My first camp experience was life-changing. One night, our speaker detailed the horrific pain Jesus went through as He approached the Cross, and I responded by dedicating my life to Jesus. The decision to go to camp was easy for me. I hoped to meet girls and have fun, but I didn't expect what happened in my heart.
For you and your tween, a sleep-away camp could be a more difficult decision, though no less of a life-changing experience. Or it may be one in a series of events that God uses to lead your son or daughter to greater personal and spiritual maturity. The camp environment is designed to allow youth to step away from their daily routine and take a fresh look at themselves, others and God. Consider these tips to determine what is best for your family:
Know when your child is ready.
There isn't a magical age when kids are ready for camp; your child's readiness depends on his or her personality, family and life experiences. However, Katie Hughes of Heartland Conference Retreat Center in Ohio offers some considerations for parents. She says a child who has comfortably stayed away from home for one or two nights is likely to be prepared for sleep-away camp. For a first experience, consider a short camp, such as a three-day, two-night program.
In addition, discuss any fears or concerns your tween may have about going to camp to determine if waiting a year or two may be best. The experience may be more appealing if your child can attend with a friend.
Choose a camp.
Working with your child to select a sleep-away camp may help him or her over the emotional hurdles first-time campers experience. Consider the activities your tween enjoys — as well as factors that matter to you, such as location, cost, length of the camp and spiritual focus. If your child has any special needs, be sure the camp is equipped to handle them.
Ask trusted friends or your pastor for a referral, or do a detailed search using Christian Camp and Conference Association's online directory at findachristiancamp.com. Then, check out the camp's website and request a brochure. Pay attention to the camp's values, facilities and staff.
You may also want to visit the camp (calling ahead is recommended). Introduce yourself to the director, and ask questions about safety, supervision, schedule or other aspects of the camp experience. If it's convenient, take your child along and introduce him or her to some of the camp's leaders.
Communicate the benefits.
As excitement — or apprehension — builds, explain to your child what will happen during the program and why it will be fun and meaningful. Away from his or her regular routine and setting, your tween will have opportunities to interact with positive role models, meet character-building challenges, participate in unique activities, begin or strengthen a relationship with Jesus, spend time in God's refreshingly beautiful creation, and chat with peers and adults about life and God.
You'll likely see the camp's impact when your child returns home. Your tween may come back with a greater sense of responsibility, an air of confidence, new friendships and a greater grasp of biblical truth.
Get ready to go.
When camp draws closer, take time to help your child pack. Walk with your child through a checklist, and label personal belongings to ensure these items make the journey home. Also discuss how much money your tween will need to take for snacks, souvenirs or other items.
Unless your child brings it up, avoid highlighting homesickness, which can set your tween up for a difficult experience. Camp staff members are trained to deal with that issue if it arises. Even if the camp allows it, think twice before providing a cell phone to your camper; calls home may encourage homesickness. Instead, for longer camps, help your child pack paper and prestamped envelopes so he or she can send letters home, and plan to send letters to your child as well.
Prayer is another vital element in camp preparation, Hughes says. "Pray with your child, asking him or her to tell you any joys or concerns, and then audibly give those straight to God. Give your child confidence that this will be a fun, enjoyable and memorable experience."
I hope you'll find that your child's first camp experience is like mine — a life-changing encounter with God.
Gregg Hunter is the president and CEO of Christian Camp and Conference Association. Gregg and his wife, Penny, have been married 27 years and have two sons, ages 12 and 19.
Copyright © 2011 Gregg Hunter. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.
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