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
Pog-Cast Episode 4
On episode 4 of the Pog-Cast, Soy is joined by 2016 Coach’s Award winner Kettle. She talks about why she’s so happy at camp, how campers can be happy, and shares some WOWs. Soy also has WOWs, Joke of the Cast, and Sandwich shares a haiku in PoCo. You can read more about Kettle in this article about her winning 2016 Coach’s Award.
In 2009, Gold Arrow Camp lost a dear friend. Ken “Coach” Baker (March 10, 1951 – April 5, 2009) worked at GAC as Assistant Director and Director from 1981-1992, and he had a huge, positive impact on many still at camp today. Ken was instrumental in helping the Monke family purchase Gold Arrow from Jeanie Vezie in 1989 and mentored Sunshine and Monkey during their early years. Ken’s wife, Carol “Mama Bear” Baker, was also a long-time staff member at GAC. Many current staff who were former campers may remember Mama Bear from her many years as Camp Mom. Ken’s daughter, Ali “Picaflor” Baker, was a camper throughout her childhood, continued on as a CIT, and spent a summer working as an Activity Counselor on the Waterfront.
In 2009, Gold Arrow Camp established “Coach’s Award” to honor Ken. This award is given each year to a leader at camp, nominated by his or her peers, who motivates others through positive leadership and encouraging words and exemplifies Ken “Coach” Baker’s dedication to GAC’s vision. There is a wooden plaque in the Camp Store to commemorate Coach and past counselors who have received the award.
Many 2015 staff who met the qualifications for this award and stand out for their positive attitudes and encouraging words for others. In all, 34 different staff members were nominated for being a positive, encouraging, supportive leader. How awesome! This is a testament to the positive culture and leadership that has been established at GAC, thanks to the influence of Coach and the leaders who have followed in his footsteps. Those nominated received a copy of the comments that went with his or her nomination in the hopes that counselors recognize what an honor it is to be distinguished in this way through recognition by peers at camp.
Sebastian “Baboon” Boon, the 2015 “Coach’s Award” recipient, stood out for the largest number of staff who were influenced by the many positive qualities that make him an outstanding counselor and leader. Not only is he amazingly positive and energetic, but he also has the ability to make any activity or event super fun. This was also one of Coach’s great qualities.
Here are a few things counselors had to say about him:
“He is the embodiment of what it is to be an amazing counselor. He is always upbeat and willing to help and answer any question. The kids love him so much, and I’ve never heard him say anything negative.”
“He is always positive, fun, wacky, and committed to sharing this with campers, but he is also always safe, appropriate, supportive, and efficient.”
“Always positive, a leader by example, and passionate about teaching campers new things.” The words positive and energetic popped up in almost all of his nomination comments, and those were two of Coach’s best qualities.”
This is Baboon’s second year on staff at GAC. He served as the Waterfront Director this summer. Baboon is originally from a village in the North Downs in Surrey, England. He is passionate about water sports, and he is an experienced coach and competitive wakeboarder. While living in England, he spent his weekends teaching wakeboarding. His endless high energy, positivity, patience, and passion make him an easy favorite among campers and counselors. Baboon has never met a stranger! His willingness to jump in whenever help is needed and his dedication to working hard is inspiring. You can find out more about Baboon on the GAC blog.
Congratulations, Baboon, on being the 2015 recipient of the Coach’s Award! We love you!
Many of my conversations with other parents revolve around academics: what our children are or are not learning in school, how good their teachers are, and, now that my oldest are in college, what they need to do to be successful in life. I believe that a good, solid education is going to provide my children with more opportunities for success as adults. I think most parents would agree. There are some other parenting priorities, however, that I think are sometimes overlooked when we get ultra-focused on academics. These are character assets that, coupled with a good education, will truly be the key to future happiness and success for our kids. One trait that I want my kids to develop is optimism, and it is something we focus on here at Gold Arrow Camp, as well.
Optimism seems to come naturally to some people. They see the best in every situation and person, never let a failure get them down, and basically look on the bright side. For optimists, a rainy day is a positive thing, an opportunity for dust to settle and the air to be cleared. A failed attempt at something new is viewed as a step towards future success. A counselor once told me a story about a remarkable camper in his group. The young boy was struggling with hitting the target at archery, but instead of getting frustrated and giving up, as kids often do, he had a smile and a great outlook. He let his counselor and cabin mates know that he was going to “hit the target soon,” and he just needed to “keep on trying.” That kind of optimistic spirit will take that young man far in life!
But what about the not-so-naturally-optimistic kid? As parents (and camp counselors), we can help nurture the trait of optimism in our kids.
- Let them try new things, even if they don’t always work out.
- Tell them to dream big but to start small.
- Encourage them to learn from others but to always be themselves.
- Make sure they do a little something every day, and a little nothing every day.
- Help them to notice what’s nice and to deal with what’s not.
- Encourage them to look outside themselves and inside themselves.”
According to Dr. Christine Carter in her booking Raising Happiness, “Ten-year-olds who are taught to think and interpret the world optimistically are half as prone to depression when they later go through puberty.” Wow! With the rising statistics on kids and adults who suffer from depression and anxiety, that’s a pretty powerful reason to focus on helping our kids be more optimistic!
Carter recommends three ways parents (and counselors) can help kids be more optimistic: give affection; teach kids to cope with challenges and frustration; and model optimism ourselves. At camp, kids have ample opportunities to try new, often challenging activities. Learning to deal with the frustration of not being able to get up on water skiis on the first, second, third, or fourth try is a powerful lesson in both persistence and optimism. Our role is to help kids learn to handle setbacks and frustrations in a positive way and realize that “success is 99% failure.” (Soichiro Honda)
“Optimism is so closely related to happiness that the two can practically be equated,” says Carter, whose research has found that optimistic people are:
- More successful in school, at work, and in athletics
- Healthier and longer lived
- More satisfied with their marriages
- Less likely to suffer from depression
- Less anxious
In the article “Raise Your Children to be Optimists,” Elizabeth Scott, MS, gives these ten tips for parents:
- Help Them Experience Success
- Give Credit for Success
- Look for Future Success
- Don’t Praise Indiscriminately
- Validate, but Question
- Remember Success in the Face of Failure
- Look for “Opportunities to Improve”
- Look for the Bright Side
- Don’t Use Negative Labels
- Make an example of yourself
Smiling is another powerful tool in promoting optimism, so we practice a lot of smiling around GAC!
Last summer, I conducted research on the impact camp experiences have on children’s social skills and happiness. This research was through the California State University, Fresno for my master’s degree thesis entitled, “The Perceived Impact of Camp Experiences on Youth Social Skills and Subjective Well-Being.”
“Camp is basically my happy place, and I love being here
more than any other place in the world.”
– 2014 GAC Camper
“Happy camper” is an expression used to describe anyone who’s feeling good about something in any circumstance. But just how happy are actual campers who attend overnight summer camp? Last summer, in research conducted at seven different residential summer camps that included over 3,000 campers, I set out to answer that very question.
When campers completed their normal end-of-camp survey (used by camps to get feedback about the experience), additional questions in 2014 asked about happiness. From those, 80% of campers reported that their camp experience made them happier, with 31% of kids saying they felt “a little happier” because of camp and 49% saying they felt “a lot” happier. Here are a few of their comments:
“It was the best time of my life.”
“It’s one of my favorite places on Earth.”
“Camp is the most fun I have all year.”
“I had so much fun and everybody was nice to me.”
“Camp is a fun and happy place.”
“Camp is a really fun environment where I can learn and have fun, make friends, and grow as a person.”
“I get to play with my friends.”
“I have been here for five years and 99% of the time I’m happy (except for arrival and packing day).”
“Camp makes me feel happy.”
“The counselors are super funny.”
“Camp is an amazing place with no worries.”
“I enjoy the safe, active, friendly atmosphere.”
“Camp is very fun and sometimes I miss my family, but most of the time I feel at home.”
“It is very good to get away from technology and meet new adventures.”
“Camp is so much fun and has better things to do than be a couch potato.”
“I get to do activities I don’t get to do at home.”
“At home, I am bored most of the time. At camp, I am never bored.”
We also asked campers to tell us how they felt emotionally while at camp, and 86% of them reported feeling happy “most of the time” or “more of the time than sad,”compared to 70% who felt those same levels of happiness when they were not at camp. In fact, 2,032 (62%) of the 3,197 campers who answered the question said they felt happy “most of the time” at camp, compared to 1,334 (41%) who said they felt happy “most of the time” when they were not at camp.
Finally, when asked what they liked about camp and why they wanted to return, 1,047 campers mentioned the word “fun,” and 635 mentioned the word “friend.”
Campers often describe camp as their “happy place” or “the best two weeks” of their year. And, from observation, anyone can see that kids and the counselors who work with them appear 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. Now, our findings have proven that the anecdotal stories are true and that most kids are, in fact, happier at camp.
So why is that the case? While that research has yet to be done, other research in the field of positive psychology may hold the answer. Martin Seligman—the father of positive psychology and a major figure in the wellbeing movement—has identified five areas that lead to the condition he calls “flourishing,” encapsulated in the acronym PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. PERMA critics say there are few places where all five can be found together, but in the context of our study, camp is one such place. In short, camp may be just the positive intervention some kids need to flourish!
So go ahead and use the term “happy camper” to refer to people who are happy and flourishing, because kids at camp are, indeed, “happy campers”!
Last summer, I conducted research on the impact camp experiences have on children’s social skills and happiness. This research was through the California State University, Fresno for my master’s degree thesis entitled, “The Perceived Impact of Camp Experiences on Youth Social Skills and Subjective Well-Being.”
Children and adolescents require more than intellectual growth and physical health to become happy, successful adults. They also need to develop the social skills necessary for positive relationships with others (Crosnoe, 2000). The importance of quality childhood friendships for well-being both during childhood and later in life has been clearly established, and many camp programs specifically focus on fostering those friendships, along with teaching, modeling, and practicing social skills.
Campers look like they’re having a lot of fun playing outdoors and learning new activities, but are they also learning life skills during just two weeks at a residential summer camp? That was one of the primary questions of this study, which examined the perceived impact of a two-week residential camp experience on children’s happiness and social skills development. Participants were 167 children ages 6-15 from six different two-week, residential summer camps in Arizona, California, and Colorado. The children completed an end-of-camp written survey during the summer of 2014 in which they were asked to rate (1-5) how much they thought their social skills were impacted by their camp stay. Did their social skills, for example, get a lot worse (1) or a lot better (5)?
Participants’ parents went on-line to complete the same survey two to four weeks after their child’s camp stay. Both children and parents reported significant positive changes in the children’s social skills and happiness as a result of their two-week camp experience, and 140 of 147 (95%) children reported improvement in their overall social skills.
Social Skills Improvement
|Social Skill||% of Campers Reporting Improvement||Mean Answer|
|Choose people who would be good to be friends with.||64% (107 out of 156)||3.91|
|Get to know more things about my friends.||74% (123 out of 155)||4.18|
|Enjoy being with my friends.||69% (115 out of 157)||4.17|
|Help my friends have a good time when they are with me.||64% (107 out of 157)||4.03|
|Find ways to meet people I want to be friends with.||65% (108 out of 157)||4.06|
|Get to know people who I might want to become friends with.||73% (122 out of 157)||4.10|
|Listen carefully to things that my friends tell me.||60% (100 out of 156)||3.94|
|Understand my friends’ emotions.||62% (103 out of 157)||4.01|
Focus on Friendship
Camp counselors, unlike teachers, view their primary role as one of facilitating friendships and positive experiences. They are also trained to help campers build social skills. At most camp programs, counselors participate in up to a week of training prior to the summer. Sessions include exercises in communication, leadership, and team building, during which counselors are trained to lead “ice-breakers” that help campers get to know one another and connect. Making friends is an important part of the camp experience, and with the help of their counselors, children learn and practice their friend-making skills. Given that camp programs emphasize forming new friendships and rekindling old friendships, the finding that children felt their social skills improved as a result of camp supports the hypothesis of this study and anecdotal testimonials. Not surprisingly, all campers (100%) reported making new friends at camp, with 99% of campers’ parents (132/133) reporting the same.
How many new friends did you make at camp?
|Number of New Friends||% of campers|
|10 or more friends||44%|
Note: 10 children (6%) did not answer the question.
How do camp experiences foster friendships and develop campers’ social skills?
While the specific mechanisms for social skills development were not part of this study, campers’ comments provide some clues as to why camp experiences help foster close friendships and improved social skills.
- Sense of belonging and social acceptance, understanding their value to the camp community:
“I’m not exaggerating, camp is my favorite place on Earth. The people provide a sense of belonging and ‘welcomeness.’ I’ll be back next year!”
“I liked the freedom you are provided with and how many new friends you can make within two weeks!”
“Camp is really fun and it’s usually hard to make friends, but here it’s easy.”
“I get to make new friends and grow better friendships with existing friends.”
- Opportunity to practice skills like cooperation, altruism, and empathy:
“What I like best about camp is creating connections and having a new home.”
“What I like best about camp is hanging out with my friends.”
“Camp helps me come out of my shell.”
“It’s fun and I get to play with my friends.”
- Improved ability to label emotions in facial expressions, more time in face-to-face communication (no screens!):
“I want to come back to camp to get away from electronics, and I really like this experience.”
“I liked that there are no electronics, like a cleanse.”
- Opportunity to practice their conversation skills at meals, activities, around the campfire, during rest time and while walking around camp:
“I loved doing activities with my cabin group and just talking to them.”
“The best thing about camp is the bonding time you spend with your cabin mates.”
- Meeting new people:
“I loved all of the wonderful counselors and the friends I made.”
Children who live together in close quarters, share activity and meal times, and gather around campfires in discussion and games get an intense burst of time with one another and often report feeling closer to their friends at camp—with whom they spend only two weeks—than to their school friends. Because they are with each other so much and—at the six camps of focus in this study—are required to unplug from electronics, children at summer camp spend more time in intentional, directed conversation as compared to when they are not at camp. Trained counselors lead campers through team- and relationship-building activities throughout the day, skills that are more deeply developed thanks to increased face-to-face communication.
At camp, children are socializing with one another from the moment they wake up until the minute they fall asleep. They have time to internalize group social norms and learn appropriate social interactions by emulating counselors and fellow campers. For a child who has grown up in the same neighborhood or gone to the same school their whole life, camp may be the first opportunity to meet such a large number of new friends and interact with a diverse group of people. Campers get practice talking to new people, figuring out appropriate self-disclosure, and asking questions to get to know others. It’s no surprise that campers and parents believe camp improves social skills. Those two weeks each summer spent at camp may, indeed, be life changing. And new friends and improved social skills may be the reason!
Crosnoe, R. (2000). Friendships in childhood and adolescence: The life course and new directions. Social Psychology Quarterly, 63(4), 377-391. doi: 10.2307/2695847
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Written by Christine Carter, Ph.D.
I will never, not ever, forget the first time I dropped my kids off at Gold Arrow Camp.
The drop-off didn’t go very well.
When I was a kid, I begged and begged to go to sleep-a-way camp with my best friend, Rory. I did extra chores to earn it, and I counted the days until I got there. I don’t remember being homesick or sad at the drop-off. I remember feeling wild and free. I loved the horses and the outdoors and ceramics. I got postcards from my teachers. It was awesome.
My kids had mixed feelings about going to camp that first year: they were excited, but also scared. “TWO WEEKS!?” my youngest cried when I told her what, to me, was great news: They were going to summer camp! “They have horses!” I said cheerfully, trying to drum up excitement. “And sailing! I’ve never been sailing myself,” I mourned. “You’ll get to do it before I do!”
I said this knowing full well that sailing is actually not on my daughters’ bucket list. It’s on mine.
The kids spent the last few weeks readying for camp and making serious sister pacts to stick together. My younger daughter, Molly, was particularly concerned about what would happen if her older sister made friends first. Would Fiona and she still pick the same activities? Could Molly join Fiona with her new friends? Pinky-swears of allegiance were traded, plans to sneak into each other’s cabins made.
Molly had a plan: Fiona would take care of her. She was nervous, but also excited.
Fiona was calm, reassuring.
That is, until about an hour before we arrived at camp. At which point Fiona became more clammy than cool and collected. She developed vague “not feeling well” symptoms. She was too carsick to eat lunch. When we arrived, she was faintly green.
Altitude sick, I declared. “Drink some water,” I insisted. “Take deep breaths,” I said, taking them myself. “Think good thoughts, Fiona. Find two things to be excited about.”
Frankly, I was feeling faint myself.
But the thing is, I believe that it is important to challenge kids. To get them truly outside of their comfort zones so that they can grow. Hence two weeks instead of a mini-camp.
My desire to challenge my kids was reinforced in an Atlantic article about “Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods.” The gist of this article is that “kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems.” And the article is right—they don’t.
The article reminded me that happiness—an often fleeting emotion—in and of itself is not the goal. That comfort—my own or my children’s—is not the goal. Instead, all of this is about how to lead a happy life. And while it’s true that a happy life comes from positive emotions (like gratitude and compassion, for example), it also comes from having the tools we need to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties and painful moments.
My kids have had their difficulties in the last several years—my divorce, a move away from a beloved school and neighborhood, a humbling medical situation—and they’ve risen to each challenge, though not without pain.
(I’d like to pause to acknowledge that even with those difficulties, my kids have a pretty cushy life. We don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from or where we will sleep tonight. That said, the fear the kids had anticipating me leaving them at camp was very real to all of us.)
At any rate, by sending my kids to camp, I was sending them the message that I believe that they can manage loneliness, and homesickness, and anxiety. I believed that they could, at the tender ages of 8 and 10, handle these difficult emotions themselves, without me standing over their shoulders telling them to breathe. As awful as it sometimes feels to me, they simply don’t always need me there, telling them what to do and what to think.
By sending my kids to camp, I send them the message that I think it is incredibly important to unplug for a while every year. And not just from electronics and phones and computers and TVs, but also from their well-meaning but often over-bearing mom. They learn that it won’t kill them to not report back to me on every high point and low point of their day, every kind deed, every “good thing.”
In sending my kids to camp, I make it abundantly clear what I value: real time spent outdoors, the social skills needed to make new friends, compassion, gratitude (compassion and gratitude are themes at GAC), and most importantly, their own autonomy.
I say all this, but of course deep down I wanted it to be easy for them. So when Fiona became so nervous as we dropped her off that she needed to lie down in the infirmary, I also became a nervous wreck.
“She’ll be fine,” the camp nurse, Tigger, reassured me. “Now we need you to hop on that van – it is the last one headed back to the parking lot!”
I had become the lingering parent who wouldn’t leave and who was making the whole thing worse for her kid by trying to make it better. But who could fault me for not wanting to leave my kid IN THE INFIRMARY?! I justified to myself.
In the end, Fiona rallied, but not before she became so nervous she threw up, just minutes after I got on the bus back to the parking lot. She spent her first four hours at camp with the nurse, who french-braided her hair and gave her cold cloths for her forehead until she was feeling better. She looks back on that time and mostly remembers being bored; Tigger needed to be sure she didn’t have a flu or something, and so even once Fiona felt fine, she had to stay in the infirmary for a while.
I didn’t know until she got home that Fiona had thrown up (thank goodness I didn’t know that; who knows what I would have done if I knew). Once I got back to my car, two weeks of profound discomfort began for me.
I spent those two weeks obsessively checking the camp website for photos and my mailbox for postcards, looking for evidence that my girls were happy. I answered dozens of emails and comments on my blog, defending my decision to send my kids to camp, and to leave Fiona there in the infirmary, terrified.
After what seemed like two years, the kids camp home on the GAC bus, wearing t-shirts that said, “Happy Camper.” And, in fact, that is what they were: so, so happy.
Two weeks of being unplugged helped them tune into nature in a way they don’t anywhere else. Though both reported missing home, they found comfort in knowing that they could cope with homesickness. They each tried dozens of new activities and sports, took on new challenges, and learned to accept their discomfort as a part of their growth.
Both kids made friends that they kept in touch with all year, and hope to return to GAC every year with “forever.”
Still, sending kids to camp is not for wimps. It requires a leap of faith that the difficulty (and, l’ll just say it, that the cost) will be worth it. It requires an ability to manage the emotional discomfort that comes with not-knowing, not-controlling, not-checking—it requires just trusting. But I’m comfortable with that discomfort.
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a parent coach and the author of RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. She coaches and teaches online classes in order to help parents bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children, and she writes an award-winning blog for parents and couples. She is also a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Sign up for her short weekly Happiness Tips at www.christinecarter.com.