By Camp Director Audrey “Sunshine” Monke
There are so many reasons great parents choose to send their kids to summer camp. Several 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 Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, Camp Director
Taking risks and trying new things – both of which can feel very uncomfortable – are daily occurrences at GAC. Campers are challenged to get outside their comfort zone, both physically and mentally. And in that “discomfort zone,” growth happens.
Physically, we live in tents, without electricity, and sleep in our sleeping bags on sometimes-squeeky, army-style bunks. We hike down a path to get to the bathroom, and we use flashlights to find our PJs. Camp doesn’t have many of the comforts of home, but in our rustic living we discover that we can live – very happily – without the luxuries of our own bathroom and a feather-top mattress!
Mentally, we get outside our comfort zone when we try something that we’ve never tried before. Sometimes we have to climb up really high or jump into a lake. We try things that we don’t think we’ll be good at. We try things that are a little scary. We say, “I can” to ourselves and listen to our counselors and cabin mates encouragement. We say “Hit it!” to the boat driver and get up on water skiis for the first time. And our discomfort and fear turns to pride and confidence! And, we gain a new willingness to take risks and try new things in other settings.
We want campers to feel comfortable and at home, but we also know that campers will also feel uncomfortable at times. And It’s from those moments that campers will grow and learn the most!
“We regularly witness varying levels of discomfort at camp. Parents may receive a sad, homesick letter from their camper detailing how uncomfortable, miserable, and sad their camper is feeling. It’s difficult for parents to know how to respond, and the natural instinct may be to jump in the car and rush up the mountain to save their camper from this discomfort.
But, as I’ve learned over my three decades at camp, the “saving” never turns out to be as helpful as it may seem. In fact, when struggling campers are saved rather than having to face the challenges of camp, they learn their parents don’t think they can handle discomfort, and in turn they lose a little faith in themselves; on top of being miserable, they now feel incompetent.
How can we best help our kids develop into adults who persevere and can handle life’s inevitable setbacks?
We must learn to coach our children to tolerate their discomfort”. Read more of “Why Kids Need to Get Uncomfortable.“
On episode 16 of the GAC Pog-Cast, Sunshine talks with long-time camper and Junior Counselor Henry Yeary. Henry has some great insights into what makes the Junior Counselor (JC) program good for teens, as well as thoughts about taking a gap year before college and why he lives the flip phone life. Soy drops in with a joke of the cast that vampires will enjoy as well as a GACspiration from John Muir.
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.