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?

A Matter of Perspective

“Point of view is worth 80 IQ points,” opines Alan Kay, one of the earliest pioneers of personal computing. Perspective provides countless options, kaleidoscopic lenses, and varying filters as we each interpret what we see and what we feel. One of my favorite examples is John Gray’s classic, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

Speaking of the differences between men and women, there is new research that may widen that chasm further as conversations take shape in light of the results of a recent study from the University of Queensland that proclaims the biological clock is ticking not just for women but for men, too!

True. The data shows that the older the sperm at conception (i.e., age of the father), the higher the incidence of autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. So, indeed, it seems that the 80-point IQ spread may be somewhat literal as well as figurative.

An interesting point of view, especially as the debate rages over possible causes for the dramatic rise in autism. Too many vaccines – or too many birthdays?

In actuality, a woman whose first pregnancy occurs after age 35 may be just as vulnerable as a man over 40 to the higher risks of birth defects. The news, however, certainly does change the conversation for “young” couples who are examining their birds’-eye view of the exact moment in which to swoop into parenthood: that precise instant suspended in time between establishing one’s career and being too old to conceive. Here’s another significant variable, previously discounted for the most part: Will we be hearing about guys speeding up the tempo of their life’s speedometer to fatherhood?

In a society of Alpha Moms and Beta Dads (or the reverse, given your point of view!), is this latest information the time bomb that could put us over the edge, as the scale continues to tip the balance in the world of hothouse parenting – our propensity to engineer our children’s lives for maximum safety, happiness, and control of variables? How does this data influence the discussion around designer babies?

And, how does this new information affect another recent study that reveals that 20 percent of prospective parents are delaying having their first child because of today’s economic situation?

How then do we reconcile that there are DNA “mistakes” with advancing sperm age?

It seems to me that the small boy in “When Dinosaurs Came with Everything” by Elise Broach had the right approach: From his point of view, a very boring errand day is transformed by a promotional campaign in which a dinosaur “comes with everything” – a kid’s dream come true! From Mom’s perspective, it is just another day of visits to the doctor, the bakery, and the barber, while for the boy, a creature comes alive with exuberance.

I think it comes down to this: we need to consider the angle of the vision. Do we have too much information in which to dip our buckets in the ever-flowing stream of knowledge? Are we over-thinking? These studies remind me of the “omniscient point of view” in literature, a perspective that offers a constant danger which can, if unskillfully used, destroy the very illusion of reality which the story attempts to create!

I wonder if it’s not all this information that sometimes stops us in our tracks and causes us to over-think ramifications of our looming decisions. This could be an unintentional byproduct of what has been dubbed “overparenting.” In other words, it’s not the “fault” of parents but the burden of a technological society.

Tuck-in Tips

  • What pretend things might you want to collect while doing errands with Mom or Dad?
  • How do you react when someone doesn’t agree with what you believe?
  • Have you and a friend ever seen the same situation through different eyes?

Do the Right Thing…

Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. That’s what we tell children – and adults, I might add — who are part of a community, whether that community it the family core, school, youth group, or camp. Not because someone is watching you or because it’s expected of you. Not because you are afraid what might happen if you don’t. Not because you think someone else will judge you differently. But because it’s the right thing to do.

That says it all when it comes to moral courage. In fact, I was elated to come across yet another speaker at a conference for camp professionals who supported this innate notion by documenting that, as a society, we have migrated away from character as the foundational component for raising successful adults in favor of performance as the purpose of education.

Think about this one. Gus Lee, who says his and his own children’s successes were molded by the moral lessons that happened at camp, talks about the absence of character in our children’s education. “We don’t teach moral philosophy in school but we live it in camp,” asserts the author, leader, teacher, and ethicist.

Maybe, as parents who want to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, we need to consider the fallout of this sea change: 75 percent of U.S. high school students cheat. Is it any wonder, then, that the sub-prime mortgage fraud we are living with now is at $8.6 trillion?

Are we inadvertently contributing to this societal issue that threatens our moral center by focusing our children’s education on material advantage, getting into the best schools, and being results-oriented?

Consider this model instead: We could actually coach courage by utilizing Gus’s four-point Courageous Communications Model – collegial communication, listening actively with empathy, asking questions on point, and relating respectfully. After all, if “courage is the sum of all human virtue at the testing point,” won’t the other attributes follow?

The common denominator is fear – it drives us to behaviors that Gus calls the “Pentafecta of Fear” – Denial. Excuses. Blaming others. Fleeing. Bullying. Instead, we can coach courage by modeling and inspiring our children to be their best selves. It’s a question of management vs. leadership; of results vs. character. Let’s cross that “river of fear” to the banks of courageous leadership, so that our children will learn to instinctively do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. That means that we’ll have to give up our thrust of being performance drivers by choosing what is right over how we feel.

“A Teaspoon of Courage for Kids” by Bradley Trevor Grieve provides simple encouragement for facing courage in tough and sometimes intimidating times. Black-and-white photos of animals help embolden young readers with practical tips for courageous living,

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

Let’s make sure we build in the courage quotient so they are able to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

Tuck-in Tips

  • Talk about a time when you had to find your courage.
  • Have you ever seen someone do the right thing because it was the right thing to do?
  • Which animal in “A Teaspoon of Courage” was your favorite? Why?

What’s Your Parenting Style?

“The dark side of parental devotion.” That’s what psychologist and author Wendy Mogel called it during her keynote address for camp professionals, where I was in attendance last week. Others have referred to the phenomenon of being involved in every facet of a child’s life as hyperparenting, overparenting, and invasive parenting. Helicopter parenting has escalated to snowplow parenting, which is identified by removing all obstacles from the road, and even hothouse parenting, wherein children’s lives are engineered to perfection.

“Parents need to “learn how to say ‘no,’” the expert suggests. Ah, easier said than done, teaching your child to fly from the nest and then being happy when they do!

It occurred to me that by understanding the roots of parental separation anxiety, we might break free of the counter-cultural behavior that keeps our children tethered to the nest. So here goes.

“Enmeshed families” emerge from a place of love, the author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” explains. We don’t want our kids to be cold or wet or hungry for even a minute. She opined that we are “worshipping at the altar of our children’s attitudes,” inadvertently taking them down the path of perfection. That’s because we don’t understand our job: “we are not sherpas, concierges, talent agents, stealth tutors, or secret police,” Wendy asserts! Our job is to raise them to be resilient, to let them get dirty, make mistakes, solve their own problems….

So how do we do it? Besides embracing opportunities that encourage independent thinking, decision-making, and first-hand exploration – like camp or even a sleepover date without a rescue offer – we need to eschew the electronic ties – like texting. And we need to drop the rhetorical questions (“Don’t you think…?”) in favor of some directed language: “Nevertheless” or “I made my ruling” are two examples of authoritative parenting (the preferred style among the trio which also include authoritarian and doormat!).

While some choices are perfectly fine for children to make (Do you prefer vanilla ice cream or chocolate?) and in fact support the development of their ability to rely upon themselves, others are appropriate for parents only to make the decision (Do you want to go to school today?)

“Let’s leave some potential for adulthood,” Wendy cries! That’s what I love about “Leo the Late Bloomer,” by Robert Kraus. In a society where children are overprotected because of world concerns and technological advancements, we can step back in time and celebrate Leo’s classic and timeless message: we don’t have to be perfect to be successful and happy. While the little tiger is a proverbial late bloomer, he eventually blossoms with a newfound love for life. His mom patiently and confidently waits for him to grow into his stripes.

Parenthood should be “enviable,” says Wendy, not onerous. “Get off the cell phone when you pick up your child at school, tell him something positive about your day, talk to her about life aside from being a parent… You don’t need to be locked together in nervous embrace.”

I think it’s great advice. We need to relax. Unwrap the bubble paper that we swaddle our children in, and let them – and yourself – breathe. Here’s a perfect place to start, with a laughing baby tearing paper. No worries about APGAR scores, pre-school placement, after-school enrichment, or SATs; no spinning plates — just the pure unequalled joy of being a child – and of being that child’s parent.

Tuck-in Tips

  • Why was Leo sad? Have you ever felt that way?
  • Describe a time when you didn’t feel like everyone else.
  • How many nicknames have you been given? Which is your favorite?

A Field Guide to Preserving Childhood

Like everyone else, I keep reading the cascading articles predicting what we might need to trim from our budgets in the face of this recession. But I bristle when I see stories that suggest we tighten our belts when it comes to camp or another “gift of life” for our children. One thing I know for sure is the last place we would and should reduce our spending is on our children’s future. It’s easy for me to say since mine are grown; yet, as a professional who has personally seen the value of a camp experience be returned so many-fold, I would find a way, especially in these unstable times, to keep my child’s roots firmly in his/her summer home.

Camp is essential for all children; research continues to provide evidence that, of all the different youth development opportunities, camp should not be discretionary. Camp helps children develop critical skills, such as leadership, independence, decision-making, resilience, and the ability to make authentic human connections.

Peg Smith, the CEO of the American Camp Association, talks about camp as “A Field Guide to Preserving Childhood” in today’s USA Today (March 10). She explains that “for generations, children grew up outside. They walked to school, rode their bikes, and walked barefoot through the grass. Childhood was characterized by innocence, imagination, wonder, and laughter.” And then she points out that, according to a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, today’s children spend over five hours each day plugged in to some kind of electronic medium. Not only that, the media tells them they should be afraid to go outdoors and that they should be wary of others.

Camp is a powerful learning laboratory – safe, collaborative, empathic, meaningful, supportive environments, created exclusively for children to practice growing up. There they learn to connect with nature, with others, and with themselves. There is no substitute for play as the vehicle for learning; there is no way to circumvent nature without stifling one’s ability to understand his or her place in the universe, not to mention the preservation of our natural world.

I can’t help but think that camp directors have always been adaptable to the needs of a changing society. So, if you need to, partner with your child’s camp director to ensure that the predictability and routine of summer can remain constant, especially in these turbulent times. As Peg reminds us, “Nature and play go hand in hand and, together, they have a profound impact on the health and development of children.”

Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood used to say, “Play is the work of childhood.” And connection to nature frees a child to explore and to discover the world around him, to invent and even re-invent himself.

A great story that depicts the power and wonder and beauty of nature is “First Snow in the Woods” by Carl Sams. The photographs illustrate the rituals and preparations of the animals in the forest for the first snow of the winter. Recounted from the viewpoints of the deer and fawn, the change of seasons unfolds vibrantly before the readers’ eyes, underscoring the importance of seamless and bountiful connections with the outside world.

Anyone who has witnessed the magic of the forest or has felt the magical influence of the camp environment knows that we have advocate in every way possible to preserve these experiences for our children.

Ironically, just as I am completing this post, I am hearing also of the President’s promotion to lengthen the school year/day. This is not about politics but about preserving childhood. To him, and to others who might not recognize the immeasurable value of the camp experience, I confidently assert:

Camp is not a privilege but a prerequisite for success. As Peg reminds us, “A child without the benefit of nature risks failure to thrive,” not as an infant but as an adolescent.

Tuck-in Tips

  • Can YOU tell the story by looking at the pictures about how the animals get ready for the winter?
  • What are some changes that happen with people when the seasons change?
  • Which animal do you think loves winter most? Least? Why?

“You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.” -Kahlil Gibran