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Homesick (and yet) Happy in China

A camp director remembers what it is like to be having a great time in a new place, and yet also yearn for home

It’s been many years since I was a new camper, so while I can understand the challenges a homesick camper is going through, it has been almost 3 decades since I felt it myself. This past week while on a business trip in China I was suddenly reminded of what it can feel like. 


I really was on the adventure of a lifetime. Almost 7,000 miles from home, I found myself in the heart of Beijing’s financial district at its first-ever summer camp conference. There was excitement all around, meeting and networking with camp professionals from all over the world. That morning, at the start of the conference, we had seen an amazing display of Zen archery, and then heard a keynote address from the Principal of one of Beijing’s most impressive school districts. The day before David Walsh (K&E’s program director) and I had been fortunate enough to walk along the Great Wall of China, and eat in an ancient hole-in-the-wall Mongolian BBQ restaurant where few Westerners had ever been before.

And yet, as I walked back to my hotel room, my mood began to drop precipitously. Closing the door behind me, I slumped down onto my bed and realized how much I missed aspects of home. I pulled out my Iphone and thumbed through my favorite pictures of my kids and my wife. Not surprisingly, this only made me sadder. I was desperate to speak with them, but because of the time zone difference it was 5:30am back home. So I lay on my bed and sulked. 

Thankfully, after just a few minutes, my phone buzzed with a message from a colleague at the conference. “Come join us if you are free. We are hanging out before dinner starts”. I decided to follow the advice I have given 1,000 home sick campers I have worked with over the years. Though I really didn’t want to, I left my room in the hopes of distracting myself from my how I negative and lonely I felt. And as has so often been the case, within minutes of re-joining the group I was laughing, having a great time, and had totally forgotten about the funk I had been in.

An hour later I found myself sitting at dinner across from noted psychologist and child development expert Michael Thompson. Michael is recognized throughout the world as a child development expert, and our summer camp’s consulting child psychologist. Coincidentally, Michael published a book a few years ago about the power of the overnight summer camp experience titled Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow. In it, he outlines why it is so important for children to have the experience of being away from home — even if they experience occasional bouts of homesickness. As he so eloquently wrote:

In an age when it’s the rare child who walks to school on his own, the thought of sending your “little ones” off to sleep-away camp can be overwhelming—for you and for them. But a parent’s first instinct—to shelter their offspring above all else—actually deprives children of the major developmental milestones that occur through letting them go—and watching them come back transformed.
…Camp ushers your children into a thrilling environment—an electronics-free zone, a multigenerational community, meaningful daily rituals like group meals and cabin clean-up, and a place where time simply slows down. In the buggy woods, icy swims, campfire sing-alongs, and daring adventures, children have emotionally significant and character-building experiences. They often grow in ways that surprise even themselves.

And yet, Dr. Thompson acknowledges that while time away from home can be incredibly exciting and fulfilling, and still leave children with moments of self-doubt, missing home, and outright sadness. But as a developmental psychologist, he argues that this is exactly why summer camp is so important for children: by processing these feelings in a community that feels physically and emotionally safe, children learn how to process complex emotions, which leads to becoming a more independent, resilient, and self-aware person. This is, of course, what we all want for our children as they grow and eventually prepare to leave the comforts of our homes.


Looking back on my adventure in China, this night of internal turmoil ended up being my single best evening in Beijing. That was no accident. Once I was in a place to confront my momentary challenge I found myself even more ready for new and exciting experiences. That evening I had a fabulous dinner with business associates, saw an amazing musical performance, took part in a traditional tea ceremony, and then sang karaoke for the first time ever with some of my new friends in China.  Just as it is with home sick campers, the cure for my sudden malaise was not to go home or make a phone call to those that I missed, but to further engage with those around me. 

I woke up the next morning thrilled to still be in Beijing, and excited that the start of Camp was only 75 days away. 75 days until we could once again be helping our very happy campers work through their temporary, occasional moments of homesickness. As the start of the summer draws closer I am excited to have this sudden reminder of what it can be like to be a camper. 

Camps Kenwood and Evergreen is a brother-sister summer camp in New Hampshire. Each summer we help prepare campers for lives of independence, resilience and healthy risk taking.

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