We hear from new families we speak to all of the time that they are hesitant to send their son or daughter back to camp after a horrendous episode at another camp. From inedible food to untrained and aloof staff to dilapidated facilities to dangerous practices - we have heard it all. So here are some pointers for how campers and parents can bounce back from a bad camp experience.
- Figure out exactly went wrong. Your camper comes home sullen and quiet. You ask him/her what is the matter and all you get is 'camp sucked, I'm never going back'. A bit of digging is surely required. Ask your camper specifics about counselors, facilities, food, and other campers. You may be able to trigger some response that clues you in to what went wrong. If you cannot get anywhere a call or e-mail to the camp director or owner is called for. A good director will be in touch with camper issues so if someone was unhappy throughout the summer they should be able to give you some information. Of course, your camper may hop in the car and tell you exactly why the camp 'sucked' which will make your life easier. If you find out that the camp lied in its marketing and did not offer certain activities, trips, or meals that were promised you certainly deserve some more information or financial renumeration from the program.
- Figure out what went right. Kids, for the most part, will always find a way to have some fun. It is likely that even if your camper absolutely hated their camp there will be one or two aspects that they enjoyed. Maybe they liked one certain sport or they loved the theater program or they had fun living in a cabin. If you cannot figure this out with your camper's help try looking through camp pictures - either taken by your camper or posted online by the camp - to see when your camper is smiling and having fun. This will all help you in your search for a new camp.
- Search for a new camp, don't force the same camp! Many parents will force their camper to give the same camp another try; maybe they are alumni of the camp or an older child loved it or another family in town sends their kids every summer or they are just unwilling to start the camp search over again. Whatever the reasoning, the parents feel that their child will like their camp if they just give it another try. Remember that all camps are not for all children but there is a camp out there for every child. Just because an older brother had the time of his life at Camp Whatever does not mean it will be a good fit for all the kids. It may be daunting to dive back into the camp search after you thought you had found 'the one' but camps, in general, do not drastically change in a year so if it was not a good fit last summer it probably will not be again next summer. This camp search will be a bit easier because you will better know your camper's likes and dislikes and can narrow down what camps you are looking at.
- Start small. A bad camp experience will impact both the camper and his/her parents. A camper stuck at a camp that is substandard or just not a good fit for a number of weeks leads to unhappy letters home, phone calls, etc which will stress out (and traumatize) the parents. It can be hard to even give camp another try with the fear that it could happen all over again. Starting small at a new camp will allow both the camper and the parents to 'see the light at the end of the tunnel'. A short one or two week program is an easy goal to start with while the camper builds up new confidence and the parents are able to relax and acclimate. You can always stay longer next summer or add on to the camp stay if the camper is having a blast.
- Be supportive but not smothering. Do not forget that camp is an opportunity for children to gain self confidence, step out of their comfort zone, make new friends, try new things, and grow as an individual. A parent may be tempted to check in on their camper constantly at a new camp after a bad experience but they should not succumb. Send fun care packages that they can share with the cabin or mail a funny card instead of calling the camp (or the camper directly) every day. Tell the new camp what went wrong at the old camp...this is helpful guidance for directors to make sure their camp does not do a disservice to a new camper.
I hope that that was helpful! I decided to write this post after having heard from dozens of families over the past few years that had had this problem and were looking for a fresh start.
If you are just getting in to the camp search feel free to take a look at my camp search advice posts:
Tips on picking a summer camp (part 1)
Tips on picking a summer camp (part 2)
As always, feel free to call or e-mail with camp questions!