Most parents have ongoing conversations about many subjects long before camp, but it’s natural to worry about what will stick when you’re apart. So, here are 10 important topics to discuss with your kids before they pack their camp sacks:
Consent is one of the most serious topics parents and kids should discuss on a regular basis.
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“Not only should parents discuss the sexual/physical aspects of consent, but kids need reminding to respect boundaries in other ways,” Toronto sexuality educator Dr. Nadine Thornhill told HuffPost Canada.
“Campers and staff may not want to do what a group is pressuring them to do. Things like playing pranks, taking or posting images on social media (if devices are allowed) or forcing someone to go swimming are also matters of consent.”
2. Sex and sexuality
Detailed talks about sex, sexuality and sexual touch are warranted with kids as young as nine, Thornhill said.
She explained kids often take more personal and physical risks at camp, because relationships there are transient and kids may not see one another again after camp ends, like they do at school. Campers can also feel a heightened sense of maturity without parents around and may engage in first-time romantic or sexual behaviours like kissing, touching, sitting with a crush or asking someone for a “date” to the camp dance.
Ensure kids know consent means never pressuring anyone — or feeling pressured — to do something against their will. Teach them to accept rejection, to determine what their own physical and emotional boundaries are, and how to stand firm on them under potential pressure.
They should also know who to ask for help (like the counsellor, camp director, or camp nurse), and ensure your child knows how to call home, if necessary. Parents can discuss their family values and preferences, but can’t control their child’s choices from afar.
Getting periods or nocturnal emissions should be discussed with camp-specific plans in place so kids feel confident they know how to deal with each, if they occur, Thornhill said. Assure your child these are normal, healthy aspects of puberty that may feel embarrassing, but some kids in their cabin may have already experienced them as well.
As uncomfortable as it may be, discussions on how to use birth control and dental dams and supplying these items might be something to discuss, as well.
“Studies have confirmed kids as young as 12 partake in partnered sexual activity,” Thornhill said.
Ensuring kids get enough sleep is a big worry for some parents, along with bedwetting or insomnia.
You can get a good start by making sure your child starts camp well rested, sleep expert and founder of “Good Night Sleep Site” Alanna McGinn told HuffPost Canada.
She also said kids should take bedding they enjoy, like sheets for their cot or bunk and a sleeping bag they can unzip and use as a comforter on top. The freedom, excitement and cabin shenanigans will probably keep your kid awake later than usual initially, but the active daily schedule and loads of fresh air will usually tire your child out enough to ensure adequate sleep for most of their time away.
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If your camper has sleep issues at home, help kids have a bedtime routine at camp by sending a little note for each night, a favourite stuffed toy, their usual pillowcase or a parent’s soft, worn, unwashed t-shirt to provide a comforting scent as the child falls asleep. Kids can use meditation, muscle tense and relaxation techniques or recalling calming memories to help them drift off.
McGinn recommended discussing the benefits of good sleep with your child so they don’t feel staying up all night is a mandatory camp experience. Most kids see the logic of daytime activities being more fun if they’re not overtired and cranky from lack of sleep!
If bedwetting is a concern, McGinn stressed, “Talk to the camp administration and your child’s counsellor in advance to make plans for both hygiene and discreet preservation of confidence.”
5. Personal hygiene
Kids can be gross, especially when parents aren’t around.
“For many kids, summer camp is a big step toward becoming more independent, so talking to children about taking responsibility for personal hygiene can encourage that new sense of autonomy,” Victoria, B.C. family physician Dr. Kim Foster told HuffPost Canada.
Remind kids about reducing the transmission of infections by thorough hand-washing, safe sneezing/coughing, and not sharing drinks. Kids don’t always heed personal hygiene standards at camp, so be prepared for dirty, smelly kids and their belongings when they get home!
6. Outdoor safety
Foster also suggested giving kids a quick lesson on outdoor risks like ticks, bites, stings, poison oak or ivy, dehydration, heat exhaustion, water safety and sunburn along with the items to prevent or treat them.
It’s particularly important if a kid has a sensitivity or allergy — like bee stings — to ensure they’re able to identify symptoms and handle a reaction accordingly, like ensuring their EpiPen is always nearby or consulting a counsellor or camp nurse for treatment.
Homesickness is normal for most kids attending overnight camp. Discussing it in advance and encouraging your child to share with their counsellor if it happens is the best strategy in dealing with those emotions.
8. Fear vs. trying new things
Kids all have fears or anxieties, yet need to understand some of the risks of being apart from parents.
They still should be encouraged to try new things just slightly outside their individual comfort levels. Parents know best how to balance these – it’s not about alarming campers, but more about empowering kids with the information required to feel both safe and curious.
“I find most kids enjoy learning facts and feeling ‘in the know’,” Foster said. “It’s fear of the unknown which creates more anxiety.”
Some campers with active imaginations or a lot of anxiety may require pre-camp chats with the camp counsellor and director to ensure kids know they have support in place if needed.
“Being kind helps us connect to others, make friends, and feel good about ourselves. It’s also important to ensure we are treated respectfully, at minimum, in return,” said relationship and parenting expert Dr. Natasha Sharma, creator of The Kindness Journal.
“Parents can gently remind their kids being kind isn’t just politeness; it’s also including those who might be left out, sticking up for those being picked on or teased, and letting counsellors know if someone is behaving inappropriately (i.e. bullying, hazing rituals, or dangerous dares.)”
10. Dealing with conflict
Sharma said it’s good to teach kids to try to solve minor to moderate problems or conflict themselves first, but turn to their counsellor, camp director or camp nurse if they need support. Ensure kids know if they’re not satisfied with the help given, they can talk to a different person of authority or ask to call home for serious concerns.
Sharma cautions parents to never force kids to attend sleep-away camp if a child is overly anxious, distressed, or really doesn’t want to go.
Encouraging kids to follow the rules at camp will ensure a positive experience for everyone, but don’t load them up with a long list of “dos and don’ts” ― make sure campers know you want them to have plenty of fun!