January 11, 2011

The Power of Camp

“You’re sending Sophia to camp for TWO WEEKS?”

Shock is a common response parents get when discussing sending their child to sleep-away camp. They often face criticism for allowing their young child out from under their direct supervision. In this over-involved parenting age, the thought of allowing an eight year old to go away to camp for two weeks is incomprehensible to many parents. What “non-camp” parents don’t understand
is that allowing your child to have a camp experience is a gift that has positive, life-long benefits beyond learning how to sail or rock climb. Camp parents aren’t bad parents who “send their children away.” They are parents who see the value in letting their children have an experience that enriches their childhood.

Parents who went to traditional summer camps as children themselves are much more likely to send their children to camp compared to other parents. Many of these parents still keep in touch with camp friends and worked as camp counselors during college. They understand the life-long benefits they gained from their camp experiences and want the same thing for their kids. Experienced camp parents need not read further. This article is for parents who want to know why many families choose to send their children to sleep away camp.

A Taste of Independence

Being super-involved with our children and always being in constant communication with them has become something modern parents brag about. But when do we start letting go and giving our kids a chance to feel independent from us? With cell phones attached at our (and their) hips, our children are in constant communication with us. Forgot their lunch? A friend says something mean? Stubbed their toe? We know right away and swoop in to rescue them.

Intuitively, we know that it’s better to let our kids deal with consequences from their mistakes, face some problems on their own, and get through the day without us, but it’s SO HARD to let them. We feel fortunate to have a close relationship with our child and we don’t want to jeopardize that relationship by turning off our phone or saying “no.” It’s difficult to let them face a problem or bad day at school on their own. Unfortunately, we are setting our kids up for much more difficulty later in life if we don’t start letting them have some independence when they are younger.

Camp experiences at younger ages may help children adjust to later independent experiences, including college. A Stanford Magazine (May/June, 2009) article called “Students on the Edge” published results of research on the psychological health of current University students:
“Unlike previous generations, young people often speak with their parents several times a day. And while family closeness is usually a positive force, it can come with a downside. Administrators at Stanford and elsewhere describe a level of parental involvement that often limits choices and has altered the cultural norms of college life. That includes parents who insist on choosing their child’s area of study and then show up to negotiate his or her salary after graduation.”

Sleep away camps, especially those that do not allow cell phones and phone calls, offer a great opportunity for kids to develop independence in a supportive, safe setting away from their parents. Some parents today think that it’s a comforting thought that their child may end up living with them, or at least calling every day, well into adulthood. Most of us know, however, that when you truly love your children and want the best for them, you need to give them more freedom, responsibilities, and independence as they grow through their different stages of childhood and into adulthood.

These words of a first-time sleep away camp parent are especially poignant:
“My shy, quiet nine year old went to camp not knowing a soul. Two weeks later, my daughter came home transformed. She blossomed, she made friends, learned a multitude of activities, felt safe, loved, confident, and happy, really happy. As hard as it was on me, it was all worth it for her. I know this is the single best thing I have ever done for her.”

First time camp experiences are much harder on parents than they are on kids. The relief parents feel when they see their child after a camp stay is palpable, and the amazement at their child’s growth is an equally strong emotion. The independence kids experience at camp can open their eyes to many new dreams and opportunities, and may lead to them feeling more confident about pursuing schools, travels, and adventures further from home. Although it’s hard to let kids go, the words of singer Mark Harris sum up what most parents dream of for their children:
“It’s not living if you don’t reach for the sky. I’ll have tears as you take off, but I’ll cheer you as you fly.”

Kids Don’t Learn this at School

So much of our focus as parents is on making sure our children get a good education, but schools can’t equip our kids with all of the skills they need to be happy, successful adults. Besides independence, camps also focus on modeling and teaching other important life skills.
Here are some of the life skills campers say they learn at camp:

“I learned…
… to be responsible.”
…I could do more than I thought, and I grew up a lot in two weeks.”
…better leadership skills.”
…different ways to get along with other campers.”
…Believe in yourself. And try everything.”
…how to interact with people better.”
…to set a goal and achieve it.”
…to face my fears and to just always have a good time.”
…Approach someone. Don’t wait for them to approach you.”
…to work as a team.”
…to enjoy the present, instead of worrying about the future.”
…when you voice an opinion, people listen.
…what good friends are.”
…you never back down, and try your hardest.”
…if you stay positive, you’ll have fun no matter what you do.”

There are so many skills and values we teach our kids, but some are best learned hands-on, living and playing with others. Camp offers the unique opportunity to learn and practice skills that can improve the quality of our kids’ lives.

Experience Nature: Fighting NDD and EA

“Nature Deficit Disorder” (NDD), coined by Richard Louv, and “Electronics Addiction” (EA - coined by yours truly and others) can both be combated by a camp experience. When was the last time your kid hiked through the woods or got a mosquito bite? For that matter, when was the last time your child took out their headphones or turned off their cell phone? In Lenore Skenazy’s book, Free Range Kids, she elaborates on how we have somehow skewed parenting into something resembling packing our kids in bubble wrap and avoiding all experiences in order to avoid any negative ones. We live in fear of all the “what ifs” and end up not allowing our children any freedom. Electronics fill in the gap nicely. In Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, he talks about what our kids are missing out on from not being exposed to nature. He coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to refer to a generation of kids who may never experience nature because it’s too “scary” or foreign to them. He predicts they will grow into adults who prefer staying inside with their TVs, computers, and other electronics.

Most camps have “electronics free” policies and don’t allow campers to bring electronic games, cell phones, computers, etc. While disconnecting from technology, campers learn to relate better to other people, face to face, without headphones on or a cell phone in hand. This break from electronics is great for kids, as they quickly learn that they can get by without them. In this technology-crazed world, camp is one of the few remaining bastions of freedom from electronics.

Gone are the days when kids spent hours playing unsupervised in the fresh air, making up games, finding bugs, and just being kids. Instead, childhood activities are mostly structured and adult-supervised. Play dates are organized by parents and almost never spontaneous. While camp activities are supervised, kids still get an enormous amount of exposure to nature, a sense of freedom, and a chance to make new friends. For many first-time campers, camp is their first chance to sleep outdoors, gain a love for recreational activities ranging from archery to sailing, and see what the stars look like away from city lights. The love and respect for nature that camp experiences foster in our kids may ensure that they grow up to be adults who care what happens to their world. And who get off their computers and go outside once in a while.

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