The Life Cycle

I recently found myself “defending” the position of parents today whose job it has become, in our post-9/11 environment, to protect their children from the outside world (anthropologist and author Mary Pipher [“Reviving Ophelia”] pointed that out to me when she explained that it used to be the job of parents to expose their children to the outside world).

I was thinking about how helicopter parents – hovering overhead – have morphed into snowplow parents – on the ground, smoothing out the path – and it occurred to me that this metamorphosis is not unlike the life cycle of the butterfly, especially when considered in the context of our society.

A quick science lesson: every butterfly begins its life as an egg. When it first hatches from its egg, it is a very small caterpillar which has one job only – to eat! It faces a challenge, however, in that its skin cannot keep pace with its growth, and so it grows a new skin underneath the outer skin. This process of shedding the outer skin is called molting, and it is repeated four times; the fifth time it goes through the cycle of eating, growing, and molting, however, its new skin forms the outer shell of the chrysalis, during which time the body of the caterpillar is transforming into an adult butterfly. Once its wings are developed (approximately two weeks later), it emerges as a butterfly, although it cannot fly until its wings dry and it exercises flight muscles.

Is it any wonder that parents face a daunting challenge when they are expected to resist their instinctive urge to rescue their hungry caterpillars along life’s path?!

To that rhetorical question, I respond: we need to try not to interfere with nature! Rather, we can insulate our children, leaving plenty of room for growing and spreading of wings, by giving them safe places in which to develop. That brings me to the cocoon of camp (the chrysalis’ counterpart for the moth), that silken “house” that is built to cushion children from the inevitable hardships of the outside world.

It’s just too perfect a metaphor to ignore. Camp changes children. We know that both anecdotally and from outcomes research conducted by Philliber Research in collaboration with the American Camp Association. Specifically, campers said, “Camp helped me make new friends… get to know kids who are different from me… feel good about myself… and do things I was afraid to do at first.” Parents observed, “At camp, my child gained self-confidence… continues to participate in the activities he or she learned at camp… and remains in contact with friends made at camp.”

It’s what I often refer to as the 3 R’s of camp: responsibility, respect, and resilience. And there’s a fourth one, too – resourcefulness. With these attributes, which are best developed through supports and opportunities of a community created expressly for them, our children will transform into successful adults. But there are no shortcuts; we cannot bypass a stage of the life cycle; they must endure the arduous process of growing up by learning to navigate the world on their own – making decisions and sometimes mistakes, using their brains to solve problems, and even losing out on missed opportunities.

“The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle graphically narrates (yes, there are chomped holes in the book!) the caterpillar turning into a butterfly by crawling on the floor and eating, spinning into a cocoon (poetic license, I guess!), and popping out with fluttering wings.
If you are feeling especially inspired by this metaphor, you could even order caterpillars online and observe the process first-hand, serving two potential functions: a lesson for your child and a reminder for yourself!

Tuck-in Tips

  • How are children sometimes like caterpillars?
  • Talk about a time when you handled a situation by yourself without needing a grownup’s help.
  • If you could change just one thing about yourself, what would it be?