Welcome to Capable Kids Q&A, where you send me your dilemmas about lovingly nudging your kids towards a thriving can-do spirit, and I pull together the research, expertise, and wisdom to bring you encouragement and ideas. (Thank you for sending your questions; keep them coming.)
Q: My almost 12-year-old was supposed to go to sleepaway camp last summer, and then: pandemic. Camp was cancelled, along with almost everything else. I’m trying to encourage him to try again this summer (if it’s safe), for two weeks only, but he says no. I feel pretty strongly about kids spending time away from home (both his older siblings have). I also think if he has the chance to do something fun and productive after this loooong year mostly at home, he should. Plus, I want him to know he can go away, that he is capable of it. But I won’t force him. I understand why he’s nervous. My question is: How much should I push? When is it time to step back?
A: In my childhood, sleepaway camp was something that took place only in books, especially this copy of Letters from Camp that we had at our house. As you can see from the cover, the featured anecdote was about BOXING. To my fairly timid self, it didn’t sound that appealing to me, either.
But your son has real-life siblings who (presumably?) loved it and can share what it’s really like. Maybe he’s even gone on a drop-off, pick-up, or family visit to camp. And this is helpful. The more he knows about what sleepaway camp is really like, the better you can suss out the source of his reluctance.
The key question: Is this about fear or dislike? There are lots of reasons for big feelings around activities, including:
- We’re afraid because we don’t know it’ll be like;
- We’re afraid and we don’t think we’d like the experience; and
- We’re afraid but we might enjoy the activity if we get through the fear.
A difficult and necessary part of growing up is trying new things, because we often don’t know exactly what’s holding us back. Trying gives us important information. As a child, I used to be afraid of rollercoasters because I didn’t know what they’d feel like. Now I’ve tried them many times, and I’m still afraid of them, and they’re also not fun for me. On the other hand, I’m kind of afraid of surfing, too, but it’s a blast, so I’ve done it anyway.
Here’s what you might want to work through with your son: What’s the source of his reluctance? Probably not the unknowns of camp itself, since he’s likely to have seen it or at least heard much about it from his siblings’ experiences. If it is actually a new-to-him camp, consider taking him to a no-pressure spring open house or camp visit to check it out. (One of my kids, when they were a preschooler, was afraid of a playdate because, as they put it, “I don’t know what their house looks like.” Information can help.)
If it’s not unfamiliarity with the camp, his refusal could be so many other things:
- Does he hesitate to separate from your family? Is this really about homesickness?
- Does he like or dislike the kinds of activities done at camp? Is he not the outdoorsy type? Will he have any choice in his activities at camp?
- Is he an introvert? Is he suited to the constant togetherness of camp?
- Is his hesitancy about social interactions? Is he nervous about not knowing anyone? Could he perhaps go with a friend?
If, based on your deep knowledge of him, you truly think he’ll love it if he tries it, I’d push a little more, with perhaps a promise to come get him early if he hates it after a week.
If it’s more likely that camp is just not for him, then I’d look for things that suit him better and that push him beyond his comfort zone. Whether it’s a class in something new, an adventure day camp, a ride on the big rollercoaster, or trying ten new foods this summer, there are innumerable ways to expand his world. As positive psychologist Lea Waters encourages us to do in The Strength Switch, focusing on our kids’ strengths rather than weaknesses is a positive, connected way can help them thrive.
One more thing to think about: What’s the reason for your strong feelings in favor of kids staying away from home? In Capable Kids Q&A: Reluctant Cyclist, I wrote about pushing our kids to do certain things because they’re so essential. One of my personal musts was learning to swim, a survival skill. Swim lessons were the necessary means to that necessary end of knowing how to swim. But what’s the end goal of camp? It might help to figure out what that is for you as a parent, and whether there’s a mutually agreeable way to get there. There are many paths to becoming a more capable person; finding your son’s path is what matters most.