Making sure your child's camp experience is a good one doesn't end at drop-off and doesn't just revolve around the camper. Here's a to-do list that takes everyone into consideration.
MAKE A RITUAL OF THE GOODBYE. You may not expect to cry or even be sad (Dads, we're talking to you), but what if? Unexpected emotions can catch you by surprise and panic your camper. Decide as a family - include siblings in this! - where and how you'll say goodbye. Choose a location that's public, like the cabin, so your child is caught up in activity the second you turn your back. What you want to avoid is an unscripted moment, like having her walk you to the car for one last hug. Maybe siblings can offer parting gifts such as silly notes or drawings. Tell your camper as often as you want how much you love her, but avoid speaking the words, "I'm going to miss you." That runs the risk of fueling guilty feelings. (This is a good rule for letters, too.)
KEEP THINGS AT HOME AS NORMAL AS POSSIBLE. Siblings who don't go to camp typically blossom under your extra, undiluted attention. "I hear many parents say they come to appreciate this child more and to get to know this child better," says parent educator Nancy Samalin, author of Loving Each One Best: A Caring and Practical Approach to Raising Siblings. Be careful, though. Lavishing extra time on them is fine, but you're not doing anyone a favor by scrimping on normal limit-setting. Also, consider this: With a child away, there's a hole in the family. Even if the sibling was a source of annoyance, the absence is a loss. "Bickering is part of sibling dynamics. You may not miss it, but your child probably does," Samalin says. Whatever reactions you see - joy ("I hope she never comes back!"), denial ("Who? I never even think about her!"), sadness ("I'm bored!") - comment on it now and then: "I can see you're enjoying your time without your sister." This is especially helpful for young children, who need practice identifying emotions: "I wonder if you're bored because you're missing your brother?"
PRACTICE BEING APART. Most parents worry that talking about homesickness plants the idea for it. Wrong. Discuss it - tell her it's a normal feeling - and prepare for it. It helps if you give your child experience away from home before camp, preferably a weekend or two. Label it "practice for camp." That means not talking by phone, so brainstorm what he can do when he misses you: Look at family photos, write a letter home, talk to someone. Whatever you do, don't make an "If-you're-homesick-I'll-come-get-you" deal for camp. Convey only messages of confidence: "You might feel a little homesick; everybody does. But you've had practice being away. I know you can do this."
BE STRONG ON VISITING DAY. It's not unusual for a camper to announce, "I want to go home with you." Don't be tempted. Be sympathetic but firm: "I understand that part of you wants to come home now. That's because I'm here. As soon as I go, you'll be back into camp life and the days will pass quickly."
CUT SOME SLACK WHEN THEY GET BACK. Children younger than 13 typically think they can't hold on to two feelings at once. A camper who loves loves loves camp may resist joining into family life because she thinks that means losing camp. Give her time to unpack; washing clothes means losing the camp smell. Also, you'll probably see some pleasant changes - greater cooperation, a willingness to try new foods - but also expect a twist or two. Maybe he's picked up bad language. Maybe she's cocky. Maybe every sentence begins with, "At camp, we..." Resist insisting, "Well, this isn't camp." He knows the rules at camp and home are different. A comment such as "Tell me more about that" is more sympathetic and respectful and gives him emotional space to transition back to the rest of his life.
Barbara F. Meltz, a freelance writer in Newton, is the former Globe parenting columnist. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.