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June 27th, 2017

Summer Camp: Sleep-Away Camp

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Today we are finishing up my interview with Jill Tipograph from Everything Summer and talking about sleep away camp.

Sleep Away Camp

Karen: Jill, I want to get to sleep away camps because if you have an older child, parents are starting to think about maybe it’s time to send my child to sleep away camp. At what age do you think it might be right for your child to take that step?

Jill: One of the barometers of knowing if your child is ready for overnight camp is typically they’re outgrowing or being ready for an experience beyond day camp. Parents often say to me when will they be ready? I loved going to overnight camp, I want my child to go, but I don’t really know if they’re ready. I say they’re actually going to start talking about it believe it or not. Some children start talking about it before the summer begins.Others start talking about it when they go back to day camp and they realize that they’re ready to move beyond.

I remember my own daughter coming home and asking what the activity was for the evening and that she was bored and she wanted to do something else and could she make a play date. That’s when I realized she was ready for something else. As much as she loved day camp, it wasn’t fulfilling her as much in terms of her maturity level. You have to make sure your child’s ready physically and emotionally to be away from you. Age-wise I wouldn’t say there’s a one specific age that’s appropriate historically though. I would say that most kids start overnight camp, traditional overnight camp, at around age 9 or 10. Some a little younger if they’re younger siblings, sometimes a little older depending upon other interests they may have in their lives. Also, typically, you see the girls are maybe ready a year before boys because girls mature before boys.

I will say to you that in the past 10 years, especially the past five years, I’ve seen the development of so many more shorter-term camps that it is doing two things. It is allowing kids to have more options in their overnight camp choices, so that if a child let’s say wasn’t ready for a full season camp they could wait longer and not enter into a camp where many of the kids had been there for many years. It also is encouraging children, I believe, whose parents did not go to overnight camp to consider it because it’s a little shorter-term.

I think that that’s helped round out the experiences where in the past let’s say 15 years ago you didn’t have these options and it was basically a one-week sports camp or it was a seven or eight-week traditional camp. Now you have all these options in between.

Different Types of Sleep Away Camps

Karen: Let me ask you what different types of camps are out there because I remember when I went to camp it was just like what you just said, sports camp or a seven-week camp and I would do the seven-week camp, which I loved. Now I know there’s lots of different kinds of options, so maybe tell us a little more about that.

Jill: Sure, I’ll give you some general categories. There are general traditional, which are very well-rounded and expose children to a variety of activities versus the specialty where you can like your daughter focus on circuits or performing arts or sports or music or adventure or anything like that. Then within these camps there are different types of programming which can impact the type of camp you choose which would be structure where you’re exposed to a lot of things versus choice where you either plan your schedule out for the day or you plan it out for the week or the weeks that you’re there and you have some options to change.

You have small camps and large camps, and you have single sex camps versus co-ed camps versus what’s called a brother sister camp, where they may have separate parts of the camp or camps across the lake from each other that are separated by gender, but they may actually do a few activities together. Then you have camps that are based on environment and where they’re located which has a lot to do with choosing camps, I believe, in terms of either wanting your children to have what they have at home or befriend children like they have at home or the preference which I have is to not go to a camp where it’s homogenous and you don’t see the mirror image of yourself. I think that’s really what camp should be optimally. Then there are also camps that have a religious flavor to them. You have so many options out there, and it really can be overwhelming for parents.

What is the Right-Fit Camp for My Child?

Karen: How do you figure out which one? I know you work with parents one-on- one and you help them decide what’s the right fit for my child. What things do you look at when you’re trying to decide what is the right fit for a child?

Jill: One thing to mention is I also wrote a book, Your Everything Summer Guide & Planner, which actually maps out so many of the parameters that we’re discussing. It’s sold on my website, so parents can certainly purchase the book if they’re interested in having something in front of them to help them through the process.

Overall parameters that I would say is you need to really think about your child’s personality, their disposition, their individual needs. I say to parents step back and really be honest about your child. Not who you want them to be, not who you want them to befriend, but the kind of person they really are because that is very, very important. I’ll go through some more parameters, but when you’re evaluating these programs and you’re talking with camp directors which I think is key you need to understand the makeup of the other children and whether the profile of your child will fit into that because that equals success. Some very basic cut and dry parameters the parents have to think about which will help narrow the choices are how long do they want their child to go to overnight camp, one week, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, seven weeks, six weeks. There’s all kinds of options and there are camps that offer just that timeframe or they offer multiple timeframes, so that you can grow into a camp or be flexible in the session length.

How far you are willing for your child to travel to go to the ideal camp and the actual location environment which I think is very important. Some parents want to be able to drive, others who don’t live near camps whatever, going on a plane is fine and the distance is not an issue. As I mentioned to you, the type of campers that go there. When I go and I visit camps each summer which I do I’m always looking and observing the types of kids who are there, the interaction between them, the staff, how the staff and the director relate to the children because that’s what kids walk away with is the kids that they meet there and the role models they have. That’s really what memories are composed of in terms of overnight camp.

Then we talked about the type of camp whether it’s traditional or it’s specialized and the whole programming aspect. I go through this with parents to understand can your child actually make choices, good choices. Do they need help? Are they the kind that is better off having things decided for them which is a little bit of choice.

Cost, that’s a very big factor for parents these days in terms of what they’re willing to spend for camp. Camp like anything else is costly, but what I try to explain to parents of overnight camp is that almost everything’s included. While you may look at it and say oh, well, if they’re at day camp we’ll be spending this. Yes, but then with their day camp you’re still having to prepare dinner for them, entertain them on the weekends, hire babysitters, all these different things that you wouldn’t be spending money on. When you really analyze it it really is a good value, but you need to establish a budget because there are different camps at different cost levels. The amount of independence your child can really handle because some camps are very strict, others are looser, you need to understand how much supervision they need. These are all the basic parameters that I say go into whittling down the selection for parents.

What Mistakes Can Parents Make?

Karen: Do you see parents making mistakes? What’s the biggest mistake you see parents make when they choose sleep away camps?

Jill: I do see mistakes, some. Some mistakes include living through your child, wanting them to have an experience that you feel would be ideal, but is not necessarily for them. Sending your child to camp with a friend, there are all kinds of discussions about this. Ideally, I think it is best when a child can own his or her own experience and not carry baggage with them or impressions that others have. Even when parents say to me they’re really good friends, they do things on their own. It’s very different when you’re together 24/7 and you’re introduced to a new group of children and you’re living with those children. Things come out about you as an individual. Even your living style is different than your friendship style and I’ve often seen friendships get ruined over that.

Karen: Wow.

Jill: Yeah, that can be a mistake. I think putting a child in a camp where programming is not matching their personality, disposition ruins things. Kids leave camps because they’re too structured or they’re too loose. All these parameters really do matter. What I also say to parents is that if a mistake is made it doesn’t mean it’s the end of camp, it means you move on and you learn from it and you find a better fit. I do get concerned when I see carousel-type experiences where a parent just decides that oh, this summer do something different because last summer you did that. The benefits of camp accrue, they don’t happen one time. That’s why I spend a lot of time with parents trying to identify a camp that a child can return to, so that those friendships get stronger, the skills get stronger, the comfort level is stronger and that’s when a child grows, not when you constantly put change in front of them.

Karen: Yeah, I remember, I’m still friends with some of my friends from summer camp.

Lasting Gifts of Camp

Jill: I love when I hear these stories as adults. Yesterday I heard the cutest story about adults, a colleague of mine who shared with me that she just gave birth to her first child and she knows that I’m in the camping world. She said that her closest friend from camp actually gave birth the same week as she did to her first child and they’re having onesies made saying camp general of the year, so where we think of their children going back to the camp and being next generational. I said I have to share this story with people because that’s the quintessential benefit of camp.

Karen: No, it is. I made some of the best friends I ever had at camp and I have to say that just looking back on my life experiences as a kid camp was totally the best experience I ever had. I was a leader at my camp and then later I became a leader at school, but I learned how to do it at camp. I got comfortable with it there. I just loved it so much and so I’m such an advocate of camps. If you can’t afford the seven weeks, even if you can do a week or two weeks or whatever you can do I think it’s a wonderful experience for kids.

Jill: It definitely is.

Karen: I was going to just ask you, do you find that kids appreciate their parents more after they go to summer camp and their homes more? Have you seen that?

Jill: Absolutely, but what I always say to parents is I have a part of my book, a chapter in my book that’s called Decompression. I always say to parents, I know you can’t wait for your kids to come home and hug them and hear everything, but you have to remember that they’re actually sad when they come home. They need time to themselves to get used to the fact that if they were with children for four weeks or seven weeks 24/7, they’re going through withdrawal. They need that grieving period to get over the transition and they want to see their camp friends again, and they’re not ready to share everything with you. I always say to them good news and bad news will eventually come out, just give them space. Don’t attack them with questions because they’re just not ready to share that with you. I think parents have a hard time with that.

The other thing that I say to parents is your children learn some wonderful habits at camp. Help encourage them to continue those at home and don’t, don’t go back and reinstate behaviors that you were enabling before they went to camp because they will easily regress. I think parents have a hard time with that because we always feel that the best way to show our love is to help our children and help do things for them, but that’s not the case. The best way we can help them is to let them grow and demonstrate their independence at every stage of life.

Karen: Wow, and yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. If they come home and they start cleaning their room more because they’re used to cleaning their cabin encourage it.

Jill: Encourage it and praise them.

Karen: Yes, absolutely.

Jill: Say (to your child) I’m so glad you learned to do this because this is something that you should continue doing. It’s a wonderful feeling.

Karen: It really is and Jill, I would love to keep talking, but we’re actually out of time. We’ve been talking with Jill Tipograph who is an expert on summer programs. Jill has researched over 2,000 programs and she helps families all over the world plan the right summer experience for their kids.

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