Q. I’m the mother of four incredible boys who are successful socially and academically. They usually look forward to overnight camp; however, this year my 13-year-old refuses to go. Last summer his camp was shut down because of the pandemic and he had to enroll in another camp for the season. Although he seemed happy, he shared negative feelings about his experience when he came back home. He told me he did not excel in many of the activities, which made him feel left out. I suggested that he return to his old camp, but he refuses to apply. He says that he is traumatized by last summer’s experience and doesn’t want to go to any camp at all. I believe that overnight camp is a much-needed relaxing experience, but I don’t know if my role here is to push him to go to camp or to allow him to stay home this summer.
A, Thank you for asking this “million-dollar question” at a time when parents and their children are scrambling to create summer plans. Before I address your specific question about whether to push your son to attend overnight camp, I’d like to address the general question of when to push a child. In her article, “When to Push Your Children,” Katherine Martinelli creates a clear distinction about when to push and when to pull back. She states that when pushing a child to engage in a challenging activity, a parent should measure the potential results. If he or she believes the challenge will teach the child flexibility and grit, as well as broaden the child’s horizons about the world, the child should be pushed. Activities that create courage and resolve include trying out for a play, participating in sports, or engaging in an unfamiliar social situation. On the other hand, if a parent predicts that pushing the child too hard will cause him to retreat inwards, develop anxiety, or become resentful, it’s best to refrain from pushing. Dr. Harold Koplewicz from the Child Mind Institute explains that the main reason to push a child is to get him out of his comfort zone and then continue to push the zone further out. He also highlights that pushing a child to tolerate discomfort creates a more resilient child. However, he states that when assessing when to push one’s child, a parent should ask himself if pushing under this specific circumstance will make the child feel good and/or enrich the child’s life. Moreover, he states then when a parent pushes a child and is met with resistance, it’s important for the parent to ask himself if the child is being pushed for his own good or to advance the parent’s motives.
That said, let’s examine your question about whether or not to push your son to attend overnight camp this year. As I researched this topic, I came across an article with a clear diagram that spells out whether one should push their child to go to camp. In her parenting article, “Should I Make My Kid Go to Camp?” Audrey Monke spells out this decision in a simplistic form. She states that the only reason to keep a child home from camp is if both the child and the parent are anxious about the upcoming camp experience. If the parent cannot handle the idea of his child feeling homesick and feels uncomfortable with being separated from their child, the child will not succeed in camp. This is because the parent’s fears and anxieties will spill over to his already anxious child. However, if the child is anxious about attending camp but the parent is confident, the parent will be able to send the child to camp while instilling correct messages related to resilience.
In addition to the information you provided in the question, I’m uncertain about what traumatic experiences your child endured in camp. If, for example, the trauma was related to your child not excelling at sports, perhaps it would be important to find another camp that is more suitable for your child. Perhaps your child enjoys learning survival skills and would excel in a wilderness camp. If that would be the case, your child would thrive in an environment where he learns how to build shelter from scratch or how to start a fire safely.
In order to make a mindful decision, first ask yourself if sending him to camp will help build his resilience or trigger feelings of anxiety. Second, ask yourself if your intentions to send him to camp are self-serving or might help him excel. Third, if you’re an anxious parent to an anxious child, avoid sending your child to camp. Otherwise, push him. Last but not least, if you feel that sending your child to camp is the right decision, make sure that the camp environment and activities cater to your child’s sense of self and hobbies. Hopefully, this will ensure a wholesome and memorable camp experience that your son will always cherish!