So, what's the big deal? Why do so many find camp to be a critical part of every summer, especially for kids with special needs? Here are just a few of the benefits, not only for our children, but for us as parents:
- Independence grows during time apart from parents. Try as we might, our mere presence can sometimes hinder our children. When we are nearby, our kids too easily rely upon us and hesitate to spread their wings. Whether it be day camp or a week away from home, camp stretches participants, especially in critical areas of independence.
- Our children are more receptive to learning new life skills from someone other than their parents. Again, we as parents can try to teach our children independent living skills, whether it be in personal medical care or just basic daily activities, but they often resist us. At camp, it becomes "cool" to learn the name of their disorder, to discover what to do for themselves in an emergency, to train to self-administer therapies, and to achieve mature habits of daily living. Goals are set, and rewards are given. Mixed in with the fun, this learning can be far more palatable to our kids than when we parents try to teach these things at home.
- Normalizing of diff-abilities occurs when children are around similar peers. Every human heart wants to know that they are not alone. It is good for our children's mental health, confidence, and self-perception to be around other kids who are just like them. Peer-to-peer learning takes place as children learn how others with a similar diagnosis cope and press on. Suddenly, our sons and daughters discover they are not so "strange", and that there are others in the world who also live with these challenges.
- Kids develop new social skills and new friendships at camp. As stated with normalizing abilities, peer learning takes place. Having to connect to others out of necessity can draw our children out of their shell. Activities that require teamwork and strict rules on social behavior also aid our kids' development. During that social bonding, new friendships are formed. And so many of those friendships last far beyond camp. I even know married couples who first met at camp!
- Children experience things at camp they would never otherwise have the opportunity to encounter. It might be as simple as an overnight away from parents, which rarely occurs, or taking risks in a controlled environment that they wouldn't otherwise take. From rock wall climbing to zip line riding, camp affords our children experiences that we would never be able to give them on our own. Once camp has ended, my own children have even come home and amused us with the silly camp songs they have learned. It is a joy to see a whole new world opened up to them.
- Camp allows time for refreshment and recalibration. Face it, as much as we love our children, summer can get tough having to parent without any break. When we have loved ones at day camp, it gives us a little time to catch our breath without constant demands being put on us. When our kids are away for an overnight camp, we can regroup, catch up on sleep, get a much-needed project done or just feel relief from the absence of caregiver duties. Camp is definitely a gift for both our children AND ourselves!
- We find an opportunity to connect with other parents who have kids just like ours. Just like our children, we parents want to know that we are not alone in our journey. Seeing the same parents every year at camp can help us develop friendships with them. I can't tell you the number of times I've been stuck in line waiting to pick up medications where I've had the opportunity to chat with others who are walking the same journey as I am. These encounters can give us new and lasting support.
- Parents are given the gift of watching their child blossom in new ways. When we see our child execute that new life skill or introduce us to a new camp friend it can make our heart swell with joyful pride. It is a heartwarming surprise to see a child who was otherwise feeling isolated finally connecting with others. And what happiness we experience when we discover that our child has overcome a difficult challenge while they were at camp! This surely makes picking our child up even more celebratory!
- Relief and peace of mind wash over us when we realize that our child is okay without us. One of the greatest anxieties of parenting a child with special needs can be looking to the future. Parents notoriously wonder how their child will survive or thrive without them. The independent time at camp can reassure us that, given the right environment, people and planning, our kids will be okay without us. That reassurance gives us a peace and perspective we wouldn't have otherwise encountered.
- Camp gives us the opportunity to like our child again. So many parents feel guilty that summer is a nerve-wracking time for their family. With the comfort of our regular schedule removed, our household can be full of moodiness, bad behavior or just simply getting on one another's nerves. Time apart from our kids can afford all of us to actually like each other again. As the old adage says, "Distance makes the heart grow fonder."
PRAY: Father God, all good things come from You. Thank You for the gift of camp and all its benefits. Continue to grow me and my child into the people You desire us to be. Keep us all safe, and help us to finish these summer months well.
~ Barbara Dittrich
*This post first published at Comfort In The Midst of Chaos, August 7, 2013.