Should I Send My Kid to Sleepaway Camp?

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Summertime may be heaven for school-age children, but it does present some problems for parents. After all, adults don’t get a months-long vacation from work, and figuring out a way to balance your responsibilities with your children being home during the week can be challenging.

One solution that many parents turn to is sending their kids to sleepaway camp. While sleepaway camp offers a host of benefits for children, including the opportunities to learn independence and teamwork while having new experiences, determining whether or not your child is ready to spend that time away from home can be tricky.

Here, experts answer questions you may have about whether to send your kid to sleepaway camp and offer insights on how to decide if they’re ready.

Is My Child Ready for Sleepaway Camp?

When answering this big question, consider how your child typically responds to big changes or new activities. “Think about if your child has had experiences in the past where they muscled through, like a class or a birthday party or a playdate,” suggests Claire Lerner, MSW, a child development and parenting specialist and founder of Lerner Child Development. “If they have, have faith in them that they will do the same at camp.”

In fact, Lerner believes that readiness is actually more about the parent than the child. “Many more kids could benefit from sleepaway camp than parents believe they can,” she says. If you believe that camp would be a beneficial growth experience for your child—who you know best—then they are likely ready.

Is There A Best Age To Start Sleepaway Camp?

Enrollment at sleepaway camp typically starts around age 7 or 8, but that doesn't mean you have to send your kid when they're that young if they don't seem ready.

“We see a lot of campers who enroll around age 12. It’s an age where campers have the confidence to take risks being away from home, meeting new people, and trying new activities,” shares Elise Sievert, a three-time childcare specialist and former department head at Camp Farley in Mashpee, MA. “But there are definitely campers who are ready and do well at camp when they’re younger, too.”

For this reason, it’s best to consider your child’s personality, how they tolerate time away from you, and their experiences as opposed to their age when deciding whether to send them to camp.

Should I Ask My Kid if They Want To Go?

If your immediate answer to this question was yes, Lerner suggests putting on the brakes. “For many kids, their knee-jerk reaction is going to be no, they don’t want to go. But there are many things children resist out of a knee-jerk fear reaction that would be incredible and they might miss out on.”

Instead, Lerner recommends explaining the plan to your child as if they don’t have a say. “Lay it out very matter-of-factly and positively, then stop and see how they respond,” she says. Some kids may be excited and run to start packing their bags, while others might say no as if you were asking them.

If your child does say no, encourage them to explain why they don't want to go, but without letting them think it's their decision. Remind them about past experiences that they muscled through and had a great time. “Say to them, ‘You can feel that fear and worry and end up having a great time, just like you did before. And I’m confident that will happen at camp too.'” If your child still seems really scared, nervous, or is heavily resistant to the idea, it might be worth reconsidering.

Also key: not trying to convince them that they really want to go. “A child can pick up on your anxiety and they will exploit that,” says Lerner. “If they feel like the whole plan is predicated on their agreement, they will dive into that gray zone, it will become very muddled and uncomfortable, your child’s feelings will overwhelm you, and [the plan] will fall apart.”

Is Camp Right for My Child?

While Lerner believes that almost every child can benefit from sleepaway camp, there are a few that may not. “If your child doesn’t like big groups and prefers to be with just one or two friends or gets overwhelmed easily by a lot of activity, camp might not be a great fit,” she says. “But I also know plenty of those kids who have gone and thrived.”

The more important aspect is choosing the right camp. If your child is sporty and thrives on competition, a traditional sleepaway camp might be best. If they are artsier, more studious, or more into nature, there are camps that are more focused. “Pick a camp where you think your child will thrive and trust the process," suggests Lerner.

Can I Afford Sleepaway Camp?

Your kids are being cared for 24 hours a day at sleepaway camp, which comes with a hefty price tag. But just like for schools and other activities, there is help if you need it.

“Lots of places will run either merit- or need-based camper scholarships that kids can apply for,” notes Sievert. “Some camps will also offer a discounted rate for enrolling in more weeks or for referring a camper who attends camp for the first time. You should contact your camp to find out how they handle these things since every place will be different.” 

If cost is a concern, you may consider a day camp instead of a sleepaway camp, which is about 2.5 times less expensive.

What if My Kid Gets Homesick?

When her son was 8 years old, Lerner sent him to sleepaway camp for the first time. “For the first two weeks, he was writing us letters saying please come, I hate it here,” she recalls. “So I called and asked how he was doing, and they told me he’s thriving, he loves the activities and he’s making friends. Just when it’s quiet time after lunch, he gets homesick.”

This situation is actually fairly common, says Sievert. “When kids are busy and having fun during their programs and activities, they don’t really have time to think about missing home. But when they sit down at the end of the day and don’t have a distraction, they’ll remember where they are—and that it isn’t home.”

If children do express homesickness in these moments, Sievert notes that staff will work with them to determine what’s going on and how they can help. “Sometimes it’s as simple as just missing a parent, but kids will often complain of homesickness if they’re arguing with a bunkmate or forgot something they need at home,” she says.

In these instances, staff will talk with the camper about upcoming activities they are excited about and help them understand what to expect from camp, which helps them adjust to the experience.

As for Lerner’s son: “We agreed to have him stay,” she shares. “Right after the two-week mark, we started getting letters that it was amazing. And at the end, he was begging to stay.”

How Long Should I Send Them For?

Starting with just a few nights and building up from there can be incredibly helpful for children and parents. Many camps have programs where kids can go for a weekend for the first time, sometimes even with a parent, to help them get comfortable.

That said, it’s also crucial to give your child enough time to get into a groove—and in these cases, you can go back to their past experiences again and think about how long it takes them to adapt. “In my son’s case, he started to adapt at the two-week mark. If it was just a week it might not have had the same effect,” Lerner says. “You have to know your child best.”

A Word From Verywell

Sending your child to sleepaway camp for the first time can be scary—but it may be scarier for you as the parent than it is for your child. If your child has successfully worked through and adapted to new experiences before, they are likely ready to try sleepaway camp.

You should present camp to them as a decision that’s already been made, but give them a chance to discuss how they are feeling about it. With many options, you can find the type of camp that’s right for your child at the price that’s right for you. Trust that the staff will know how to handle homesickness and help your child thrive.

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