice sets off even worse homesickness. That, says Fitch, is the reason most camps have a "no phoning home" policy.
The telephones at Emandal Camp are off-limits to campers, says Tamara Adams, who co-directs the camp with her husband, Clive. "Please don't tell your children they can call home and say how miserable they are," she advises parents. "If they don't try something and stick to it, it's going to be much harder the next time."
With so many guilt-ridden working parents these days, Adams worries this approach will go by the wayside. Still, she says, she can count on one hand the number of children who decided to actually leave camp. Two girls, for example, were displeased with their lodging. (Emandal's wood cabins aren't heated, and the bathrooms are a walk down a trail.)
"I told them they could call home," recalls Adams. "But first I talked to the parents. I told them, 'Either you support them in staying, or you come get them tomorrow.' They came the next day."
Matching campers to the right camp - and making sure the child wants to come to camp in the first place - will prevent most problems, say experienced camp staffers, who add that, surprisingly, age is not the only indicator of who gets homesick.
"Any 6-year-old who really wants to come to camp is probably very strong," says Adams, although the majority of camps don't accept those under 7 or 8. "Often it's the very youngest who want to come, and it's the parents who have the hardest time letting go."
For many parents, sleep-away camp is the first real separation they experience from their children. Psychologists say parents should keep their anxieties to themselves, so as not to color a child's experience. Luckily, says Thurber, parental separation anxiety is not a strong predictor of which children will grow very homesick.
Those who do suffer the most, studies show, are children who are too young emotionally, have little or no past experience of being away from their parents or who have left worrisome or unresolved issues at home. Examples might be children whose parents are fighting over custody, a family in the middle of a move or something as seemingly mundane as a sick pet left behind.
What helps ease homesickness, studies say, is different for every child. For some, bringing a photo of the family or a favorite pTC pet is reassuring. Be forewarned, however, that a few children find a photo to be a painful reminder of what or who they are missing. The key is to know your own child.
In spite of every best effort, though, some parents will inevitably still get a "Dear Mom and Dad, I hate camp" letter from their first-time camper. But if they have done a careful job of screening the camp and its counselors and trust that the place is safe, sticking it out is the prevalent advice.
"My daughter was furious with me when she got home," admits Koffel. Still, this year mother and daughter have chosen a more suitable camp together. And come summer, they have agreed to give it another try.
Pub Date: 6/14/98