My mom’s heart sank a little when she received this postcard from me. It was 1989: I was 7 years old and away at summer camp for the first time. Originally, I was not going to camp. When I learned that my older sister Jane was going to camp, I begged and pleaded to go with her. Now, I was miserably homesick and driving my counselors nuts with my endless flow of tears. I have a vivid memory of stomping back and forth in front of the camp director’s office with my arms crossed, using all of my 7-year-old bargaining tools so I could go home.
Before I knew it, I made it through the two-week session. I spent the first ten days of camp being reluctant, resistant, and probably somewhat of a pain in the “you know what.” Then, something switched in me. I realized camp wasn’t really all that bad, and I even caught myself having fun in some of the activities. Camp transitioned from this horrible “prison-like” scenario I had created to a magical place with friends around all the time. Looking back at my 7-year-old self, I realized I learned a powerful lesson that summer: it takes a lot more energy to be scared and upset than it does to try new things and be happy.
Homesickness is hard. When my oldest son, Phen, was 4 years old I signed him up for a local day camp. It was a week-long program from 9 AM to 12 PM each day. We were new to our community, so I hoped this would be a way to meet new families and make some friends.
On the first day of camp, we met the director and counselors and then I took Phen to his group. Phen asked me to stay for a little bit. I obliged because we were new and unlike all the other children in the room, he didn’t know anyone. The counselor began the morning by playing a name game. Phen began to feel more comfortable, so I started to think about my exit plan. Children have a sixth sense. They know when parents are going to leave them. Just when I thought I could make a clean getaway, Phen’s little paws clutched my arm with a fierce intensity.
The camp director witnessed our interaction and decided to move the group outside in hopes that Phen would relax and engage. She whispered in my ear the next plan and I told her I was going to make my exit at the transition. I knew Phen would be fine quickly after I left, but I anticipated the “leaving part” was going to be like ripping off a really, really old band-aid.
I had to find the strength to turn away from my tearful child and leave.
Now as I write this blog, I get emotional thinking about how hard that day was for me. I held my tears in until I got to the car and then I cried and cried for my child. One side of me was asking all these questions: Would he be ok? Would I be getting a call soon to come get my hysterical child? Were the adults I just left my child with going to be sensitive and loving towards “my heart” I had just left behind? Another part of me was rationalizing: this is a growth experience. He will learn and be better because of this time. We wanted to make friends, right? He is going to be fine. It’s only 3 hours.
My child was experiencing a thread of homesickness, something I was personally familiar with but did not expect to experience on his first day of camp. People talk about those moments when your child hurts and your heart gets ripped out of your body…this was one of those moments for me. It hurt.
Phen’s homesickness also hit close to home in another way. I am residential summer camp director. I spend a lot of time talking with parents about homesickness and training our staff on how to be prepared for it. I assure parents that their child is in good hands and to not worry. I was totally blindsided when it happened to my child.
That afternoon, I picked up Phen from camp and the director told me he was engaged and happy within 5 minutes of my departure. Ah…a sigh of relief. The rest of the week for Phen was a lot like the first day of camp. Each morning he cried when I left him and was fine within five minutes of my departure. I struggled in my car on the way back to my camp; shed a few tears, too. Each afternoon when I picked him up, he was happy as a Junebug and had a great time.
That homesick postcard I wrote as a 7-year-old hangs on my office wall. It is one of my favorite things I have kept from my years as a camper. It is also a powerful teaching tool for me. The director at my childhood summer camp never gave up on me. It would have been so easy to call my parents and ask them to come get me. Instead, she took the hard route and used her bag of tricks to help me develop as a child. It worked. I returned to camp for 10 summers as a camper and many more as a staff member. I can honestly say I am a better person today because of that experience. I know it has made me a wiser camp director.
As parents, we face these types of internal struggles. It is hard to ignore the questions we torment ourselves with, too. “Am I doing this right? Is my child going to be ok? Did I make the right decision?” Even when our own experience or research tells us that our choice and path is good and well intended, it is still not easy to let them go.
Homesickness is real and it does happen, BUT it is one of the best gifts and experiences we as parents can give our children. You might ask- why? One of our greatest goals as parents is to raise independent, kind, competent children who become good decision making adults. We want our children to turn into contributing community members one day. Learning to face our fears at a young age provides a great sense of accomplishment for a child. Camp can be the safe catalyst for your child to work through homesickness and conquer that fear. When I made it to the end of the camp session at age 7, I felt empowered – I could do this! More importantly, I was ok – no one died – not even me.
Everything we do with our children between birth and age 18 is an experience to help make this happen. One day, when I take my child to college, I hope one of the things he won’t stress about is being homesick. I want him to be successful, to make new friends, to challenge himself in these adult opportunities. I hope as a parent I will have set him up for success by providing him with opportunities to strengthen him as a person.
Camp is a safe place to give your child the freedom to develop their personality outside of your parent umbrella. Camp is a place for them to practice that success, separation anxiety, independence, and homesickness. Do you know of many places that train their staff on how to help homesick children? As a camp director, this is one of my “non-negotiables” for staff training.
When my parents came to pick me up from camp at age 7, they could not find me. In the last few days of camp, I had worked through my homesickness by allowing myself to be engaged and to have fun. I realized my camp was an amazing place and I did not want to go home. So- what did I do on closing day? I hid in the arts and crafts room under a table. The staff had a camp-wide search to find me and when they did, I begged them to let me return the next summer. I had found my happy place – camp – and I wanted to come back.
- Homesick and Happy by school psychologist, writer, and camp authority, Dr. Michael Thompson. I highly recommend it.
- Homesickness 101
- Tips from the American Camp Association
- Tips for first timers at camp
- New Camp Parent Orientation Video: Homesickness Skills from our Program Director, Avery McGaha
Anne Izard is a lifelong camper and advocate for camp encouraging us to be our “best selves.” Anne and her husband, Stephen, are the directors of Green River Preserve, a co-ed summer camp connecting children to nature. Most importantly, Anne is the mother of Phen (6), Hawkins (3), and Alida (6mos). Please feel free to contact Anne at [email protected]