How Letting Homesick Campers Call Home Actually Helped Them Stay (and come back!)
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Re-envisioning best practices when it comes to dealing with kids missing home
"Julie's really missing home. She wants to call her mom."
Whenever I used to hear a camp counselor share this sort of information with me, I felt despair.
I knew I could talk with them and work some of my homesickness voodoo magic. I was good with homesick campers, and I could frequently turn things around. But doubt would creep into my mind, "What if she just keeps demanding to call home? What will I do?"
You see, dealing with the campers who missed home the most just felt so bad. Here was a child plainly stating what they wanted to do, and I was doing everything in my power to make it not happen.
It was the exact opposite of everything else I was doing at camp.
So why was I doing it?
Well, I'd been told a few different things:
1) Homesick campers are more likely to go home if they talk to their parents. 2) The camper will be better off if they do their best to make it through the week.
Armed with these two "facts," I set out to accomplish the goal of helping the camper make it through the week. I'd listen to them, hear where they were coming from, and try to help them to find peace in being at camp. Point out the fun they were having, promise to offer activities they would love. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. I'd try again, and do everything in my power to avoid the dreaded call home.
If things were pushed to the breaking point, I'd give in and make the call. Parents would want to talk to their children. And, like clockwork, they'd come pick them up. All of my worst fears would come to life, and the child's camp story would wink out of existence.
How a camper taught me a new way to deal with calls home
As usual, I wind up learning as much or more from the summer campers as they wind up learning from me.
It was the third week of my first summer as an executive director, and I had just gotten back to my house at around 10 PM. My cell phone buzzed with life, and I looked down. My heart sank. A call from a counselor.
"Hey," I said. "What's up?"
"[Camper name - let's call him Charles] is crying. He says he wants to call his mom. He wants to go home."
I grit my teeth. I had told the counselors to not bring homesickness issues to me on the first night, because that'd make it more likely that camper would go home. We wouldn't be able to string him along much further after dealing with me - I had the keys that could unlock his desires to go home.
But this new counselor had already said he'd get me, so I had to go.
I drove back down to camp, and met with the camper. He demanded to call home.
I explained why we don't allow calls home - "We just don't have the capacity to allow everyone to call home, and in the spirit of fairness, we can't make an exception here, or I'd have a line outside my office every day of people making phone calls."
"So everything you said at the camp fire about wanting to make this the best week of our life was BULLSHIT, I guess!" he yelled, angrily.
"No, it's just that we want you to have the best week possible, and it is usually best if campers don't call home on the first night," I started, in a practiced tone.
He cut in. "You said that the whole point of this camp was that you trusted us to make decisions for ourselves, and now you think you know what's best for me! You don't!" He put his head between his legs.
I thought for a solid minute while he cried.
I tapped him on the shoulder. He looked up, and I was holding out my phone. "You're right," I said. "Why don't you call home?"
He did. He went home that night. Not much of a success story, I know.
Coaching parents through early calls home
After this happened, I spoke to my leadership team about the event. I brought up Charles' idea - what if we just let campers call home when they asked? As dyed in the wool camp folks, we were all very hesitant about the idea. We knew all the reasons we shouldn't do it. But one reason stuck out as particularly valid - parents might be blindsided.
So, we developed a new protocol. When campers asked to call home, we'd pause the conversation.
We'd call home, talk to parents right away, and see what they wanted to do. Most parents wanted to talk to their kids, but also wanted their kids to try and stay for the whole week. Knowing that they had these goals in mind, we'd coach them through how that conversation could go.
We didn't perfect this process right away, but eventually, we had success pointing out the following:
1) Ways the parents could encourage their kids to stay without making them feel bad for missing home. 2) What, specifically, the camper was upset or concerned about. If they were worried about their sick brother, for instance, the parents could highlight that the brother was doing better. 3) Many times, campers are worried that their parents miss THEM (usually due to overly emotional letters from home). Assuring campers that they are missed and loved, but that everyone is doing fine, can really help. 4) We could arrange for future calls and check-ins if that would help their child feel more secure. 5) Ultimately, just knowing that they could go home is enough for many campers to be willing to give a longer stay a try. Saying something like, "We talked about how going to camp was a big investment. We'd love for you to try to stay another night (or two, or whatever), but it's up to you," has worked to persuade many campers to give additional days or nights a try.
After our coaching call, we'd connect them with their children, and hope for the best.
How early calls home changed everything
So, after my first initial failure with Charles, I tried to prepare myself a little better for the next time this happened.
Sparing you the entire play by play, I'll just share that it went a whole lot better. And so did the times after that. Why?
Well, we noticed that something fundamentally changed when kids could see that we didn't want to be a barrier between them and their plainly stated desires.
When campers communicate that they want to call home, we pause the conversation, and let them know that we'll reach out to their parents to talk to them. We let them know that, of course, we want what's best for them - and that we trust their judgment in that regard (thanks for the reminder, Charles).
We coach their parents through the impending call, and then connect them as quickly as we can.
What changed? Only everything.
First of all, we found that parents really liked being consulted in this way. Many parents' biggest fear in sending kids to camp is that they won't hear from camp if something is going poorly. They appreciated being trusted as partners during the week of camp, and they never had to feel the moment of betrayal when they first hear their kid say, "I was asking to call you all week!" As a trust builder, this was huge.
Second, we saw that the number of kids who went home early for homesickness started to decline.
We believe that, before we adopted our new protocol, calls home were leading to campers going home because we had spent so much time dissuading campers from leaving. When they finally got their parents on the phone, they knew it might be their only chance to get the thing they were plainly asking for, and they made the most of it.
But when a call home was promptly given? The stakes seemed a lot lower. We were open about wanting to support them, and about wanting to support their family in making whatever decision was best for them. When they felt like they were in control, most campers were a lot more willing to keep trying.
And we didn't need to distract them, or string them along, or assume that we knew what was best for them.
Even crazier? We started to see an increase in the number of campers that would return the following summer even after wanting to go home during the previous summer. And we even started retaining campers who DID go home early. I can vividly remember a female camper who had left on the second day of her previous session triumphantly greeting me at the registration desk, saying, "This year I'm going to try and make it until Thursday!" I gave her a high five, and thanked her so much for giving us another chance.
What have we got to lose?
The biggest realization I had when it came to how was I was dealing with campers who wanted to call home was that most of my decision-making was driven by fear. Fear that the camper would go home. Fear that the parents would be mad. Fear that the homesickness would be "contagious." Fear that it made me a bad camp director.
But in reality? Even at the very best summer camps, kids want to call home sometimes.
When we honored that feeling and acted upon their wishes, we saw that they'd frequently give us another shot. And not because their parents made them, or because we made them forget their feelings momentarily. Because they chose to.
And being chosen feels damned good.
Being a Camp Director Doesn't Have to Be Lonely
While we might not feel the need to call our mommies every day, being a camp director can still be pretty lonely some times. It's why we created Go Camp Pro. Our community of camp professionals is talking about the nitty-gritty of being a camp director inside of our private discussion group every day, and helping one another out in myriad ways.
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