“Preventing Homesickness at Camp: The Refuah Before the Makkah”

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By Dr. Meir Wikler

Once, when I was a young child, my parents called an electrician to our home to investigate a strange noise and foul smell emanating from our only air conditioner. After struggling for a half-hour to remove the antique unit from the window, the electrician came out and announced his verdict.

“You need a veterinarian, not an electrician,” he announced. He then went on to explain that a bird had managed to build its nest between our air conditioner and the
window sill. The mother bird was living there together with three recently hatched baby birds.

Following the instructions we received over the phone from the A.S.P.C.A., we gingerly transported the nest to the edge of our upstairs porch. Peeking from the window, we then breath-lessly watched and waited to see if the mother bird would return to feed her young. Eventually, she did. For three weeks, my family and I witnessed in fascination
and awe the miracle of the mother bird arriving daily to feed
her babies. She did not sleep in the nest, as our porch was too
exposed for her liking. But she did not abandon her brood.

“Posei’ach es yadecha umasbia l’chol chai ratzon, You open
up your hand and provide food for every living creature
according to its desires” (Tehillim 145:16 with Metzudas
David’s interpretation).

Finally, after the fledglings had matured sufficiently, they
each hopped out of the nest, took a few more warm-up hops
along the porch railing and then flew off, all on the same day.
Neither they nor their mother returned, even for “pachim
ketanim, small jugs.” The entire maturational process, from
birth to independence, took approximately four weeks.
For humans, the process of maturation which leads to leaving
the nest takes much, much longer. It begins with the first,
brief separations when an infant is left with a babysitter. It
proceeds through the longer separations of going to school
every day. And it culminates in the overnight separations of
summer camp, dormitory living and, eventually, marriage.
Each one of these separations challenges the coping skills
of children and their parents. As each hurdle is passed, a child
gains confidence and personality strengths which fortify him
or her to be able to take on the next hurdles when they come.
Just as some children grasp and absorb the alphabet more
quickly than others, some children have an easier time coping
with separation from home and parents than do other children.
And just as the quick readers are not necessarily
smarter than their slower reading classmates, the quick
accommodators to separation are not necessarily healthier or
better adjusted than their more dependent peers.

The role of the parents in all of this is not to criticize or
compare their children with others. Rather, parents need to be
there to sensitively and compassionately assist their children
in advancing to the next level of separation.
Those children who never seem ready may need extra help.

And if a child appears to be lagging very far behind in his or
her maturational development, a consultation with an expert
may be warranted. But for the most part, children simply need
patient understanding, encouragement and plain old emotional
support.

One of the most difficult separations for some children is
the first four- or eight-week stay at a sleepaway camp. This
represents a quantum leap forward, toward independence, and
it is a leap which is quite challenging for many children. As a
result, these children may suffer symptoms of homesickness
during part or all of that first stay at camp.

A little homesickness is natural and is not cause for alarm.
But intense, prolonged homesickness can traumatize a child,
torture the agonizing parents and waste the significant
expense of the camp tuition. Part of the parents’ responsibility,
therefore, is to do whatever they can before their children go to
camp to insure that any feelings of homesickness will be kept
to a minimum. And although some homesickness is almost
inevitable, there are still some very concrete steps parents can
take to help prevent major homesickness at sleepaway camp.
Ss

“HELLO, MR. COHEN?* THIS IS RABBI SCHWARTZ* FROM
Camp Kayitz.* As we discussed earlier this
week, your son (daughter) just does not seem
ready for camp this year. I have consulted with his (her)
counselor and the division head, and we all agree that…
perhaps you should come up on Sunday and take him
(her) home.”
* Not their real names.

No one — absolutely no one — would like to be on the receiving
end of that phone call. Yet that possibility exists for many parents
every year. Like it or not, sleepaway camp has, in many cases,
become a fact of Torah life in America today. Many mosdos hachinuch
even require their talmidim to attend a Torah-oriented summer
camp to insure that Torah study will continue during the summer.
(Few day camps are geared for campers older than 11 or 12.)

For most children who go, camp is the highlight of the year. It
is eagerly anticipated, thoroughly enjoyed, and long remembered
with much affection. For some, however, the prospect of a trip to
camp becomes a nightmare of apprehension and terror, brought
on by the thought of separation from home. When that happens,
parents are faced with two equally unacceptable choices: leave
the child at home and let him or her lose out on all of the educational,
social and recreational advantages of camp, or force the
child to go to camp and subject him or her to the emotional torture
and social disgrace of chronic homesickness and, possibly,
receive a call like the one from “Rabbi Schwartz.”

Don’t all children miss their parents at camp? Of course,
some homesickness is normal for most children during their first
trip to an overnight camp, or at the start of each summer. But
there are other children who experience abnormal amounts of
distress at camp.

Instead of settling into camp life in a few days, they pine away
for their parents, cry often, insist on calling home, and refuse to
participate fully in games, learning or activities. They have difficulty
falling asleep at night, may become nocturnally enuretic
and, in short, cause their bunkmates, the camp staff and administration,
as well as their parents, considerable anguish.

Is there anything that can be done to help these children make
a better adjustment to camp?

Most problems are more easily solved if the cause and exact
nature of the problems are understood. When a child of any age is
either homesick or expresses fears of becoming homesick, he is
not simply “acting like a baby.” Except for those rare cases when
a child is willfully rebelling, or “punishing” his parents for “dumping”
him or her into a camp for “their convenience,” homesickness
is not something that a child can control on his or her own.
Normally, if the camper could, he or she most surely would keep
their emotions and behavior in check. Insulting or shaming the
child for such feelings is not only ineffective, it can exacerbate
the problem, as well.

 What Homesickness Means

Basically, homesickness means that the child has not yet
learned how to trust that his relationships with his parents will
remain constant in spite of separation. Since most adults take
constancy of relationships for granted, it is often difficult for parents
to understand why their child is having so much trouble coping
with the temporary separation of camp.

Adults have all had the experience of meeting an old friend
after many years of separation. Usually, the two need little time to
get reacquainted. They seem to resume the friendship exactly
where they left off many years earlier. The reason for this is that
both adults carried the relationship within them, unaffected by
the separation of time and distance.

Children cannot do that. They have yet to learn, through a
time-consuming process, that relationships continue in spite of
separation. Infants, for example, burst into tears as soon as their
mother leaves the room. This is because, to their immature minds,
the mother ceases to exist when she is out of sight. As they
mature they learn that if they can hear their mother in the next
room, she is still there. After that, they learn to trust that even if
they cannot see or hear her in the next room, their mother still
exists. Eventually, they can even learn to tolerate mother’s leaving
by trusting that she will return.

Chazal, of course, understood all of this over 2,000 years ago,
when they used the emotional criterion of “not needing his moth-
er” for determining when a boy is obligated (for chinuch) to sleep
in a succah.

This stage of emotional development was defined as
“waking up and not calling out, ‘Mommy, Mommy!’ ” (See Succah
28b and Tiferes Yisrael on Succah 2:8).

As a result of personality, experiences, or both, some children
develop such fear of separation that they cannot go to camp with
their peers or even in some extreme cases, cannot go to school.1
For children to overcome homesickness, therefore, they must
be helped over the developmental hurdle of coping with separation.
This is accomplished by their learning to trust the constancy of their
relationships with their parents. Sounds good, but how is this done?
If parents take the following steps before the summer, they
can succeed in helping the vast majority of children who suffer
from this annual ordeal. For the child who is most likely to
become homesick, here’s what parents can do:

 Build up to the Major Separation of Camp With Smaller, Trial Runs

Shimmy was 13 when he and his parents decided that he was
forfeiting too much learning and fun by staying home every summer.
Strongly supported and encouraged by his parents, Shimmy
used two out-of-the-neighborhood bar mitzvahs to try sleeping
away from home over Shabbos. Fortified with these successes, he
felt less intimidated by a trip to camp.
K Build up Frustration-Tolerance at Home
Even at 11, Mimi was so attached and clingy to her parents
that she could never simply say, “Good night.” She always had to
1. See Chapter 15: “I Don’t Want To Go To School:” Faking or Phobia? for a full discussion
of the latter problem.
pose just one more question, and then one more, to whichever
parent came to her room to say, “Good night.” This procedure
could last 20 minutes or more. The ritualized bedside schmooze
never seemed to relax her enough.
To help prepare Mimi for overnight camp, Mimi’s parents suggested
that she limit after-goodnight questions to one. Each morning,
her parents praised her for her restraint the night before. A
few weeks of this frustration-tolerance building paid off for Mimi,
who was better prepared to cope with the frustration of not being
able to speak with her parents every day while she was at camp.
K Build Bridges Between Camp Personnel
and Family
Hillel, age 12, couldn’t wait to play ball at camp, but he fretted
about who he would turn to “if he had a problem.” He was going
to camp with close friends, but he needed “a grownup,” as well.
Hillel’s father called the camp and was put in touch with the
head counselor. During their conversation, they discovered that
they had learned in the same yeshivah. The head counselor then
told Hillel on the phone, “Any boy whose father attended my
yeshivah is practically mishpachah to me. If you ever need to talk
about anything, be sure to come to me.” This precamp contact
helped quiet Hillel’s nagging fears.
K Minimize Fears by Confronting
Them Directly, Not Through Denial
Chani’s parents believed that if you don’t discuss a child’s
fears, they will dissipate naturally. So when 10-year-old Chani
began voicing doubts about camp, they dismissed her feelings and
changed the subject. Once she gets to camp, they reasoned, she’ll
be having so much fun that she’ll forget all about being homesick.
158 / Partners With Hashem
During the long drive home from camp, where Chani had
spent a grand total of one agonizing, tear-soaked week, her parents
silently questioned whether they had really been helpful to
their daughter by ignoring her concerns.
Schragie’s parents, on the other hand, accepted their 12-yearold
son’s tendency to get homesick, and they even raised the subject
for him. When Schragie denied any apprehensions about his
upcoming maiden voyage to camp, they saw this for what it was:
massive denial. The second time they brought it up, Schragie’s
wall of denial began to crack. After the third time, he finally
voiced his concerns: What if he will want to speak with his parents
and the camp will not allow phone calls?
Having identified Schragie’s specific fear before camp started,
his parents contacted the camp administrators and worked out a
plan acceptable to all concerned. The first week of camp was not
exactly smooth sailing for Schragie, but the remainder of his stay
proved to be productive and enjoyable.
K Encourage the Use of Concrete Objects to
Help Ease the Transition From Home to Camp
When 11-year-old Rifky announced her desire to join her friends
at sleepaway camp, her parents dismissed it. They knew how easily
she had become homesick in the past, and assumed that her going
to camp would be unrealistic, at least for this summer.
Eventually, however, Rifky convinced her parents that she
was serious, so they agreed to send her for one trip. Rifky’s parents
then consulted a specialist whom they trusted. The expert
recommended that Rifky bring some special “home reminders” to
camp. Together with Rifky, her parents came up with the following
concrete objects to send along with her, “just in case she
would feel homesick.”
• A picture of the family, which she should take out of its
envelope only “in emergencies.” When looking at the picture, they
Homesickness at Camp: The Refuah Before the Makkah / 159
suggested, she should think of how proud all the members of the
family will be on visiting day when they hear that she is happy
at camp.
• An article of clothing from each parent, to keep under her
pillow. When she feels the piece of clothing, she should remember
how much her parents love her, think about her, and how they are
looking forward to speaking with her and seeing her on visiting
day. (Rifky chose one of her father’s ties and one of her mother’s
tichels.)
• A cassette tape, which her parents recorded for her in her
presence, with various reassuring thoughts to soother her whenever
she might feel most lonely. Making the tape became a fun
project, which included cameo appearances by some of her siblings
and various home-reminder sound effects.
• Not discussed in advance with Rifky were the little handwritten
notes her parents hid in her trunk to be “discovered” upon
unpacking her clothes in camp. These eased the pangs of separation
on that first, fateful day, when they are often most intense.
To the surprise of both of her parents, Rifky not only stayed
through the first trip at camp, but asked to stay for the second
trip as well.
Ss
Spending three or four weeks at camp is certainly not the only
separation from home that could be problematic for children.
Teenagers often want to go “out of town,” or even out of the country,
to learn in yeshivah or seminary. Because of the distance
involved, they are often away for months at a time.
If teenagers are prone to feelings of homesickness, their
reviewing, together with their parents, the strategies outlined
above, and making the necessary adjustments for their older ages,
may help them as well.
It can be surprising how well otherwise insecure children
160 / Partners With Hashem
Homesickness at Camp: The Refuah Before the Makkah / 161
cope with potentially stressful situations, if those predicaments
are anticipated with advanced planning and steps designed to
minimize the stress are taken. In fact, they may cope so well that
their parents may even pick up the phone and hear:
“Hello, Mr. Cohen? This is Rabbi Schwartz from Camp
Kayitz. In spite of what we had discussed before camp,
your son (daughter) seems to have adjusted beautifully. I
have spoken with the counselor and the division head and
we all agree that he (she) is one happy camper!”

_ _ _
Dr. Meir Wikler is a psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Lakewood, N.J. and Brooklyn, N.Y. This article is excerpted from his Partners With Hashem (Artscroll, 2000).

2 COMMENTS

  1. The premise of this article is that camp is something good for children to experience, and that from age around 12, children should be able to live away from their parents for weeks on end.
    How about first proving these premises before pressuring children into conforming to this model?
    The idea of sleepaway camp is very new; the idea of children living at home is very old.
    Yes, humans are very adaptable and can get used to all sorts of things and even appear happy and think they’re happy. But who said that adapting to whatever society decides is good, is a good thing?
    Parents are supposed to be the primary influences on their children, not camp counselors and certainly not their peers.
    This article has got everything back-to-front.

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