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posted: 7/2/2011 7:00 AM

Should parents visit kids at camp?

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  • The Goldman Family as they visit daughter Sam, second from left, during visitors day at Camp Wayne for Girls in Preston Park in Wayne County, Pa.

      The Goldman Family as they visit daughter Sam, second from left, during visitors day at Camp Wayne for Girls in Preston Park in Wayne County, Pa.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Mom Stacey Udell couldn't wait for visitors day when her daughter first went to sleepaway camp at age 9.

"About two hours in she said to me, `I think you better leave now. You don't want to get stuck in traffic.' We had just sat down to lunch."

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Six summers later, Udell thinks the traditional day for parents, grandparents and siblings to check out what their campers are up to is definitely more about the grown-ups than the kids.

"It sets many kids back," said Udell, whose daughter is now 15 and will return to camp this year with her 13-year-old brother. "I see a lot of kids crying at the end of visiting day."

The day isn't only long and hot. Routines for the kids are disrupted and it can feel more about the goodies parents bring along than quality time. Like Udell's daughter, the kids may be more excited about water fights, cabin pajama parties and special sports tournaments planned to burn energy and distract them the night after parents leave.

As many full-summer programs have been trimmed back from eight weeks to six or seven, are parent visiting days worth the trouble? Absolutely, camp directors said, though some acknowledged most kids could likely live without them.

Every camp has its own policy on whether and when visitors are welcome.

Some with shorter sessions have done away with a single visiting day for all parents and instead invite parents to come for a few hours if and when they can. Some provide two all-camp scheduled dates so divorced parents can visit separately, according to the American Camp Association.

Some camps running four-week sessions welcome visitors on the last day so parents don't have to make a special trip if they were planning to pick up their kids anyway. Others offer a separate grandparents day or the chance for siblings to spend the night in cabins.

"Often the choice of where to go to summer camp will hinge in part on combining visitors day with other travel plans. Parents are pretty conscious of how to make it work," said Chris Thurber, a psychologist and camp staff trainer.

Making it work -- and smoothing the way for re-entry into camp life for the kids -- depends a lot on making sure parents follow the rules. At some camps, that means honoring guidelines not to haul in an excess of gifts, favorite snacks or banned foods, or following outright prohibitions on care packages of any kind.

To avoid leaving out kids whose families don't plan to show up on visitors day, camps often organize special trips for them off the grounds, such as a day at a nearby water park or beach. Or they seek volunteer parents who do plan to attend to take on a child left alone.

Campers who experienced homesickness on arrival at camp may have a touch of it again once it's time to say goodbye after a mid-session visitors day, but it usually doesn't last more than a day or two, camp directors said. Also, anticipation of visitors days can rev up campers ahead of the big event.

Visitors days come on top of camps offering parents glimpses of daily camp life through their websites, complete with video. That, said camp consultant Scott Arizala, could serve to raise OR lower parental angst, depending on whether they see smiles or sad faces.

"And they'll be right on the phone," he said. "Parents are so connected these days. Camp professionals themselves are starting to see less and less usefulness out of something like visitor day, and maybe more and more disruption."

Parents aside, can kids do without visitors day? "Yeah, they could absolutely do without it," said Marla Coleman, a past president of the ACA who operates a day camp in Long Island. "Camp becomes like this private world for a child where they get to live in an environment where they're not connected to their parents at all times, but they do like to show their parents what they're experiencing, how they're getting better at certain activities, how they're making good friends, so they're proud, too."

Thurber, Coleman and others in the industry offer these tips for parents to help make visitors day a highlight rather than a hassle:

Arrival and departure

Don't be late. Nothing can kill a camper's spirit faster than scanning the horizon for his tardy parents as reunions are happening all around.

Don't linger at departure time. "It's hard for kids to expect one thing and get another," Thurber said. "Don't leave them wondering, `I thought my parents had to go at 4, so why are they still here?"'

Parents aren't always great at goodbyes, Coleman said. "Be upbeat and happy. Wear sunglasses if you have to. You can say, `I'm glad that you're having a great time. It was so great to see you here.' Keep it short and sweet and don't get overly emotional and clingy."

Don't bring too much

"The kids don't like being overindulged," Coleman said. "They feel uncomfortable about it. Extravagance doesn't fit into the camp environment. It doesn't feel right. They've spent a whole summer connecting with nature, learning to be with friends. They don't need it and there's no room in the bunk anyway to put all the junk."

Know the rules

Camp consultant Jill Tipograph suggests double-checking the camp's lunch policy. Will lunch be served, or do parents bring a picnic lunch? Are there food restrictions on camp grounds due to allergies or candy bans?

If you're allowed to take your child out of camp, make sure you check when you have to return them and plan some in-town activities beforehand. Keith Klein, co-owner of Camp Laurel in Readfield, Maine, provides kids with a smallish reusable bag for parental treats and hopes they don't exceed the space. "We don't want the emphasis on shopping," he said.

Klein said visitors day is fun for all but, yes, may be more about parents than kids. "I'm not sure it is necessary," he said.

So should visitors day be eliminated?

"That's a really good question that maybe we should begin to ask one day," he said. "At the same time, children are away for seven weeks and, you know, by and large we see a wonderful happy group of parents and campers, so I think it works. It's tradition."

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