Seven weeks ago when our two older kids headed to sleep away camp, there were a gazillion articles with tips about sending kids off to camp – what to pack, how to say goodbye, how to write a good letter. But what about tips for when campers step off the bus after weeks and weeks away from home? What can you expect? Here are some tips for the re-entry:
1. They will be so excited to see you, or not. I had this picture in my mind of our kids getting off the bus, running into my arms, and telling me how much they missed me, smiling and catching up as we happily walked hand-in-hand to the car. While some of this did happen, the embrace was usually followed by them saying, “I missed you mom (dad), but I’m so sad that camp is over.” They may be quiet on the way home, or even cry. This conflict of emotions is typical. They are thrilled to see you, they really are, but they are also coming down off a major adventure that is camp.
2. Listen. Obviously kids are different. Our daughter will talk the whole way home in the car and beyond, telling us every detail about camp, starting at day one. She’ll sing every song, retell stories of every evening activity, and on and on. This is her way of working through all that happened at camp, and perhaps she is retelling it to us so that she can relive it, and we can share in her experience. On the other hand, our son will probably give us one word answers when we ask him about camp such as, “Great” and “Awesome.” Don’t push for more information or badger them with questions. Perhaps your child will tell you stories, cheers and other bits and pieces as they are ready to let you in on their camp experience. The key is to listen.
3. Let them sleep. You may be blissfully well rested from your peaceful weeks flying solo or with less kids, but your campers will be another story. Whether they went to camp for one week or eight, they will have slept way less than they are used to at home, and will be completely exhausted upon their return. Not enough sleep coupled with the emotional exhaustion of dealing with less personal space, friendships, activities and excitement will make your kids into walking zombies. Expect that they will either go directly to sleep upon getting home (after eating everything in your kitchen), and/or they will sleep extra hours, and possibly need extra sleep for days. Try not to plan much in the couple of days following their return home.
4. Don’t be too grossed out. They will be dirty, things will be missing, clothes will be ruined. Signs of a good summer, I’d say. Don’t give your camper a hard time for the fact that his or her feet are a permanent shade of dirt brown, their formerly white socks are now pink, or they came home without any of their sweatshirts. Your kids were too busy having fun at camp to remember small details like using soap or where they left their squirt bottle. Expect that not everything will be returned home the way you expertly packed it and sent it to camp. Let it go. Let them take an hour long hot shower, wash everything in their trunks, salvage what you can and move on.
5. Recognize your child. Your campers may look taller, tanner, thinner or just more grown up when they come home from camp. It’s amazing what a few weeks can do. Aside from the physical changes, you may see that your child has grown up emotionally, too. They have probably gained confidence while at camp. They’ve made new friends, tried new activities and figured it all out themselves, independent of you. Try to get to know this new person in front of you, and accept and recognize the changes that they’ve gone through.
6. Rules schmules. Do you remember what is what like to be away at college all year only to return to your parents’ house in the summer? At school, you were the master of your own life, with no parents’ rules, no one nagging you to pick up your laundry or put your dishes away or brush your teeth. Then you return home and find you are under your parents’ roof again, subject to their seemingly oppressive and ridiculous rules. This is what coming home is like for a camper. They’ve been away for weeks with their friends, doing mostly as they please, enjoying this giant sleepover party, only to come home and whammo, they’re back to the nagging and the rules and what the hell just happened? Try to realize that your campers need time to readjust to the rules of your household. Put yourself in their shoes, or flip flops.
7. Know you are basically chopped liver. You’ve heard of being homesick. Many campers come home and they are camp sick. They are just so sad. They miss their friends. They miss being at their camp home. They have lived at camp and bonded with these kids 24/7 for weeks and now they are home, alone and desperately sad and depressed and you obviously just cannot understand how they are feeling. Don’t take it personally. Your campers may hole up in their rooms, on social media, connecting with their camp friends, and want very little to do with you for a few days. It can make parents who haven’t seen their kids all summer feel very rejected. But hang in there. Your kids are readjusting to being home, just as you are readjusting to having them home. They’ll come around.
8. Be flexible. What if your child comes home having had a negative experience, and doesn’t want to go back to camp next summer? Maybe your child didn’t find a group of friends, there was conflict in the bunk, he or she didn’t like the camp program or just plain didn’t enjoy being away from home. Listen to your child, ask questions, let some time pass. Talk to the camp about the feedback you are getting from your child and see what they say. Perhaps it’s not the right place, or your child needs a year or two before they try again. Our daughter had a negative experience at the first sleep away camp she attended. The girls in her bunk didn’t click, she didn’t like the activities, and she felt there was no warmth or spirit. She was very upset when she came home that summer, and swore she’d never go away again. We promised her she didn’t have to go back to that particular camp, but a few years later she was ready to try another sleep away camp. We visited a few camps during the summer, and she found a place that fit. Now she can’t wait to get to camp each summer to be with her camp friends who have become more like sisters.
9. Most of all, try to look at the big picture. If your child comes home dirty, tired, with no voice, camp sick, full of stories, confident and overwhelmed with camp love, you can feel great that your child had a successful summer! Go ahead, take a break from doing laundry and give yourself a pat on the back. You survived.