Written by Audrey “Sunshine” Monke
Campers often describe camp as their “happy place” or “the best two weeks” of their year. And, from my own observation, I’ve seen that kids and the counselors who work with them are obviously happy at camp. They smile a lot. They look relaxed. There’s a lot of laughter. So many fun things happen at camp every day that it’s no surprise it’s such a happy place for kids.
Recently I’ve read several books about the science behind happiness and the research that’s being done to determine the specific elements that cause people to “flourish” in life. (See my reading list below.)
Traditionally, psychologists have focused on studying psychological diseases – depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc. – and their cures. But led by Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania), a new breed of psychologists called Positive Psychologists have, for the past decade, been studying the positive side of people. They ask not what is wrong with people, but what is right. They research what makes us do well in life and the reasons why some people thrive and find success and happiness in life.
Originally, Seligman had a theory of “happiness” outlined in his book Authentic Happiness, but he moved away from only using the word “happiness” to a new theory that focuses instead on well-being or “flourishing.” Seligman determined that it’s inaccurate to use the term “happiness,” as some people simply don’t have the personality to appear outwardly happy to others, even when they are doing quite well in life. I’m an extrovert who smiles a lot, so, objectively, people would probably say I’m pretty high on the happy scale. But how do we account for an introvert who doesn’t show a lot or emotion or display the outward symptoms that we equate with happiness? He may not smile a lot or appear outwardly happy, but, Seligman contends, he could still be flourishing. So, instead of using a one-dimensional definition that’s dependent on momentary emotions and personality traits, Seligman developed a more thorough theory of well-being that moved beyond his original happiness theory.
Seligman uses the acronym PERMA to define his theory and the five measurable elements he has determined lead to well-being. As I read about each pillar of PERMA in Seligman’s book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, I kept having “ah-ha” moments. “This happens at camp!” I would think. “And this, too!” In fact, as I read, I determined that ALL of the elements of flourishing that Seligman describes happen at camp. According to Seligman, “No one element defines well-being, but each contributes to it.”
I’ve always been sucked in by inspirational quotes and quick sounds bites about how camp contributes to happiness, but I love knowing the science behind why kids flourish at camp.
PERMA at Camp
P: Positive Emotion
Positive emotion is exactly what it sounds like: feeling happy and having positive thoughts about yourself, the people around you, or your surroundings. When someone reports they are feeling content, relaxed, or happy, then they are experiencing positive emotions. At camp, positive emotions are the norm, not the exception. We’re singing; we’re dancing; we’re doing skits that don’t make sense but that cause us to laugh so hard our stomachs hurt. Whether we’re telling jokes and stories around the campfire or just entertaining ourselves talking and hanging out together, positive emotion is literally swirling around camp. You can almost see a haze of happiness and fun surrounding everyone at camp.
Seligman’s next element, engagement, describes when one is interested in and connected to
what they are doing. When you’re engaged in your hobby or book or job, you’re fired up about learning something new and energized by the activity. At camp, kids are constantly exposed to new experiences and challenges – both recreational and social – that get them interested and excited to learn. They’re pushed to get outside their comfort zone and really engage. For some kids, their stay at camp is the first time they’ve slept away from home and their parents, and they are engaged in learning to live with a group of new people. For others, the camp dance is the first time they’ve ever danced with other kids, so they’re being engaged socially in new ways.
As Seligman and other researchers found, and most of us intuitively know, “other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.”
We all know that positive relationships are one of the main contributors to our happiness in life, so it’s no surprise that relationships are an important pillar of Seligman’s theory. Our life’s relationships – with our parents, our siblings, our friends, our spouses, and our co-workers – are key to our happiness. Everyone comes to camp to see their old friends, make new friends, and just spend quality time connecting with others and building positive relationships. And camp is like no other place for that. You don’t have any of the competition or stress that often accompany kids’ relationships at home: Two bright students who are close friends are also competing for the valedictorian spot. Or two athletes who have grown up together are competing for the same position on a soccer team. The relationships at camp, without all the competition and “baggage” that kids have in some of their relationships at home, grow strong quickly. This is probably why so many kids have told me that, even though they are only at camp for two weeks, their camp friends are their closest friends and they stay connected with them all year, well beyond their time at camp.
To flourish in life, we need to feel that we have a purpose and that we matter. According to Seligman, meaning comes from “belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than the self.” Being a member of a cabin group at camp helps kids gain an understanding of how they are valued by others. For some kids, camp is the first place where they understand what it means to be a valued and accepted member of a community. Unlike at school, where some kids can be “invisible,” and go through a day without connecting with others, camp forces integration. Kids learn that they are an important and valued member of their cabin group, and they discover their character strengths through recognition from peers and counselors. While at camp, kids also have the opportunity to feel part of something bigger than themselves – a camp community that goes back nearly a century, where we still get to follow the same traditions our predecessors did. While learning about friendship, gratitude, and kindness, and practicing those skills, kids learn that they can positively impact others. They learn that they have value and that there is meaning in life.
People flourish when pursuing goals or mastering a skill. So, while having a great achievement is wonderful, much of flourishing comes from the striving towards the achievement. Many people report that it was a lot of fun working their way up and accomplishing small steps on the way to a goal. In fact, many people feel a let down once a goal has been achieved and realize, as Ralph Waldo Emerson so eloquently explained, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
Every day at camp, kids have the opportunity to try new things and master new skills. Some kids arrive at camp with a specific goal: a bull’s eye at archery or getting up on a slalom water ski. But others simply practice and work towards improving or challenge themselves to try something that frightens them – like completing the ropes course. And all of their progress and little achievements add to kids’ flourishing at camp.
At this time of year, when parents are busy completing camp forms and are possibly having cold feet about sending their child to camp for the first time, I’d like to remind you that camp can help your kid flourish like no school, sports team, or other activity they do. So, enjoy watching your child flourish at camp this summer.
- Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Martin Seligman
- Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Martin Seligman
- The Myths of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky
- Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Deiner and Robert Biswas-Diener
Gold Arrow first introduced the Nature program in the summer of 2016, but this summer, we’ve taken the program to a new level, focusing on specific goals in order to help campers learn the most and make the most of their nature experience.
Some of the goals of the new nature program have been to get kids to appreciate more simple ways of life, to get kids to have fun with and be more aware of their surroundings, and to help kids develop a moral concern for the environment. In order to achieve these goals, Nature counselor Yogi designed activities for kids to participate in that center around observation, identification, and connection.
A few activities used to help kids in their observation skills have been the “Hundred Inch Hike,” where campers use rulers and magnifying glasses to slow down and look for new things in such a small space. Another activity used to help kids is the “Silent Hike,” where kids use their senses to observe nature around them.
Several activities have also been used to help campers in their identification skills. Campers go on nature hikes, where they use books to help them identify trees, flowers, bushes, and other plants they might find. Campers also participate in “Plant Tag” during which campers are only safe from being tagged when they’re touching a plant that they can identify.
The “connection” part of the program aims to help campers see the connection of each of the smaller aspects of nature to the greater ecosystem as well as their own personal connection to nature. Campers are asked about their favorite aspects of nature and their most memorable experiences in nature. Sometimes campers play “Web of Life” where a ball of yarn is passed around the group and each person represents something different in nature. By passing the yarn around, campers discover how different aspects of nature are actually all interconnected.
In addition to these activities, campers sometimes decorate tree cookies, figure out the ages of trees, and use special nature print paper to capture the intricacies of the plants they find. Many campers have sported their tree cookie necklaces throughout the session, and the nature program as a whole has helped campers both be more aware and more conscious of the nature around them.
Eight-year-camper Kate Scibelli is off on a new adventure in Tanzania this summer. Kate is participating in a Rustic Pathways sponsored African immersion program, and her mom claims that the “resilience, independence, empathy, confidence, and courage” that Kate needed for this trip came from her summers at Gold Arrow Camp.
Kate’s program leader is already noting the “positive energy, curiosity, and commitment” that Kate’s group has brought to the program. The group’s main project is building a school dining hall and community center for Njoro village, but Kate has also had the opportunity to work with children during an education exchange where she teaches kids about teamwork and communication.
On top of service work, Kate has also had the opportunity to design her own clothes to be made by the village tailor, cook local foods, and ride through a national park full of wild animals! We are so excited for Kate and her new adventure, and we are happy that Gold Arrow equipped her with the independence and confidence that helped her take the leap for this big adventure. Kate will always be part of the GAC family and we will always be eager to welcome her back, but we are also proud of her for the adventures she has sought out and will continue to seek work. We love you, Kate!
On Episode 17 of the GAC Pog-cast, Soy is joined by longtime GAC staffer Delta. He and Delta chat about what she’s doing while she’s not at camp, how she brings camp into her classroom and what keeps Delta coming back to camp.
Of course, there’s a Joke of the Cast (it features a wedding in space!) and the inspiring words of Roald Dahl in a GACspiration.
Dr. Emily “Fish” Andrada is serving as our Camp Doctor this session for her 10th summer. When “Fish” isn’t spending her time at GAC, she works as a Pediatric Emergency Medicine Attending Physician at the UC Davis Medical Center, where she trains emergency medicine, pediatric, and family medicine residents and teaches medical students at the bedside and in formal didactics. She wrote this article for our 2016 On Target magazine.
My friend (I’ll call her Ann) is very accomplished. She was valedictorian of her high school, finished her undergraduate degree in three years with a full ride scholarship, and then graduated first in her class in medical school. She completed a highly competitive residency program in general surgery and during that time won the “best resident award.” Finally she moved to a well-known northeastern city to complete her sub-specialization at a prestigious fellowship program.
While incredibly accomplished, getting to know her personally revealed a number of entertaining facts. Ann got driven to and picked up at the hospital every day by one of her parents (she was in her early twenties in medical school). She was often in wrinkled scrubs, carrying around her belongings in a plastic grocery store bag. When she moved to the east coast, her mother moved with her “to get her settled in,” but that turned into a four-month stay, because Ann’s mother still made her dinner, cleaned her apartment, and laundered and ironed her clothes. Three months into fellowship, Ann (and her mother) still did not have a bed to sleep on because she had not figured out how to get out to a big box store in the suburbs. You might think, “Yes, that mother has made many sacrifices and as a result her child has been a raving success!” True. Ann is having great success in her career, but she has failed to develop basic life skills…and THAT is what camp is all about.
My three kids and I have been coming to camp for nine years, and while they “have fun, make friends, and grow,” I believe that the most important thing that they gain from camp is a belief in themselves and their own abilities. Most importantly, their eyes are opened to the fact that they don’t need their parents around to help them with tasks or to complete tasks for them. My kids hate when I read parenting books, but I’ve found a good one called How To Raise An Adult. The author, Julie Lythcott-Haims (a former freshman dean at Stanford), along with parents and educators, compiled a list of practical life skills that kids need before being launched into the world:
• Talk to strangers
• Find your way around
• Manage assignments, workload, and deadlines
• Contribute to the running of a household
• Handle interpersonal problems
• Cope with ups and downs
• Earn and manage money
• Take risks
From my little perch in the Wellness Center and during quick meals on the dining porch, I can tell you with no uncertainty that campers at camp practice ALL of those skills. On the surface, camp offers sailing, horseback riding, high ropes, hiking and a bazillion other activities. But in its beautifully subversive way, camp has provided our kids with a multitude of opportunities to master every single one of the life skills that will help them survive once they leave our home. I’ve observed campers meeting new kids and counselors, figuring out the layout of camp, earning special privileges by attending early morning activities, assisting in the upkeep of the cabin, working out disagreements amongst themselves, talking about their feelings, managing purchases in the camp store, and trying lots of new activities.
Each year after camp (after I have seen first-hand that my kids can function just fine without me), it’s much easier to let go—to let them manage their school work, make their own lunches, feel the burn of being late to school because they did not get up in time, and choose the extracurricular activities that they love. This year was my daughter’s last year as a camper, and while it is bittersweet, she is ready…camp has made her ready. Thankfully my boys have several more years!
I wish you all a great year and hope to see lots of old and new friends at camp next summer!
How Camp Helps Raise Adults,
How to Raise an Adult website
Ready for Adulthood Checklist, Sunshine Parenting
Five Reasons Great Parents Send their Kids to Camp
10 Social Skills Kids Learn at Camp
Five 21st Century Skills Developed at Camp
“Children want to be independent, and they realize that they cannot be truly independent until they beat homesickness, even when they have a painful case of it.”
– Michael Thompson, PhD., Homesick and Happy
Recently I spoke with a mom whose 11-year-old son is coming to camp in a few days. He’s nervous. He had a negative experience at a one-week science camp. He doesn’t think he can “make it for two weeks” and is worried he’ll be too homesick to make it at camp. I chatted with the mom and gave her some key messages to communicate to her son. She asked for them in bullet points in an email, and I thought there are probably others who might benefit from this same list, so I’m sharing this with anyone who has a child suffering from pre-camp anxiety.
Before I share my list, let me say that if you are not a camp proponent and don’t plan on sending your child to camp, you should probably not read any further. I am a huge supporter of camp and just yesterday had a CIT (Counselor in Training) tell me that “Camp made her who she is today.” So, I think that camp is a great thing for building kids’ independence and confidence. I have also seen many kids work through some pretty painful emotions at camp, so I know that camp is not easy for all kids.
We have 7-year-olds at our camp who do great during our two-week sessions. They are the ones who’ve begged their parents to let them come to camp and generally have older siblings who’ve attended camp. I also talk to a lot of parents with older kids who “aren’t sure if they’re ready for
camp.” One thing I’ve learned after close to three decades at camp is that the same kids who are anxious and hesitant about going to camp when they’re nine or ten will still be anxious when they’re 13. And they may not be interested in going away to college when they’re 18, either.
So, as a parent, you need to decide how to approach your child’s separation anxiety, as well as your own. You can avoid it and not send them to camp and hope that they develop independence in other ways, which is definitely possible. Or, you can bite the bullet, give them these positive messages, and send them off to camp with a smile, knowing that it may be hard for them, but they will grow from the experience.
In Michael Thompson, PhD.’s book Homesick and Happy, he says “It is the very challenge of camp that makes it such a life-changing experience for so many children.” I know there are many parents and children who just can’t stomach the idea of going through some painful time apart. Again, you need not read further if you are not sending your reluctant child to camp.
This post is for those of you who have decided that your child is going to camp, and especially for those of you who had a previously excited camper who is now having last-minute camp anxiety. Here are some messages you can give prior to dropping your camper at the bus or at camp. Pick and choose, and of course use your own words, but acknowledge your child’s feelings and empathize with them while holding firm in your confidence in their ability to succeed and your belief that camp will be good for them.
Without further ado, here are some messages to give to your anxious camper:
- Let them know that missing home is okay. “You may feel homesick, and that’s okay. A lot of kids feel that way. That just means that you love us and you love home. I feel homesick when I’m on trips, too. Missing home is part of life. But I know you can still have fun at camp, even if you feel sad sometimes.”
- Reassure them that there are people at camp who will take care of their needs. “There are adults at camp (counselors, directors) who are there to take care of you and help you with anything you need. They can help with things you normally come to me about. Let them know if you are feeling sad, and they can help you. They have lots of experience working with kids who are away from home for the first time.”
- Talk with your child honestly about the importance of starting to develop some independence. Something along the lines of: “It may seem like a long way off, but in a few years, you’ll be ready for college. I want you to feel confident in your ability to live away from me, so that you can choose any school you like, even if it’s far away from home. Think of camp like your practice time for when you’re older and ready to move away for school or a job. You’ll get better at being independent by starting now, when you’re young, with short spurts of time away. Some kids aren’t doing well when they start college because they don’t have any experience being away from home. I want you to feel great when you go to college, because you’ll know that you’ve already been successful with short camp stays.”
- Share the reality that many good things in life come with some pain and failure. If you have a story from your own life of something that you had to work hard at or had to go through difficulties in order to master, this is a great time to share. Something along the lines of, “Many good things in life aren’t easy at first. Learning a new sport or trying something new is really hard. Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone to discover something you really love. If you never go through anything hard, you’re going to miss out on some great experiences. The first few days of camp may be hard, and that’s okay. I know you’ll work through it and figure out what makes you feel better. I have confidence in you, and I am so proud of you for going to camp and trying this new adventure!
- Let them know that you are confident in them. “I am so excited that you get to go to camp this year. I know it’s going to be such a great experience for you and that you are ready for this.” If you went to camp, share with your camper what you liked about it and how you grew from the experience.
- Make sure they know you want to hear about everything. “Every day comes with its good and bad parts. When you’re at camp, I want you to write me letters and tell me all of the stuff that you’re doing and feeling. If you feel homesick at rest time, tell me about it, and also tell me what you did to help yourself. Did you talk to your counselor? Keep yourself busy playing cards with friends? Write me a letter? I also want you to share good stuff. Did you get your favorite food for lunch? Try rock climbing? Get up on a knee board? I want to hear both the good and bad things about camp in your letters.”
- If your camper asks you if you will pick him up if he’s sad, you need to let him know that you are not going to pick him up early. “Even if you’re a little homesick for the whole time you’re at camp, you’re going to feel so much better about the experience if you stick it out and make the best of it. Most kids feel better after a few days of getting settled in and adjusted, and I know you’ll feel great once you let yourself relax and just start enjoying all the fun things at camp. I’m not going to pick you up early, no matter what, because I know you will feel really proud of yourself for making it through camp, even if you have some hard days.”
In Homesick and Happy, Thompson says, “Homesickness is not a psychiatric illness. It is not a disorder. It is the natural, inevitable consequence of leaving home. Every child is going to feel it, more or less, sooner or later. Every adult has had to face it and overcome it at some point in life … If you cannot master it, you cannot leave home.”
I would like to note that you do not need to use all of these messages but instead choose the ones you think will resonate most with your child. What’s most important is that you express confidence in your child and in the camp experience. These same messages would be great as responses to a sad letter you receive from your camper.
I always tell the kids that the fun and happy feelings at camp usually far outweigh any sad feelings. Many kids tell me they “don’t feel homesick at all,” but there are some who struggle, especially during their first summer. Those kids seem to grow the most and feel the most pride in their accomplishment of staying at camp. If you are feeling worried about how your child will do at camp, know that you are giving your child a precious gift by allowing them this special time where they get to grow their wings.
- Five Reasons Great Parents Send Their Kids to Camp
- Five (More) Reasons Great Parents Send Their Kids to Camp
- Homesickness Help (sunshineparenting.wordpress.com)
- “Kidsickness”: Help for First Time Camp Parents (sunshineparenting.wordpress.com)
Homesick & Happy, by Michael Thompson, PhD.
By Camp Director Audrey “Sunshine” Monke
There are so many reasons great parents choose to send their kids to summer camp. Two years ago, I shared five of them on the most popular post I’ve ever published. But now I have more to share. Consider this the second installment in a series with others to follow, because the list of ways kids benefit from summer camp is seemingly endless.
Since I last wrote about reasons great parents send their kids to camp, I conducted research and found that camp experiences positively impact campers’ happiness and social skills. I’ll begin, then, with happiness.
The first reason great parents send their kids to camp is that it helps them BE HAPPIER.
“Camp makes me happy and nothing can prepare me for life as well as this environment.”
“Come on,” you’re thinking, “How can two weeks in the mountains change my child’s overall happiness level?” Good question. One of my research findings was that both parents and kids agree that children feel happier after being at camp. The combination of positive emotions, deep friendships, being disconnected from technology, and just plain fun makes kids feel happier at and after camp. I’ve previously written about how the science of positive psychology may explain why kids flourish at camp and demonstrate increased happiness levels before and after their camp experience. In this era, when we’re seeing our kids suffer from rising rates of depression and anxiety, isn’t it nice to know that there’s a place where kids can go that actually serves as a positive intervention for overall happiness?
Next, great parents send their kids to camp because it helps them DISCOVER THEIR BEST SELF.
“Being at camp gives me this sense of belonging that I’ve never felt anywhere else.”
In many different ways, but all with the same underlying meaning, campers describe camp as a place where they can be themselves. They feel open to saying and being who they really are, not stuck conforming to what’s considered “cool” and “acceptable” in the outside world. Surrounded by a diverse group of friends of different ages and backgrounds, kids develop the ability to explore their own interests and express their own thoughts better. As a parent, I hate to admit that I sometimes push my own interests on my kids, even when I don’t mean to. For example, I might say, “You’re so good at softball! Don’t you want to keep playing?” when my child says she doesn’t want to play anymore. Stepping away from their regular activities and normal life schedules (as well as their well-meaning but often overly directive parents), kids have the opportunity to think through what’s really important to them as individuals.
Third, great parents send their kids to camp because it helps them GROW THEIR GRIT.
“The counselors challenged me to do things I wouldn’t normally do at home.”
Learning self-reliance, experiencing mistakes and failures, and reaching for goals are all camp experiences that help campers develop their grit, an important character trait that we’ve learned is critical to success in life. Camp offers a unique experience to children – the chance to be away from their parents for a short period of time and learn to handle more things on their own. Without parents to step in and assist, or rescue from mistakes, kids develop confidence in their own ability to make decisions and solve problems. Just being “on their own” is a huge confidence builder for kids, and they feel more self-reliant after being responsible for themselves and their belongings for a few weeks.
Fourth, great parents send their kids to camp because it helps them MEET POSITIVE ROLE MODELS.
“Camp has made me into a leader, having the best role models as my counselors to look up to.”
One of the best things that happens at camp is that kids get exposed to a different kind of adult role model than what they see in the media. No reality TV stars will be gracing the waterfront or backpacking trips at summer camp. No perfectly coiffed and stick-thin model will be standing next to them brushing teeth in the bathroom. No macho guy who speaks disrespectfully about women will be leading the campfire discussion. In fact, the college students who choose to spend their summer working at camp are an outstanding bunch of young adults. Most are stellar students with outstanding leadership skills. They love the outdoors and working with kids, and they are the kind of people we want our kids to emulate. They love leading discussions on topics that are important to their campers and helping them build confidence. There’s no focus on appearance at summer camp, and so designer clothes, make up, and trendy hair-styles don’t hold the same importance that they do at junior high or high school. In fact, the predominant style at camp is pajama pants paired with dirt and sweat-stained t-shirts. And we hardly ever spend time in front of a mirror.
Finally, great parents send their kids to camp because it helps them DEVELOP BETTER COMMUNICATION SKILLS.
“The other part of camp that has influenced me the most is the simple idea of trying to always smile.”
In post-camp surveys, campers consistently write about how ditching their electronics was one of the best things about their camp experience. In fact, it’s a practice they take home with them, setting aside phones during meals with friends so they can connect more genuinely, face-to-face. In the absence of technological tethers, campers have many hours each day to practice these face-to-face communication skills. They learn the importance of things like eye contact, smiles, and body language as they positively interact with their peers. Counselors help facilitate lively discussions, and campers learn to ask each other questions, listen more carefully, and figure out common interests. Kids learn and practice valuable communication skills at camp, which they can use throughout their lives.
There you have it! Five (more) reasons that great parents send their kids to camp!
Five Reasons Great Parents Send Their Kids to Camp (original Sunshine Parenting post)
Study Finds Campers Really are Happy, Sunshine Parenting
Research finds Children Learn Social Skills at Camp, Sunshine Parenting
Why Kids Flourish at Camp, Sunshine Parenting
Five Ways Camp Grows Grit, Sunshine Parenting
10 Social Skills Kids Learn at Camp, Sunshine Parenting
Making Friends, 3 Communication Skills Your Child Needs, Sunshine Parenting
Increased Levels of Anxiety and Depression as Teenage Experience Changes over Time (Nuffield Foundation)
10 Surprising Things Kids Learn at Camp, Sunshine Parenting
By Camp Director, Audrey ‘”Sunshine” Monke, originally published at Sunshine Parenting
“The movie Stepford Wives came to mind as I watched my students live their college life still somehow looking to the sidelines for mom or dad’s direction, protection, or intervention as if they were five, playing soccer, and needed a parent to point in which direction to kick the ball. I began to wonder, I began to worry actually, are we raising Stepford Children?”
-Julie Lythcott Haims
I was thrilled to have a front row seat for Julie Lythcott-Haims’ message to camp professionals at the American Camp Association National Conference in Atlanta this week.
I was also struck by how camp experiences offer an excellent antidote to the struggles we all face in the “overparenting” era Lythcott-Haims describes in her best-selling book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. As Lythcott-Haims acknowledged, even those of us who are desperately trying not to hover over the minutiae of our kids’ lives aren’t immune to the fear that our children will be at a disadvantage if we don’t follow the “overparenting herd”—those who refuse to let their imperfect children be themselves.
We fear that our child won’t make it in life (or into college, at least) if we don’t ensure they have a perfect “childhood resume” of top scores, excellent grades, and high-caliber athletic performances. We fear that having a more balanced, less chaotic family life with fewer tutors and extracurricular activities and more family dinners and household chores means that our children will be failures compared to the perfect specimens that result from carefully orchestrated, over-scheduled, and over-managed childhoods. Because of the strange parenting paradigm shift that has made parents see their children’s accomplishments as their own, we fear that whatever our children do or don’t do is a direct reflection of us.
As dean of freshmen at Stanford University, Lythcott-Haims met many college students who had impeccable “childhood resumes” and “looked great on paper” but “were not interesting to talk to.” She witnessed “the encroachment of parents into the day-to-day lives of college students.” These parents “came to college with their kids and then stayed—virtually—through constant connection and communication with their student” and “expected to play a central role” in their day-to-day lives. With love and good intentions, these parents got involved in areas where their children should have been fending for themselves—signing up for classes, applying for jobs, and working out roommate disputes, to name a few.
If this new parenting paradigm were working for both kids and parents and leading to successful, happy college and adult lives, then it wouldn’t be worth worrying about. But Lythcott-Haims believes this parenting paradigm shift has had a damaging effect on the development of young people. Many of the college students she met lacked any sense of themselves, who they were, and what they could do. In short, they lacked self-efficacy. Many were also profoundly unhappy. Lythcott-Haims described a 2013 study of 100,000 college students, which found that 84.3% of them felt “overwhelmed,” 60.5% felt “very sad,” and 57% felt “very lonely” at some point in the previous year. Overwhelmed, sad, and lonely do not sound like goals any of us have for our children.
Camp gives kids a chance to build self-efficacy
Parents who are so involved in all of their children’s day-to-day decisions and tasks make the transition to college difficult for them, because they don’t believe in their own ability to do things independently. Everything has always been done for them, including basic household chores. Subsequently, these students revert to calling or texting their parents for advice on even the tiniest of decisions.
Unlike at college, kids at camp have the opportunity to be completely disconnected from technology—and therefore their parents—for a short period of time. For some kids, getting to decide for themselves what activity they sign up for, what friend they talk to, or what food they eat for lunch offers their first opportunity to make decisions without asking Mom or Dad for advice. And the more kids make these small decisions for themselves, the more they build confidence in their own ability to make choices without their parents’ approval.
While it’s hard for parents to be disconnected from kids while they’re at camp, it’s that very disconnection that could be one of the greatest benefits of camp—the opportunity for the child to establish a sense of self-efficacy.
Camp teaches kids to rely on other adults
One issue Lythcott-Haims saw at Stanford was that parents, instead of pointing their kids to the many adults who were there to assist them, were stepping in themselves to address issues. The ability to reach out to other adults, Lythcott-Haims believes, is an essential life skill our kids need. This is something that came naturally to me when, as a child, I was playing at friends’ houses and needed help; I simply found my friend’s mom when I needed a glass of water or a Band-Aid. Today, those same children are more likely to text their moms and ask them to text their friend’s mom—who is in the same house—and ask for a Band-Aid! It’s a strange world when kids are texting their parent with simple requests while another capable adult is standing right in front of them, but that’s the reality in which our kids now live.
At camp, kids do not have the option of texting or calling their parents when they need assistance, so they are forced to reach out to other adults—their counselor, the camp nurse, or the camp director, to name a few. While this may be hard for them at first, campers get used to it quickly and become good at understanding whom they should ask for help. What a great side benefit of camp that, by learning to talk to adults for support, these kids are also being prepared for navigating college and later life issues without Mom or Dad’s involvement!
Camp gives kids a chance to grow
So much growth occurs outside the comfort zone. Unfortunately, with a parent “concierging” kids through life, oftentimes they don’t have the opportunity to experience what Lythcott-Haims describes as the “failing, floundering, and fumbling that are life’s essential teachers.” These mistakes and challenges are where growth happens, but parents often fear their child losing out if they don’t intervene and correct each misstep. Thus, parents will often meet with teachers to try and get grades changed or finish assignments that would otherwise be late rather than let their child learn and grow from these errors.
At camp, kids are constantly trying new things, failing repeatedly, and learning to overcome challenges. Without a parent next to them—someone who always steps in to “make it better”—kids learn to embrace their failures and grow from each one.
Camp gives kids a chance for non-competitive, loving relationships with humans
“Kids need to be loved unconditionally at home so they can love themselves and go out in the world and have the capacity to love and be loved. When we talk to kids, it shouldn’t be all about what they’ve accomplished, what they have to do next, with little chirps of ‘perfect,’ and ‘great job, buddy’ thrown in.” – Julie Lythcott-Haims
At the crux of Lythcott-Haims’ message to parents is that we need to listen to our kids, find out what they’re interested in, and let them know they are loved regardless of what their SAT score is or what college accepts them. They need to know that they matter, just because they exist, and not because of any accomplishment.
At camp, campers describe the feeling of being able to relax and “be themselves.” Given more time to reflect and talk with friends, they can figure out what they really enjoy. Stepping away from the competitive grind of school and athletics offers an important breather and chance for kids to be appreciated and loved for who they are, not for anything they’ve done.
Slowly releasing the leash
As a parent, I love staying connected and getting texts and calls from my college-age kids. But I’ve also seen how, over the college years, the tone and frequency of our communication has changed. In the beginning, we were still getting used to being apart (and missing each other a lot) and were in communication frequently. We’re not any less close now, and we still treasure our time together, but our parent-child relationships have evolved. I now see my kids as young adults who are responsible for themselves. I trust their judgment and their ability to make decisions without me. They don’t feel the need to get their dad’s or my opinion on every little decision. We, of course, still talk about big stuff—college majors, future job plans—but even on those topics we serve in more of a “bounce ideas off” capacity, not as decision makers. There are important things that kids of every generation have benefitted from asking parental advice for. But what they eat for breakfast, clubs they join, part time jobs they take, or who they spend time with are their own decisions. These days, I get more newsy information about their lives than questions about “What should I do?” And that seems appropriate as they launch themselves into adulthood.
Lythcott-Haims describes our job as older adults to assist “younger humans” with their lives, and that’s what our role as parents should evolve into as well—one of support and guidance when asked, not one of moment-to-moment interference and supervision. Camp experiences give both kids and parents a glimpse into that new type of relationship, one where the loving bond continues but the child’s autonomy grows.
As Lythcott-Haims so eloquently stated, “Camp can be that place, that outstretched hand in the life of a kid. […] You give kids something that a loving family can’t give—the knowledge that they will succeed outside of a loving family. This is something every kid—every one of us—needs to learn.”
If you’d like to read more of Camp Director Audrey “Sunshine” Monke’s thoughts on camp, parenting, and life, visit her website at Sunshine Parenting.
I remember my first year at GAC, I was so nervous to be spending time away from my parents. I was only seven years old! The moment I got off the bus at camp, everyone was so welcoming and we even got Goldie’s Cookies. Immediately I felt comfortable. Since that first day, I’ve never gotten homesick, and by the end of camp I don’t want to leave! GAC is my home away from home, and I don’t know what I would do with out it!
Melissa Wald is not only an enthusiastic seven-year veteran GAC camper, but also a generous young adult who wants to share the camp experience with others. For her Mitzvah Project, she raised $1,000 for the Manny Vezie Fund, a camp scholarship operated through the Max and Marion Caldwell Foundation. Melissa’s donation will help a camper who would not otherwise be able to afford a GAC camp experience to attend camp. We caught up with Melissa at the Los Angeles GAC Chat and asked her some questions about her generosity.
GAC: Can you explain what a Mitzvah Project is?
MW: A Mitzvah Project is something the Bar/Bat Mitzvah does for the greater good. When preparing for this special day, one attends Hebrew School for many years. I’ve been attending since Kindergarten, twice a week. We learn about the Hebrew language, how to speak and read it, and equally as important, we learn stories and lessons from the Torah and how they can be applied to living our best lives. One of the lessons is Tikkun Olam – “healing the world.” Tikkun Olam is the genesis of a Mitzvah Project.
MW: I decided to raise money for a campership because GAC is my favorite place on the planet! It is so special to me that I get to go every year for two sessions and experience all of the awesome activities and memories GAC creates. My best friends in life are my camp friends, and I’m so lucky! After camp, two years ago near the time of my Bat Mitzvah, I realized not every kid has the same opportunity and good fortune as I to be able to go to GAC. I want every kid to have the same chance to experience all the beautiful, inspiring, and amazing experiences that GAC has to offer. GAC has given so much to me over the past seven years, and I thought I should give back in a meaningful and life-changing way.
GAC: How did you raise the money?
MW: In raising money for the Vezie Fund, I decided not to ask my parents or immediate family, as I feel as though they are always so generous and giving to me. I also did not want to send emails nor directly ask my friends, because I go to a public magnet school where 50% of the students live at the poverty level, and they themselves can’t afford camp. I decided to take a portion of my monetary gifts and donate it from my own savings and have this gift truly be a donation of my very own.
GAC: How has your camp experience positively influenced your growth and development? What new skills have you learned?
MW: My camp experience has positively influenced my growth and development because GAC enforces the “have fun, make friends, and grow!” philosophy. GAC has taught me to let loose once in a while, support my friends and family and to learn from these experiences. GAC taught me to “be the change I want to see in the world” and to never give up. New skills that I have learned from camp socially are to treat others the way you would like to be treated, respect people in your life, as well as your environment, and that you can express yourself appropriately without hurting another person’s feelings or creating drama. New skills that I have learned that are recreational are knee boarding, water skiing, wake boarding, sailing, horseback riding, rock climbing, team building, and many more. All of these skills have helped to remind me to be the best person I can be and to live life to its fullest.
GAC: What’s your favorite part about GAC?
MW: My favorite part about GAC and why I return year after year are the friends that I make. My very best friends, the ones that will help me with anything… always be there for me… and that I can count on, I met at GAC. My favorite month of the whole year is when I go to camp. As I write this I am in tears because it’s my last year as a camper. However, the friends and memories one makes at GAC last a lifetime.
All of us at GAC want to thank Melissa for her generosity!
“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 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.” – 2014 Camp Parent
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.”