How Kids Answer this Perennial Question Might Surprise You
Let’s reveal the most surprising fact first: Having a friend from home at camp does nothing to diminish the intensity of homesickness. Although everyone experiences feelings of missing home, only 20% of boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 16 are bothered by these feelings. Surprisingly, having a friend from home attend camp at the same time does not determine whether a child is in the mild or moderate homesickness group.
There are probably several reasons for this. First, if a child is intensely homesick, he or she is likely missing his parents most of all. The friend from home is not an adequate substitute. Fun, yes, but simply not mom or dad.
Second, if a child his having a tough time with the adjustment to summer camp, he or she is likely to be struggling socially. At camp, that boils down to making new friends. Having an established friendship from home may be a temporary comfort, but it’s the rare friend who takes an active role in garnering new connections for a lonely peer.
Third, if a child is struggling to fit in, he or she may not be much fun to play with. Children are most attracted to happy peers, not dour ones. Moreover, it’s a tall order to say to one child, “Your pal is feeling sad and left out. Stop having fun and do what you can to connect him with the rest of the group.” Some mature and astute children can do this kind of social engineering; most can’t.
All of this is simply to say that signing up for camp with a friend from home does nothing to stave off feelings of homesickness and may do little to promote social adjustment. However, for those children whose adjustment to camp is generally smooth, it may be lots of fun to share camp with an established chum. It may also be wonderful to share memories of camp with a local buddy. In sum, a friend from home may be a pleasant addition to a camp experience, but it’s not an antidote to anything.
Finally, when it comes to attending camp with a friend, parents should involve their child in the decision. Like so many other big and small choices, giving children some ownership over the parameters of their experience promotes good adjustment.
Curiously, the number-one thing that children say they love about camp is not the friends or the activities. Those are the number two and number three assets, respectively. What young people say they love most is that at camp they get to be themselves. In part, this means young people get to shed the reputation they have at school and in the neighborhood—maybe even at home, too—and let more of their authentic personality shine.
Sometimes, shedding an old reputation and donning a new personality is hampered by reminders and trappings of home, including the presence of an established friend. For this reason, many young people prefer to attend a camp where no one else from their grade or school is present. Talk with your son or daughter to get a sense of where they stand on the issue. Their answer may surprise you.
Of course, if the staff are doing their job, every child will have some new friends within a few hours of arriving. And if your child’s experience is typical, some of those new friendships will last a lifetime.
Enjoy the summer!
Dr. Christopher Thurber