The Case for Summer Camp
In this economically-challenged era of forced choice, I can see where parents might question whether camp is really essential. We’ve all heard the benchmark measures: experiential education, physical activity, support and encouragement, healthy nutrition…. significant, matchless, and valuable criteria for sure. But there’s more – so much more – that speaks to the development of happy and successful children.
The camp experience centers on a growth mindset, where effort is the cog in the wheel of triumph, suggests researcher Carol Dweck. In contrast, the school environment is centered on a fixed mindset. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what’s different at camp: the camp culture celebrates the “I can try” mentality. “I can’t do it…yet” instead of “I can’t do it.”
There are no grades, no permanent record to interfere with the feat of effort to master achievement. The experts agree that there is no stronger predictor of happiness than “how robust and positive a child’s village is” - and camp builds that village, fostering intergenerational relationships with peers and role models alike.
Research confirms that the decline of free play itself has caused a waning in sense of control, as well as a rise in anxiety and depression. Peter Gray of Psychology Today explains, “By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own… we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and various other mental disorders.”
Extrinsic goals (rooted in other people’s judgments) rather than intrinsic goals (centered on one’s own development as a person) indicate a shift towards materialism in our culture. Studies show that children today feel that happiness depends on good looks, popularity, and material good. Camp, however, is the best demonstration of equality and moral order, because children learn that they are part of something bigger than themselves, that they can solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in the pursuit of their own interests, all while being part of a non-judgmental community that encourages an attitude of personal best.
Gray actually attributes the increase in anxiety and depression to the increased weight given to school! If you accept that hypothesis, then you can see why camp is the perfect antidote to the fixed mindset syndrome.
Dr. Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center has some great questions that parents can ask their children in order to foster a growth mindset. She suggests:
- Model the growth mindset yourself by finding opportunities to tell your children about a time when you didn’t know the answer to a question.
- Ask questions about their opportunities for learning and growth in the coming day.
- Make sure to ask kids about topics other than academics or sports.
- Talk to kids about their heroes and role models.
Two of my favorite questions to ask campers (which not only advances a growth mindset but also provoke informative answers!) are:
- What was your favorite activity today?
- What are you looking forward to tomorrow?
If the idea of a growth mindset, promoting motivation and productivity, resonates with you – and you agree that social connections are paramount – I have two things to recommend: make camp a financial priority and read Christine Carter’s new book, “Raising Happiness.”
Kids are Not Miniature Adults
“…Cleared for take-off… Adios amigos.” Well, I couldn’t have orchestrated a better example of blurred parenting boundaries if I tried! It was the Today Show lead, as a matter of fact; even an 8.8 earthquake took second billing to the travesty that occurred a few weeks ago in the JFK Airport control tower, when Controller Duffy decided it was cute for his children to instruct pilots on their take-off directives.
It’s not that the passengers were in danger, because we all realize that these “adorable children” were parroting their father’s commands; rather, it is the hubris and subsequent suspension of authority when it comes to their children, that sometimes envelopes parents who are smitten with the self-esteem bug – or should I say self-esteemia. An 8-year-old should not feel qualified or competent to direct air traffic. Period.
Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free-Range Kids” (both the book and the blog), cautions: “Free Range does not mean free-wheeling. Or God forbid – free-falling.”
Let’s use this abuse of power as a life lesson. Children are not miniature adults. They are kids. And they need to be playing and learning. They need to find out how to be productive, to feel connected, and to ultimately acquire the skills to navigate on their own. Those are the criteria of youth development, not the job qualifications of an air traffic controller! They sure don’t need to be navigating a plane with hundreds of passengers aboard, since they are developmentally incapable of navigating on their own at this age!
What’s most alarming, however, is not the lapse in judgment on the part of the air traffic controller-dad, but rather the nonchalant acceptance by the pilot dads and moms, as well as some passenger-parents! “Wish I could bring my kid to work,” quipped one. And if he were a surgeon?! Or a patient?!
Here’s the point: kids don’t want that much power! It is scary for them. They want their parents to be in charge and to guide them on the path toward adulthood. There is no good outcome when parents think they can catapult their children into the world of adults, not to mention down the runway. All they are doing is amusing – and indulging – themselves!
Let them be kids. Let them play. Play is the work of childhood, said Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fame, a widely acknowledged truth. The work of childhood certainly isn’t directing aircraft on one of the busiest runways in the world.
This was a huge breach of “Bring Your Child to Work Day.” Let the fallout be a concrete reminder to us as parents that children have to travel the runway to adulthood. There are no cards of “Chance,” as in Monopoly, where you pass “Go” and collect $200!
These children could have gone to work with Dad on that designated February day and watched, with utmost respect and awe, as he commanded air traffic. They didn’t need to literally walk in his shoes in order to understand what the job entailed. They should learn responsibility and resourcefulness and resilience at summer camp, not in the control tower. And they could aspire to one day earn the capability to sit in his chair.
It wasn’t cute. It was a wake-up call to helicopter parents everywhere. Don’t let them “fly” or direct others to fly until they are grown up!
Questions are Magic
As a camp director who has worked with children at summer camp for 30 years, I’ve known intuitively and anecdotally what I heard last week at a keynote address of the Association of Independent Camps at the American Camp Association National Conference. Dr. Foster Cline, co-author of “Parenting With Love and Logic,” topped the hit parade of advice for parents who want to raise responsible, resilient, and respectful children. I listened intently as he distilled his entire approach to asking the right questions, using the appropriate tone, and disengaging from a problem that belongs to the child and not to the parent. The bottom line? “I love you too much to argue.”
My favorite question has become my own mantra in the week since I’ve returned from Denver, and it is effective even between adults: “So how’s that going for you?” Closely related to the nonjudgmental statement, “Good luck with that.” (The trick here is to say it without any hint of sarcasm; good luck with that!).
I assume that any parent who is reading this blog has a shared vision: take control of the home in loving ways. That said, allow me to elaborate on some of these amazing techniques. “What do you think will happen if…?” “Why are you telling me this?” “How are you intending to solve that problem?”
The best set of questions are the ones that ask the child to figure out the consequences or the outcome, especially when you aren’t so sure of the upshot yourself! From my experience, I can assure you that often what the child comes up with is more pertinent and more stringent than what you might choose! Try some of these: “And what am I expecting right now?” “What do you think I’m thinking right now?” “What do you think is an appropriate consequence for your mistake?” You’ll be enlightened by the answers!
And speaking of mistakes, change your filter. The philosophy of the Love and Logic Institute teaches parents how to hold their children accountable in a way that locks in “empathy, love, and understanding.” It is rooted in the undeniable reality that mistakes are how children learn. Best question in the world, reveals Cline, is, “What have you learned from this?” Another is, “Can you tell me your strategy for helping….?”
Self-confidence, you see, is acquired through struggle and achievement. So don’t rescue your child, or you will preclude him from developing his own internal voice which says, “I wonder how much pain I’m going to cause for myself with my next decision?”
Use empathy, advises Cline, to validate feelings. Master the one-liner: “That’s so sad.” “Nice try.” “Thanks for sharing your thoughts.” “What a bummer.” In essence, his guidance is, “Go brain dead!”
And make sure you remember whose problem it is you are dealing with! Counselors do it all the time – “If I see you behaving in a way that would stop your leadership potential, I’ll be honest with you.” “Here are my hopes for you.” “The way I work is….”
These are the steps to responsibility – pure questions without accusations, Cline summarizes. “What are you feeling?” “What was the choice you made?” “What are your thoughts now?” “Would you like to hear how others have handled it?” “What do you think you’ll do next time?” “How do you think that will work out for you?” And the classic, my very favorite, “Good luck with that.”
Oh, and one more thing, Cline suggests. Don’t feel that you have to come up with a consequence on the spot. Give your child a chance to ruminate on some of the possibilities while you take the time to cool down and reflect on a punishment that is logical and natural, not punitive and vindictive. Remember, it’s about the lesson, not retribution.
Helicopter parents, Cline opines, end up frustrated and with hostile, dependent children who can become resentful and rebellious. Rescue missions, for which both helicopters and helicopter parents are known, often end up with demands such as, “You’re going to have to….” Instead, keep your sense of humor (“I tried that years ago.”) And, above all, don’t take it personally. Think about acceptance without approval. Who owns the problem? Whose idea was this?
Your goal, the psychiatrist asserts and I have evidenced, is to get kids to lecture themselves!! It’s a wonderful tool that carries a lifelong lesson.
Simple modifications in our approach to raising children can make us significantly better parents and our children substantially happier and more successful. Two sea-change books of Dr. Spock proportions, spanning 25 years, are among the works that help tell the story: “Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ” by Daniel Goleman and “Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.
First Goleman: IQ was a number that used to predict a child’s success as an adult. It was a bullseye along the continuum of educational attainment that was firmly fixed as a measurement of achievement. But that was the 20th century. And IQ has become less important since the millenium, as we increasingly become aware that emotional intelligence – or EQ – is a far better indicator of human success.
Bronson and Merryman address the inverse power of praise (“Sure, he’s special. But new research suggests if you tell him that, you’ll ruin him. It’s a neurobiological fact.”)
We are not, as it turns out, wired for greatness from birth. It seems that our achievement-oriented culture can mislead us. Christine Carter from the Science for Raising Happy Kids, explains, “We buy into the importance of having our children labeled as gifted early in life; we get carried away trying to pack too many activities into our kids’ lives… we spend billions of dollars on gimmicky videos hoping to give our kids an academic edge.”
Ironically, the markers of success are the softer skills, such as delaying gratification, impulse control, resilience, and empathy for others. There are no standardized tests to measure these emotional competencies. Yet studies confirm that children who learn to think for themselves, make good choices, and bounce back from adversity thrive in the work place as well as in their overall happiness quotient.
Self-awareness, it turns out, is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence, and emotional intelligence is shaped by experience. Survival skills are the mainstay in the backpack of life’s perils.
There’s the now-famous research study of the four-year-old and the marshmallow. The researcher explains: “You can have this marshmallow right now. But if you wait while I run an errand, you can have two marshmallows when I get back.” And he leaves the room. Some children take the treat right away, while others find creative ways to resist the temptation. It turns out that those who were able to delay gratification grew up better adjusted, more confident, and more competent teenagers. There’s more: when some of the students took the SATs years later, the ones who had held out longer scored an average of 210 points higher.
The “Nurture Shock” authors examined a set of positive emotions they dubbed “Supertraits:” resilience, gratitude, honesty, empathy, and fairness. Their theory: “If we could sufficiently arm children with Supertraits such as these, we hoped that problems would bounce off them just as easily as bullets bounced off Superman.”
Enter summer camp. Or call it a summer learning environment. Whatever the nomenclature, it’s the best place on earth for children to learn to think for themselves, where they can don their invisible cape That’s because the camp community is designed with intentionality – to help children learn the social skills they need, to have positive role models, to demonstrate democracy and moral order, to provide supports and opportunities for children to practice growing up.
We’re talking about how children learn – not about academic accomplishment. We need a galvanized effort with all out-of-school-time organizations, an anthem of sorts that seeks to layer emotional intelligence on cognitive intelligence, thereby producing a person’s general intelligence. And parents need to be part of the chorus.
So, readers, I say, go for it! Teach your children to cope, to problem-solve, to gain stress tolerance and impulse control. Let them make their own choices and bear the consequences of their decisions. Help them build their self-confidence, and don’t worry so much about their self-esteem. Resist the alarmist framing of so-called experts who inadvertently persuade you to tutor your 4-year-old who doesn’t know every letter of the alphabet yet. Learning doesn’t all happen in school.
Education and school are not synonymous. We can nurture the power of the heart, while we have less control over the destiny of the brain.
Overparenting – Can You Resist its Forces?
Overparenting: It’s not a new topic for me, but it certainly is a favorite one! I think that’s because I was guilty of it in its earliest and more benign form more than three decades ago – long before the term was coined or equipment such as baby kneepads or “Hi Mom” webcams were invented.
It’s easy enough to fall into the trap of viewing parenting as a type of product development, a 21st century phenomena that sort of crept up on us because of our best intentions! In part, that’s because 30 years ago, it was the job of parents to expose their children to the outside world, and today it is their job to protect them from it, explains anthropologist Mary Pipher.
“Fear is a kind of parenting fungus: invisible, insidious, perfectly designed to decompose your peace of mind,” muses Nancy Gibbs, a Time Magazine columnist. And that fear is doubled-edged: we’re talking fear of failure as well as of physical danger.
The culprits, I believe, from anecdotal evidence, are also two-sided: post 9/11 angst in conjunction with technologies, such as cell phones and texting, that are conducive to a parent-child tether. I didn’t have to contend with either of these, which is why I think my overparenting tendencies fell short of the coveted obsessive category. Frankly, unless I was willing to be housebound Monday through Friday, I couldn’t know if my child had gotten sick or injured at school. I know it sounds incredible – like in the olden days before there was air – but there were no cell phones! The liberating thing about that so-called limitation was that my children learned to navigate on their own; they had to rely upon their own choices and suffer the consequences of any poor ones. I couldn’t smother them if I wanted to. Today, with the best of intentions, parents are dodging the snowballs of life for their kids, rendering those children risk-averse and incapable of fending for themselves.
I’ve discussed this phenomenon before – snowplow parents says Hana Estroff Marano in “A Nation of Wimps” – who figuratively drive their snow removal SUVs down the road to clear the path of any snowbanks or other obstacles. The problem, of course, is that their children don’t have the opportunities to build resilience, because there is no adversity for them to overcome!
And there’s another issue: unintentional abdication of responsibility on the part of the parents, who in their zeal to plot a course through their child’s world, hire so-called experts to make decisions on their behalf! Enter the Pre-Baby Planner, for example, who decides how the nursery should be arranged, what should be in it, and how the prospective parents should mentally and emotionally prepare for this arrival. As Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free-Range Parenting Movement, opines, “…It’s good to remember that humans have been raising mini-humans for hundreds of thousands of years, and until now we managed to do it without hiring someone to pick out the perfect rocking chair.”
So is it any wonder that when these children go off to college they are labeled “teacups” and “crispies” because of their fragility?! The term “helicopter parent,” so designated because of the hovering penchant of parents, has rendered metaphorical stalled engines in their offspring. If you need evidence, consider the new generation of “stealth fighter parents,” who no longer float overhead constantly but “can be counted on for a surgical strike just when the high school musical is being cast or the starting lineup chosen,” observes Gibbs.
Interestingly, as a direct result of the 2009 economic downturn, families have had to make forced choice decisions about extra-curricular activities, and they have found unexpected positive outcomes of their children picking up “leisure” time for play.
(By the way, summer camp is definitely not one of those “discretionary” choices! It is a vital component of a child’s total educational package, proffering life skills that cannot be gleaned elsewhere. You could even say it’s an antidote to overparenting, because children are learning to find the way on their own in a community created for them to practice growing up.)
Mea culpa. As a mom of the ’70s who also raised her children to give them every “emotional, intellectual, and material advantage”(Motherlode’s Lisa Belkin), I get it, though I stopped short of kindergarten tutoring or calling the high school guidance counselor to protests grades. But now, as a camp professional who works with children and families and who has a different perspective on the end result of these best intentions, I advocate for “letting go.” As psychiatrist Gail Saltz observes, that is not the same as “letting down.”
Become a fan of Slow Parenting, the antithesis of overparenting. Let them learn by doing, by making mistakes, by bouncing back, by making choices for which they are accountable. Trust that you have salted the road by instilling values that will inform healthy choices.
Hey, you might even purchase a baby T-shirt at Honestbaby.com that says, “I’ll walk when I’m good and ready.”