Preventing Homesickness at Camp: The Refuah Before the Makkah | 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


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.


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-

Homesickness at Camp: The Refuah Before the Makkah / 157

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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


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.

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

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).

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  1. I see that the article was published in 2000… 23 years later -and “a fact of Torah life in America” in the current economy became a luxury for many people. Instead of doing all this stuff and preparing kids for separation anxiety, many parents tell their children that sleepaway camp is not necessity, and they can equally stay in Lakewood and work (as an option). At least this is what my friends are doing, because they cannot afford the cost of sleepaway camps. I am not going into major debt to send my kids to 3-5k camp (that lasts less than 4 weeks per half), and pick them up a week later, because “a kid wasnt ready”. This article is too outdated.

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