Your kid is packed and ready to go! You've triple-checked to make sure you both have multiple emergency contact methods … and you're secretly looking forward to some private, no-child-around-for-a-few-weeks time.
But before you drop off your kid at his summer camp of choice, you should know that not everything is as sunny as the camp counselors would have you believe. Sure, your child will almost certainly be fine, but be aware that many camps have serious sanitation, safety or personnel issues they'd rather not disclose.
We're going to make sure that you and your little camper are mentally geared up for summer camp and are prepared for every possible situation. First up, find out how to make sure all the employees at the camp can be trusted with your child.
The Counselors Haven't Had Background Checks
It's scary but true. Many camp counselors -- the people responsible for watching over children for days or weeks at a time -- aren't subjected to background checks before they're hired. Think about it. Since many counselors are young, they haven't had time to establish any kind of criminal record that can be checked (remember, juvenile records are forever sealed after a person turns 18).
Camp directors have several tools at their disposal to make sure they're hiring qualified employees. Besides traditional background checks, they can use online volunteer tracking programs and call the candidates' past employers. The simple act of checking references can go a long way as well.
As for parents, ask about the background-checking process when you're choosing a camp. You can also do a little sleuthing yourself. Run the camp's employees' names through the national sex offender registry, and perform Internet searches and public record checks of any suspicious persons (like the scruffy-looking, 40-something cook or the shifty-eyed groundskeeper). Everyone will probably come up clean, but conducting research can help ease your mind!
The Counselors Are Kids, Too
You can assume that the people watching over your kid for the next several weeks are competent, capable adults, but a lot of counselors are practically children themselves!
Although some camps require their counselors to be 18 or older (and a few maintain a strict over-21 rule), many sites employ counselors as young as 16 and accept 14- and 15-year-old junior counselors.
Whoa. Kids ruling themselves, á la "Lord of the Flies?" In reality, it's perfectly safe and not at all savage. Summer camps are highly organized, and the camp's director -- who will be an actual adult -- is calling the shots. Besides, all of the counselors, regardless of their age, have been trained and perhaps certified for the job, which is more than you might be able to say about your babysitter.
The Facilities Aren't Up to Par
If you think the stinky socks and dirty gym shorts that litter your kid's room are a health hazard, then you might want to forgo sending him to summer camp.
Camps are notoriously dirty, as the facilities are usually left unattended for the majority of the year or are repurposed housing, such as old college dorms. Either way, the lighting, plumbing, cooking facilities and even the structural integrity of the buildings themselves may be lacking, so if sanitation is a concern, insist on a personal tour of the entire camp before writing any checks.
Oh, and while you're there, look out for bugs. While you can't get around critters in the woods, living and dining areas should be relatively pest-free. If they're scuttling around under the floorboards or even scurrying out in the open, that's not ideal for little bare feet.
Your Camp May Not Be Accredited
With some things, accreditation doesn't really matter. Who cares if your dog is certified by the American Kennel Club? All that's important is how much you love your pooch.
The same doesn't always go for camps. No matter how doe-eyed your kid gets when he sees a glossy brochure (canoes! archery contests! wilderness hikes!), if the camp isn't certified by the American Camp Association (ACA), you might want to look elsewhere.
Of course, there are plenty of excellent camps that aren't certified, but membership in the ACA provides peace of mind. Its governing board fully inspects member camps, all of which must comply with up to 300 safety, health and program quality standards. The ACA also partners with groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Red Cross to improve those standards.
If your child's camp of choice isn't ACA approved, it could be nothing more than a few adults winging it with several hundred kids in the woods -- regardless of what the brochures (or their counselors) have to say.
There Are No Rules About Hygiene
At most summer camps, it's usually up to the kids when -- or if -- they take showers, apply deodorant or brush their teeth. We don't even want to get into the laundry situation. Let's just say there's a good chance you'll be tossing (or burning) your kid's camp wardrobe.
It's a Real Co-ed Experience
If you're sending your kid to a co-ed camp, expect her to come back with a new understanding and appreciation of the opposite sex -- dare we say even a bit of hands-on experience?
Male-female boundaries aren't exactly enforced in many of these camps, especially with teenage campers, who aren't above sneaking off into the woods or setting up late-night rendezvous. Even if your camper is too young for that, you can at least expect that she might receive some off-the-cuff sex ed lessons from more "knowledgeable" kids, though not all the information she receives may be accurate.
The Food's Nothing to Write Home About
Regardless if you're a health nut or are just moderately concerned about what your child puts in his body, you should know that summer camp food is mostly junk. Camps serve up cheap meals that can be prepared quickly and in bulk. That means a lot of burgers and fries. Even if quality food alternatives are served, chances are kids will opt for a hot dog and chips over a grilled chicken salad.
You can also expect your child to experience a huge sugar crash once he gets home. The only things he'll likely be drinking during his time away will be soda and juice.
There's No Mission Statement or Objective
Summer camps are often like little melting pots, with children and adolescents arriving from all over the country -- or even all over the world. Socializing with a diverse body of campers will give your child a positive experience and open her mind to new ideas and cultures. That's if you pick the right camp.
Some camps are more like boarding houses for delinquents. You may be sending away your kid to gain valuable experiences, but other parents just want a few weeks away from their little hellions. Although no counselor or administrator is going to admit that about the camp's regular attendees, a little investigation can go a long way.
Ask yourself a few important questions. How expensive is the camp? It's unfortunate, but some of the most affordable camps may be frequented by children with more aberrant patterns of behavior than your child is used to. Read some online reviews. What did other children think of the camp? You can also tell a lot by the state of the camp and the attitude of its employees. If you or your child aren't treated with respect or aren't impressed by what you see, look elsewhere.
Remember, your child is going to be spending a lot of time at this place and with these people -- explore all your options before making a final decision.
The Kid-to-counselor Ratio Is Shockingly High
In overnight camps, the counselors are looking after these kids all the time. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week.
The American Camp Association (ACA) mandates that there be one counselor for every 10 campers between the ages of 15 and 17, one counselor for every eight campers between the ages of 9 and 14 and a single counselor for every six campers between the ages of 7 and 8. Those might sound like reasonable ratios, but as we've mentioned, many of these counselors are young, too. They've been trained to handle most situations, but there's no telling how a young, underpaid counselor will react at 2:00 a.m. in a cabin full of screaming 7-year-olds and an intruding poisonous snake.
Not Every Kid Enjoys Camp
Camp is great for most kids, but for a few -- often the more introverted, shy or socially ostracized children -- camp can be a living nightmare. There are countless reasons why your kid might loathe camp (from separation anxiety to a general dislike of the outdoors), and forcing him to endure a vacation that feels more like a prison sentence isn't going to make him change his mind about the situation.
Make sure to visit your child at least once during his stay, and listen to him if he begs to come home. It doesn't matter how much money the camp cost or even how much you enjoyed camp when you were a child. If your kid isn't having a good time, bring him home!
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- American Camp Association (ACA). "ACA Accreditation: What Does Accreditation Mean?" 2011. (March 26, 2011).http://www.acacamps.org/accreditation/whatdoes
- Knox, Rachel. "Questions to Ask When Researching a Summer Camp." National Association for Gifted Children. 2008. (March 26, 2010).http://www.nagc.org/index.aspx?id=1101
- Lane, Charles. "Myths about the teacher layoff crisis." The Washington Post. June 14, 2010. (March 26, 2011).http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2010/06/myths_about_the_teacher_layoff.html
- United States Department of Justice. "Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website." 2011. (March 26, 2011).http://www.nsopw.gov/Core/Portal.aspx