Your Kid Loved Summer Camp. Here's How To Nurture That Feeling All Year Long
Camp's done, school's up. What you can do as a parent to keep them feeling the spirit.
For kids, summer is a break from their typical routine and environment — and that makes it a chance to try on a new version of themselves while encountering new people, new music, new hairstyles, new sports, new clothing. I love watching the tiny kids in my town march off to camp in brightly colored, too-large camp T-shirts. Or teens at the local ice cream shop awkwardly bumping into each other, making silly jokes.
I remember those days well. I still remember the red-flowered Jams surfer shorts that a camp friend owned my first summer away from home. I nearly died with envy and begged my parents for a pair when I got home. They said No way! Or the summer when I was 10 when I first heard Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car and my world tilted on its axis, making it a favorite from that day forward. Each unique moment contributed a tiny piece to the complex puzzle of who I was becoming.
There’s a particularly sharp opportunity for reinvention when kids are away from home for the summer, at camp or even staying with family. For so many, it’s an opportunity to make brand new friends or be with dear friends they only see from June to August. For other kids it’s the chance to pursue a passion that lays dormant the rest of the year, things like theater or coding or rock climbing. And for some, it’s a chance to find a community that is impossible to find at home because of their gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or religion. Their summer homes are places to be seen, truly seen, in ways they’re not from September to June.
All kids deserve to bring some of the magic of summer into the rest of their years, in big and small ways. How do we help them retain some of their summer selves as Labor Day rolls around?
Leave our judgment at the door. I will be the first to admit there are times when my kids come home with stories from summer experiences and they sound really absurd to me. I don’t get the joke or I can’t stand the new, favorite song and I’m tempted to tell them that. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter if I get the joke or enjoy the music. What matters is that my kid is sharing a piece of themselves with me and I need to be a receptive audience. My job is to nod, smile, ask a curious question like: Which of your friends introduced you to that song? Which kid at camp was funniest when doing that TikTok dance?
Give them time to decompress. The temptation when kids are back to our loving arms after a summer of freedom is to ask them every burning question we have within the first 15 minutes of their arrival. Sure, some kids will meet you there, happily hammering away with story after story. But other kids need a beat. Either they’re exhausted from too little sleep or they’re just still processing what they’ve experienced. Don’t take it personally if they don’t want to talk. Eventually the stories will start coming out but give them some time. Create opportunities to be with them without talking and the stories will likely start to trickle out.
Find ways to recreate (some) of the magic. Summer is inimitable. But there are elements that can be replicated or at least drawn upon during the school year. Kids can feel a real loneliness when reinserted into ordinary life, but there are avenues to find other kids with whom they share passions or life experiences. If your kid developed a new interest over the summer, see if there’s a way to further that interest over the school year, a local pottery studio or an anime club at the library. Parts of a kid’s identity might find full expression in their summer community where, for the first time, they might have been around other kids who share their racial identity or sexual orientation; are there community groups at home that might help them connect to other kids they can relate to?
Technology and social media are useful here. What if they’ve simply found their people over the summer? Perhaps your kid’s summer friends are their true friends who get them in a way their school friends don’t. First, be grateful your kid has found their people anywhere. Not every kid is so lucky. Next, this is a place where technology and social media are so useful; kids can Facetime or text with their friends across the country or even across the world. As they get older, Snapchat or Instagram are effective ways to stay in touch and even broaden networks rooted in summer friendships. Group text chats can be an absolute lifeline for a kid at the end of a tough day at school or during the cold winter months. Find out from your kid what technology might be most useful for maintaining connection with summer friends and then come up with guidelines and parameters for using that platform.
At the end of summer, kids proudly unveil the artifacts of this special time, “borrowed” clothing or (questionable) vocabulary or a favorite new song introduced by friends. These alterations might seem minor to us, but they’re all clues to the process of transformation they’ve experienced. Sometimes the wonder of summer is that it’s fleeting. Its impermanence is what makes it so special. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help kids borrow a little of its alchemy and sprinkle it through the rest of the year.
Vanessa is the co-author of This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained (coming October 2023 from Penguin Random House), co-host of The Puberty Podcast, and President of Content at Order of Magnitude, the leading brand dedicated to flipping puberty positive.