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.
The Outdoor Leadership Course is a two-week program for young people interested in developing outdoor leadership skills. Trained leaders guide OLC participants on a challenging, six-day, 30-mile backpacking trip into the High Sierras. Throughout the session, campers develop backcountry navigational and survival skills, practice wilderness first aid skills, and participate in GAC activities.
The purpose of the OLC is to challenge teens to learn and grow in self-awareness, develop maturity, and discover the value of community and working with others to solve problems and accomplish shared objectives.
There’s no shortage of people who believe teens leaving high school need to be taught more skills than reading, writing and basic math to be successful, thriving adults. What are those skills, though, and how do we incorporate this kind of learning into busy schedules and short attention spans? The OLC was designed to equip and empower campers to learn and practice hard skills that lead to the development of five specific life skills: Leadership, Independence, Communication Skills, Resilience, and Responsibility.
“Being a part of OLC has influenced my life after camp because it taught me how to be a leader and being a part of a high school swim team, being a leader is a big part of staying together as a team.” – Sophia, OLC Participant
Teens are more likely to be a leader upon completion of an outdoor leadership course. After arriving at camp, OLC participants will receive leadership training before departing on the backpacking trip. They will do exercises in team building, learn conflict
resolution techniques, and practice positive communication. While in the wilderness, campers will have the opportunity to learn and practice map and compass navigation, outdoor cooking, Leave No Trace principles and ethics, sustainable backcountry living, and wildlife biology.
All OLC participants will be a “Leader of the Day,” which means each camper will use navigational skills to determine which path to take, when to stop for breaks, and what to do about any situation that arises while hiking. At the end of the day, the “Leader of the Day” will receive feedback from trip leaders and peers.
Achieving independence is essential to making the transition to adulthood, and participating in an outdoor leadership course away from home is a perfect way to develop independence. The hard skills learned during the OLC — navigation, outdoor cooking, wilderness first aid, camping, and hiking — require independence, curiosity, and creative problem solving.
“I really enjoyed getting to discover myself in the woods, thinking and hiking and communicating with my fellow campers.” – Blake, OLC Participant
Effective communication is arguably the most important of ALL life skills. Whether we communicate verbally or non-verbally, at home, school or work, we are constantly communicating with the world around us. Trained trip leaders use positive guidance to facilitate reflection, dialogue and group discussion at the end of every night. They make sure each camper thinks about what happened that day, what successes and mistakes were made, and how to grow from those experiences. At the end of the course, all OLC participants will have developed positive communication skills with peers and counselors.
Research shows that wilderness courses are well-suited to teach outdoor skills, self-confidence in general and confidence during adversity. Participation in an outdoor leadership program has a positive impact on emotional intelligence, specifically on stress management and adaptability. All OLC participants set personal and group goals before leaving on the backpacking portion of the course and work to accomplish those goals throughout the session with the help, direction, and encouragement of trip leaders.
Effective OLC participants are responsible for personally handling their equipment, completing tasks carefully and on time, admitting their role in mistakes, and working to correct those mistakes. The OLC equips campers to take the initiative to make their own decisions, fulfill obligations, and grow from their experiences.
In addition to the skills OLC participants learn and the growth from the program, there is a lot of FUN to be had as well!
“What I enjoyed about the OLC was that everyday was different, some days we would do longer hikes, and others we would have lot of time to relax and the enjoy the people and scenery. One of my favorite days out in the backcountry was when when we hiked about 5 miles and then hung out in a river for the rest of the afternoon, and then made quesadillas for dinner. The food was always amazing, and there was always plenty to eat. My favorite lunch was probably Nutella and English muffins. We had a lot of Nutella.” – Charlotte, OLC Participant