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What To Do If Your Child Is Not A Happy Camper


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, we're going to camp. For some families, this is a rite of passage going back generations. For many kids, it's a welcome break from siblings and school and a chance to try something new or be somebody new. And if you're a parent, you know there are hundreds of options out there, from sleepover camps with cabins, and hiking and canoeing, to camps catering to every religious denomination and atheists.

And there's also math camp, skateboard camp and camps where you can learn to write code. But what if your child has a meltdown every time you mention it? What if you loved your camp, but they cry at drop off? We wanted to get some advice on finding the right summer camp at the right price and getting your children ready to go. So our parenting panel is with us now. Robert Nickell is host of the web show, "My Life As A Dad." He's a father of seven. Welcome back, Robert.


MARTIN: Jenny Morgenthau is executive director of The Fresh Air Fund. That organization has been providing summer experiences, including camp, to millions of children from low-income families in New York City since 1877. Welcome - not that you were there, Jenny, that whole time. I just want to clarify that. But...

JENNY MORGENTHAU: (Laughing) Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you for your work. Thanks for coming.

MORGENTHAU: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And Kenya Young is also with us. She's a mom of two boys and a producer at NPR. So welcome to you all. I'm glad you're here because I never went to camp. So this was all kind of new to me. So Robert, you have seven kids. And I understand that all of them went to camp. Why do you think that that's important?

NICKELL: Well, the one-and-a-half-year-old has not gone to camp yet, but she will somewhere down the line. I think camp is really good because it allows the child some independent learning. The more independent learning they can have as they're growing up and maturing, the better off they're going to be in life when they take off to go to college or they take off to do other things that are going to be important to them. So the independent learning and the chance to be themselves a little bit is really the most important reason for camp.

MARTIN: Jenny, what about you? You know, obviously, I think for people in the New York area, they've heard about The Fresh Air Fund. This is, as I mentioned, a New York institution. And obviously lots of people support it. They think it's important. Why do you think it's so important to give, particularly city kids, an opportunity to get out?

MORGENTHAU: Well, I mean, I think that camp is good for all children. I was a camper for four years, and that's one of the best times of my life. But I think, you know, it gives city kids an opportunity to see something different and to learn something totally new. And to - I second the thing about independent learning. I mean, they learn, you know, new skills like swimming, or arts and crafts, or just things that they've never - going on a hike, things that they've never done. And it's, you know - it's a feeling of accomplishment and pride.

MARTIN: Kenny Young, you went to Camp Grandma. You grew up going to Camp Grandma. And your kids now do the same. And you were actually telling us, if you don't mind, that you think, you know, maybe camp could be important for the parents. Tell me why you think that.

KENYA YOUNG, BYLINE: It's true. We send our kids - when I was a kid, I used to - we lived in California. I used to go to the Bronx for summers. And then - we're kind of doing the exact opposite. I'm sending them from D.C. back to California. We've been doing this for a few years, now - started at around three weeks staying with grandma and then four, and then five - we're up to six weeks, now, which is half the summer at this point. And for us, it's really important because it's - one, you feel like it saves money - not quite. Honestly, you've got to think about the plane tickets. One of us has to drop us off. But it really is about the time with each other. My husband's a teacher, and I also work very off shifts here at NPR - so sometimes overnight, sometimes swing shift. And it really gives us a time to be with each other and have our little time together. It's somewhat of a marriage camp for us to have the kids be away. And they obviously restore that relationship with Grandma as well, that they're not - we're not as close in California anymore. So there are really two elements for that. It's really their relationship with Grandma and our marriage as well.

MARTIN: Is it OK for you to say - I mean, how does it feel kind of admitting that? - 'cause I'm guessing that there are a lot of parents for whom that that is true. But it's kind of hard to say, I need some time away from them.

YOUNG: Well, and I'm very open about that. (Laughing) That sometimes, you just need to be away from your kids for some sanity. But also, you know, our situation's not so much unique. I think quite a bit of couples go through this. But, you know, we got engaged very quickly. We got engaged within a month of knowing each other. We got married within eight months of being engaged. And then we were pregnant six months later. Our whole 12 year - we're about to celebrate 12 years. Our 12 years have been, practically, with kids. And that time that we have in the summer while the kids are gone really is that time that a lot of marriages had five, six, seven years without kids before. It's really a restoration period for marriage.

MARTIN: So talk about the fact, Robert, you know, that lots of kids love camp. But lots of kids don't. And one of the things we were talking about in the office is how some -when I was kind of doing an informal survey of my colleagues, and it was like - it was a total U-curve. It was - some of the kids loved it. They said, oh, it was great. I wanted to go in and be a counselor. And other people said, I was in therapy for years trying to get over it. You know?


MARTIN: So I just wanted to ask, and I'm not going to say who was who. Robert, you have some tips for sending kids off to camp in a way that makes it a good experience. I mean, is there anything you can do to ensure that it's a good experience?

NICKELL: Well, I think, number one, you want to talk to your kids. You've got to talk and you've got to listen. And you've got to start talking well in advance. Like, if I'm talking summer camp and it's the first time for my child, I'll start talking to them in January. And we'll talk about it in January, February, March, April. And also, prior to that - like, I think a good age for kids going off to camp is 10, 11,12 years old if they're going to go away for the week and the overnight-type camps. But if you start them earlier than that - you start them with day camps. You start them with drop-off camps. You start them with a beach camp, at a park camp, at a horseback riding, things like that. They start getting comfortable and used to that idea. And then you want to talk to them and you want to listen. And then they will get interested. And you'll be able to do some research and find things that they want to do. They're going to sit there and go, I don't want to do that. But you know what? There's a camp for kids that, I don't want to do that.


NICKELL: You can find what they need to get to. And then, the more you talk to them and the more you listen - start small, and you'll have a lot of success. And they'll love it.

MARTIN: You also have a saying, separation is hard. Stay cool. What do you mean by that?

NICKELL: Well, that's actually to the parents. And the parents have to control their own anxiety. A lot of times -it's just like dropping your kids off for preschool the very first day. My wife, I have to practically drag her around the corner with her nails scratching against the wall 'cause she's the one that's more upset than our child, which is just, you know, prancing right in the room and saying, bye-bye.

MARTIN: Were you spying on me? (Laughing) I'm sorry, I'm just saying, like...


MARTIN: That was you around the corner?

NICKELL: Yeah. Right, right.

MARTIN: Yeah...

NICKELL: So that's - the message is the parents - the parents need to be confident. They need to be like, this is great. You're going to love it. This is why. And then, also, when they're taking them there, and dropping them off and going through the progress, don't show your own anxiety. Keep - you know, allow the child to be themselves. And, parents, stay cool.

MARTIN: Jenny, what about you? I don't know whether a lot of the campers who come to Fresh Air Fund experiences - are they the ones who want to go? Or is it that their parents think that it would be good, or their caregivers think that this would be a good experience for them? Do you see a lot of homesickness? And how do you deal with it?

MORGENTHAU: Well, you know, I think there's not a lot of communication. I mean, you know, sometimes parents come, and just dump their kid and go to work. So I don't - you know, they don't have the luxury of, you know, preparation and discussion. And, you know, kids - maybe 'cause they don't know where they're going, you know, they're less apprehensive. I don't know. I can't imagine it myself. But kids who come and do get homesick, one of the most important things is to keep them busy. I mean, we don't have free time after dinner where they sit around and cry. I mean, we really keep them busy. And sometimes we try to hook them up with an older camper who can, you know, talk about how, you know, when they first came, they were homesick, and they got over it. And so, you know, we just try to sensitize everybody to the issues and help them, you know, make friends in whatever it is they don't like to do.

MARTIN: How do you deal with a kid who says, I just don't like it here? I don't want to be here. And I could see, if this was situation where the - if something was - the parents have the luxury of being able to bring the child home. I mean, obviously many people have, you know, different opinions about that. But, you know, money is a factor. I mean, if you have to work and if you've spent a lot of money on a camp experience and the child just doesn't like it - or if you just have to work. And you need something safe and appropriate. You need a safe place for your child to be, but the child just doesn't like it. What do you do? Do you have a philosophy about that? How do you handle that?

MORGENTHAU: Well, you know, it certainly depends on what level of acting out they're showing. I mean, if they're really difficult and really can't stand it, we would send them home. But, you know, sometimes we call the parents and they, oh, he's always like that.

MARTIN: He's always like that, OK. Kenya, do you mind me mentioning that one of your sons has ADHD? Does that make it harder to find - or how do you go about finding the right situation?

YOUNG: It has been in the past. We do - we've done camps. We usually just do day camp. We're not even at the - my boys are 10 and 8. We're not at the point, yet, where we can think about sleep away camp. But I've had to - you know, in the schools we have what's called an IEP, the individual educational program. And so the teachers really work with you. They know your kid's situation. It's a little different when you get to camp because they don't have all of that information. And so you have to think about that as you're thinking about the camps. And oftentimes, mild, special needs are often just looked as bad-behaved kids. They're just bad, you hear all the time. And...

MARTIN: There are camps for kids with special needs, though.

YOUNG: Specifically for kids with ADHD.

MARTIN: There are camps. They're very expensive. There's one here in the district that I just - I look at and I love. And I just drool over it every time I read about it. And I would love, love, love to send my kids there. It's very expensive, especially for the both of them to go. And it's just not something that's available to us.

MARTIN: So is there anything that you can do to kind of make the experience better? Are there places that, even if they don't specialize in kids - working with kids with ADHD, that you can do to make the situation more comfortable and appropriate?

YOUNG: There are. When they were younger and I thought it was an issue, even though, you know, you don't pass your IEP on to the camp counselors, I did explain to them the situation. I've had some who worked with me, some who quite didn't. So there was a little extra kind of prep work that you had to do to get them situated. Now, and I think this goes to what's been said already, sign up - the same thing with camps. I let my kids choose their camps. So we do more of the specialty camps. If they want - we read through the booklet. They might choose the robotics. One might choose the - so they don't necessarily go to the same camps, even though they're so close in age. My one's chosen, this summer, a music camp. One's chosen a horseback riding camp. And that interest - I think when you have that interest, and now that they're a little older they'll be able to - at least they've picked what they want to do. And they'll be able - their interest will be sustained throughout that day a little more.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about summer camp. Our parenting panel is sharing advice for picking the right one, getting them excited about it and having a good experience. With this are Kenya Young, mom of two. She's an NPR producer. That's who was speaking just now. Jenny Morgenthau is also with us. She's executive director of The Fresh Air Fund. That's a fund that's been giving kids, New York City kids, experiences - summer experiences - since 1877. And Robert Nickell's also with us. He's a father of seven and the host and the founder of the web show, "My Life As A Dad." Robert, you were telling us that choices - you're a big believer in giving your kids a choice. Like, you get on the computer with them and research camps and stuff like that. Tell us why that's important.

NICKELL: Well, I think the child needs to get bought into something that they really enjoy. I have one daughter that really loved piano. And so a music camp - and also, like, a lot of kids are going to go to camp. And they're going to say, well, I want to go with my friends. I want to do this. But on the other side of the coin, maybe they can have a chance to meet new friends that all love piano. And they can get that together. So, my kids were really going after that, as far as specialties. They - piano camp to surf camp -both my daughters also went to Costa Rica for, like, a turtle rescue research-type camp. But I let them really think about it and pick something that they thought that they would really enjoy. And it takes effort. It's like putting your kid in time-out. You have - the parent has to suffer when the child has to think. And you need to just be there, and sit with them. And go over it, and go over it. And, eventually, they're, like - they're so excited. They - I mean, they count the days down to go.

MARTIN: Have you ever had a child just say, I just don't want to go? And how have you dealt that?

NICKELL: I've had them, about halfway through - in fact, I think every camp that my older kids have been through, halfway through, they're on the phone with me saying that it's boring. They don't like it. It's uncomfortable. The beds are bad. The food is bad. You know, people are mean to them - all of those things. But by Saturday, when they're coming home it's, oh, I loved the camp. I wish I could stay longer. Why can't it be two weeks? Can I go again next year? And so, again, it's one of those things where you've got to realize that, like, halfway through, they start getting that homesick. They start feeling like it's not right for them. Or maybe somebody said something that they were uncomfortable with. And then they re-bond. And by the end - you've got to stick with it - they feel great about themselves.

MARTIN: Jenny, you've had so many different experiences. I mean, you were a camper yourself. You obviously loved it. And you're working in that space now. Any advice for parents who are just now thinking about this and haven't done this before, didn't go to camp themselves, aren't used to the idea of picking and don't have, you know, millions of dollars to spend on sending people to space camp at Goddard or whatever they do? (Laughing).

MORGENTHAU: I think it's...

MARTIN: It's not that I know that space camp costs a lot of money 'cause I really don't. I'm just making that up. But go ahead.

MORGENTHAU: No, I think a lot of the parents who send us kids have neighbors or relatives who've sent their kids to camp. And we have a pretty good reputation. So I think, you know, it's important for the parents to say how much fun they're going to have and that they're going to get to go swimming and fishing - seem to be the big activities - and, you know, that their upstairs neighbor went or their cousin Hector went. Really just emphasize the fun aspects of it.

MARTIN: And any advice for - if you're listening to this conversation and you're a kid, and you're kind of scared about going away to camp, Jenny, do you have some advice that you can offer if this is new to you, this is just a first time experience for you? Do have any words of wisdom for somebody who might be listening and is kind of still a little scared?

MORGENTHAU: (Laughing) It's just going to be a great time. You're going to have a great time.

MARTIN: Robert, what about you? Any words of advice?

NICKELL: My last words of advice- if you're going to send a care package, send homemade cookies, it's great bragging rights. And you can trade them, and kids just love the homemade cookies.

MARTIN: Homemade cookies - any special kind? Do you have a recipe you're going to share?

NICKELL: Well, chocolate chip. Chocolate chip is the best - that and a little post-it note that says, love, Dad.

MARTIN: Oh, are you the chocolate chip guy? I know you're the pancake guy. But you're the chocolate chip guy, too?

NICKELL: Pancakes and chocolate chip cookies - what else can dad do, right?

MARTIN: Kenya, what about you? Do you have some advice about - particularly for parents who have kids who might need something a little different, a little bit special - things you might be thinking about?

YOUNG: Yeah, I think - quite honestly, I mean, it's just like us, right? We have - sometimes you have a bad day at work. And you just don't want to be there that day. But we still come back the next day - same thing with kids in camp, quite honestly. Sometimes, you might not have the greatest day while you're there. But you come back the next day, and it's a fantastic day. Or, like we said, at the end of the week, it's a great time. So it's kind of just what happens. It's another part, another facet, a kind of counterpart to school or what happened. And say, you know, I know today wasn't that great. But tomorrow's going to be a great one. We can give it another try. And let's just kind of keep pushing on.

MARTIN: Can I - I'm going to put you on the spot, Kenya. What are you doing on your camp honeymoon - that you can talk about?

YOUNG: (Laughing) You know, it's actually funny. We always have these grand ideas. We're going to go here, and to the Poconos, and to Philly and this new restaurant in D.C. Can I tell you what we do? We sit at home, for the three weeks, with each other because it's such a different home life and different experience than the kids being there all the time. And we eat at 10 o'clock at night. And we eat asparagus or cake in the morning - whatever we want to. We just - we just live it up in ways we can't when the kids are around.

MARTIN: I'm not going to blow your secret. You get cake for breakfast. I'm not going...


MARTIN: Kenya Young is a mom of two boys. She's a producer at NPR. She's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Jenny Morgenthau is executive director of The Fresh Air Fund. She joined us from our bureau in New York City. Robert Nickell is host of web show, "My Life As A Dad." He's a father of seven. He was with us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Thank you all so much.

YOUNG: Thank you.

MORGENTHAU: Thank you.

NICKELL: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.