How to be a Good Parent While Directing Your Summer Camp

We’d never presume to tell anyone how to be a good parent, but we would direct your attention to a great conversation we had this week with two women who have lots of experience navigating parenting and family life at camp.

As sleep-away camp directors get ready for summer campers, many of you also are preparing your own family to join you at camp—which means many weeks of parenting away from home and a normal routine. Kids usually love it, but it does have its challenges.

Meet Emmy and Michele

Emmy Riley: As a child, Emmy and her three sibs attended Kanakuk Kamps every summer while her parents worked as directors. Today Emmy helps her parents by working summers at Kanakuk and taking along her own four kids for the fun. Her husband James (whom Emmy met at Kanakuk) works at home during the summer, cares for their household and pets, and visits when he can.


Michele Summerall: Michele and her two boys spend four weeks at Young Life Camps all over the country during summers when her husband Brian, Young Life Director of Ministry Strategy, is a camp speaker.


Let’s Talk Camp: You guys are my secret weapons when it comes to understanding the life of a camp director. Can you name a few things in normal life that get really hard to manage when you’re working at summer camp?

Challenge #1

“It’s difficult to keep up with relationships back home.” ­– Emmy

Emmy: This was the biggest challenge for me as a kid. It was very hard to leave school and not see or talk to anyone for months. When we showed back up at the first day of school, dynamics had changed. New friendships had formed. You felt like an outsider even with your close friends.

Let’s Talk Camp: Would it have helped for your friends back home to know you want to hear from them? Or to have friend gatherings on the calendar before and after camp as planned touchpoints?

Emmy: I absolutely think friend gatherings would help. And it still means the world to us to get a letter from a friend back home. The issue isn’t so much missing friends, which you do from time to time. But it’s navigating back into those relationships once you’re home.

Solution Summary

  • Plan dates to see friends before and after camp to help your kids maintain school connections for the coming year.
  • Give pre-addressed envelopes to school friends before you leave to encourage letter exchanges at camp.

Challenge #2

“We require lots of down time so we can fully engage.” – Michele

Michele: Some families just go, go, go at camp. But I have to protect my kids’ alone time so they’re able to engage in the things that I believe are most important about camp. But there’s also this nagging feeling that you’re missing out when you’re back at your cabin resting, and the other kids are getting closer to each other while your kid is missing out on fun things. Over the years, I’ve learned to let that go and trust that my kids will find their niche somewhere.

Another issue is the sun waking us up at the crack of dawn. I have learned to bring sheets/blankets to hang over our windows to keep my kids from waking up at 5:30 a.m. This is especially important when camp activities don’t end until midnight. That’s fine for a week as a camper, but for an extended stay, it’s not healthy.

Emmy: As for sheets over the window, yep! We did this, too! And yes, one of my biggest pet peeves now that I’m a parent at camp is how late activities go.

Solution Summary

  • Guard your kids’ early morning sleep times (and perhaps naptimes for younger kids) by hanging sheets and blankets over the windows.
  • Insist on rest for your kids if you know they need it and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.

Challenge #3

“It’s very difficult to be a married couple at camp.” – Emmy

Emmy: My brother, who also works at camp, absolutely wishes there was better marriage housing and a schedule more conducive to family life. He said it was very difficult to be a married couple at camp. One year my brother and his wife were in a tent, one year in a trailer—it’s whatever you can find.

Let’s Talk Camp: It sounds like you need conjugal visits! How do you address the lack of privacy and opportunity to connect with your spouse?

Michele: We plan date night once a week—leave camp for dinner. But there’s not a lot of time or energy for your marriage. Mostly, we grab pockets of time to catch up on the day’s news.

Emmy: When I was growing up at camp, my parents worked in separate locations. My dad was the wilderness trip leader, and my mom did the high elements. So they saw each other only in passing.

Let’s Talk Camp: Perhaps intentionality is the key? Maybe it would help to plan times alone before camp starts and for reconnecting after it ends?

Emmy: That’s a good idea! Intentionality is definitely the word for it!

Solution Summary

  • Try to get way from camp to reconnect with your spouse, even if it’s a quick dinner once a week.
  • Plan on special date nights or weekends to reconnect before and after camp season.

Challenge #4

 “Camp food is an issue.” – Michele

Michele: My kids are picky eaters. I usually make them try every meal at least once. Then I fill in the gaps by making grocery store runs and cooking family meals. I’m one of the only parents who does this.

Emmy: As kids at camp, food was a big issue for us as well. I’m not exaggerating when I say we lived on cereal, bread, and PB&Js for a complete summer. Kanakuk offers dietary meal plans now for kids with allergies—gluten-free, dairy-free, etc. But there’s no real plan for the picky eater. Luckily, we four kids were happy to eat just bread for an entire meal.

Michele: Protein is a big issue for our mental/emotional health. So I’m willing to go the extra mile to make sure my kids have protein.

Emmy: I love that you go the extra mile! I do meals for my kids differently than my mom did at camp, but I understand why she decided it wasn’t a battle worth fighting with us. When we were growing up at camp, the nearest grocery store was an hour away, and she worked from dawn to dusk. We were no worse for the wear, but I make sure my kids get a full meal whenever possible.

Michele: Learning to go with the flow is a lifelong benefit. Your mom is to be applauded!

Emmy: So true! I loved my life as a K-kid (what they called directors’ kids at Kanakuk). And my mom did an amazing job and still does. I could not be more thankful for her!

Let’s Talk Camp: You have to parent in a totally different environment for weeks at a time, plus meet the demands of working at camp. Not easy! You guys are getting to the heart of these challenges.

Emmy: It’s fun to see a different approach to navigating the same issues.

Michele: The big picture is there is no one way to parent at camp—or in life for that matter.

Solution Summary

  • You know what your kids need in meals and nutrition, so avoid comparing yourself to other parents and the way they do camp with their kids.
  • That being said, try to embrace a more relaxed approach to your usual routines as much as possible. If your kids have a meltdown, you might tweak your approach, but don’t beat yourself up.

We’d love for you to chime in on this conversation! Let us know the solutions you’ve found to managing family life at camp. We wish you all a wonderful summer!


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About Gina Calvert

Gina Calvert is the Senior Marketing Writer for ACTIVE Network, providing marketing and business resources for active lifestyle organizations across a range of markets, including government, nonprofits, camps, schools and endurance events, for more than six years.