By Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, Camp Director. Originally published at Sunshine Parenting.
While it’s easy to think of ways to teach our kids to do laundry or solve math problems, finding a way to instill important character traits isn’t as simple. The way we model traits we want our children to exhibit has a powerful influence on them, and some traits (kindness, gratitude, and generosity) they learn first and foremost from parents.
But there are other traits best learned through experiences outside the home and beyond the watchful (sometimes too watchful) eyes of parents. Camp experiences offer exactly the kind of experience away from home where children grow important character traits like independence, self-confidence, and grit.
“Looking back at my life, camp has been the most influential part of it. I can truly say camp is where I developed my independence, gained confidence, and learned what friendship truly means.”
Being hyper-involved and in constant communication with our children has become something modern parents brag about. But when do we start letting go and giving our kids a chance to feel independent? This has become much more challenging in an age where cell phones are always attached to our (and their) hips and tracking apps are ubiquitous. In fact, as parents today we tend to foster dependence even when we’re trying not to. Forgot their lunch? A friend says something mean? Stubbed their toe? We know right away and swoop in to help.
Whether the result of parenting trends or ultra-high levels of physical and digital connectedness, today’s children are much less independent than we were at the same age. I find it hard to resist editing my son’s paper to make it “just a little bit better” or jumping in to help make his lunch when he’s running late for school. Thirty years ago, we were babysitting infants at age 13. Today, some of us hire babysitters for our 13-year-olds!
Camp experiences offer the unique opportunity for kids to see how much they can do without us hovering nearby. They build their independence skills because they take more responsibility for themselves and their belongings, make their own decisions, and feel a sense of autonomy. For many kids, camp is the first opportunity they’ve had to experience these things.
“Camp has really helped me become more confident with who I am and has helped me try new things. Without camp, I would be too shy to go up to someone and introduce myself. Camp has had a giant impact on my personality, and without it I would be a completely different person.”
When we tell our kid she’s “great” at something, it’s easy for her to be wary of the praise. We parents are notorious for seeing our kids through rose-colored lenses and thinking they are the greatest at _______ (fill in the blank); our kids know intuitively that our assessment of them, however complimentary, is most likely not accurate or objective.
However, when another respected adult mentor – like a camp counselor! – recognizes a positive trait in our child and points it out, that can have a powerful impact. When someone outside the immediate family recognizes our child’s unique qualities and helps him or her address weaknesses, it can build real self-confidence.
“I love the encouragement that I got, both from counselors and campers, to try new things all the time. I love that the camp encourages you to do that. The camp atmosphere made me stand out and be unique, in ways that I would have been too embarrassed to try at home.”
“Grit” became the new buzzword in education and parenting circles thanks to Paul Tough’s best-selling book, How Children Succeed. Angela Duckworth further cemented the importance of grit, or resilience, in her popular TED talk: Grit, the Power of Passion and Perseverance, and her book, Grit. People with grit have “stick-to-itiveness,” persistence, and resilience, all of which help them work hard and push past difficulties and failures.
We all need some grit. But how do we teach grit to a distinctively non-gritty kid or young adult—one who quits when something gets challenging, who doesn’t want to try anything new or difficult, or who prefers playing endless video games to practicing piano, reading, or some other more useful-seeming skill?
As parents, it’s hard to create experiences that require our children to use grit, but at camp those experiences happen every day. While struggling to climb the rock wall or attempting to get up on water skis for the 12th time, our kids develop their grit muscles in a big way at camp. And, they likely wouldn’t try for as long or as hard if we parents were hovering nearby with our worried expressions. At camp, kids are encouraged to set goals, challenge themselves, and overcome failure again and again. And that develops their grit.
Interrupting the cycle of dependence can only happen when we as parents are willing to encourage our children to develop their independence, self-confidence, and grit, and, though it may seem counter-intuitive, that happens best when we’re not around.
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.