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How to Pick the Right Summer Camp for Kids

Sleepaway Smarts

Once your child has attended day camp for several years, you might want to consider sleepaway camp. Many will accept campers as young as second grade for introductory programs that run a week or so. But while some 7-year-olds are ready, others aren't. A rule of thumb from my old camp director, Jane Sanborn of Sanborn Western Camps, in Florissant, CO: the younger your child, the more she, rather than you, should make the decision.

My daughter's positive experience is common among kids attending the best and oldest sleepaway camps. They boast return rates of at least 50 percent, and many former campers send their own children back.

So your child stands a good chance of having a great time. But how about you? You may worry about his health or safety, or homesickness. Sanborn notes that camp will help parents with one of their key jobs. "They need to give their children chances to develop the skills that will enable them to live on their own as adults," she says.

There are other reasons to contain (or at least hide) your jitters, adds Jones. Your anxiety can negatively impact your child. Your last words to him before you drive away shouldn't be a promise that you'll come get him if things don't work out, he cautions. "The first hard thing that a child encounters, he remembers what you've said," he explains. "You've in effect told him that camp might not be right for him. It can really be self-fulfilling." Instead, he says, act positive. Knowing that you see him as capable and independent will help him both as he starts camp and in the long run.

Another problem: kids who show up with cell phones. "If a child can talk to or text Mom at any moment, she isn't letting go and integrating," says Steve Sudduth, co-director of the nation's oldest summer camp for girls, Wyonegonic, in Denmark, ME. Many camps don't allow cell phones or calls home except for an in-camp birthday. Good camps send frequent updates, though, and have kids write letters regularly.

Still, what if you (or your child) can't stand the thought of being so detached? Well, perhaps camp isn't the right fit. Or maybe that's precisely why you need it. "If you are successful as a parent, your child is going to leave you at some point," says Sanborn. "Do you really want that to be when he's eighteen? A child's first experience away from you is part of the process of parenting and should be a happy, exciting growth experience for him and for you as well."

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