Campfire Notes

The Blessing Of The Least Favorite Activity

The Blessing Of The Least Favorite Activity

A camper sails an RS Q'ba on Huntington Lake California at Gold Arrow Camp

by Audrey “Sunshine” Monke

Wendy Mogel’s best selling book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, resonated with me. I can relate much of her message to camp and to my own family. I heard Dr. Mogel speak at a conference several years ago, and she continues to be active in the camp community. Many of our camp parents have heard her speak at school parenting events or have read her book. If you haven’t had a chance to read The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, I highly recommend it. In addition to sharing about the importance of letting our kids take healthy risks, and not always rescuing them from failure, Mogel gives many other valuable insights. She has recognized the value of camp experiences in the development of emotionally healthy kids, as you can read in the article “Camp Blessings” on her website.

A question I often get asked, especially by kids who haven’t yet been to GAC, is “What if I don’t want to do an activity?” Sometimes it starts with a statement, “I don’t like horses. Do I have to do that activity?”

My short answer is, “You won’t be forced to do any activities, but you will still go with your group, and you will be encouraged to try.”

I think there are three main reasons kids don’t want to do a particular activity, and they are the same reasons why adults often choose to forgo some recreational options:

1.  A previous negative experience with the activity, usually not at camp and not with experienced instructors.

A camper at Gold Arrow Camp falls off of a wake skate during a specialty summer camp on Shaver Lake in California

Falling off a horse, being dragged behind a ski boat and not getting up, or getting lost on a hike are all examples of negative experiences that make a person naturally inclined not to want to try again.

2.  Fear!

Fear of being humiliated. Fear of failure. Fear of heights.  Fear of deep lake water.  Fear of rocks.  Fear of going to the bathroom in the woods. Fear of getting hurt. The list goes on and on.

3.  Based on their perception of themselves or their past successes/failures, they think they won’t like it.

It’s not in their normal repertoire of things they like and/or are good at.

A camper at Gold Arrow Camp practices vaulting on a horse at a summer camp in California

I’m sure there are other reasons for kids to not want to do an activity, but these are three that readily come to mind from what campers have told me over the years. Interestingly, the reasons kids don’t want to do an activity are the very reason for trying the activity may be the best thing that happens at camp for that camper.

If a child doesn’t want to do an activity because of a previous negative activity, trying it at camp could lead to either a changed mind (and a new activity they like) or, at the very least, a not-as-negative experience to remember.

If a camper doesn’t want to do an activity because of fear, then trying the activity could be the most life-changing Campers work together to cross a high ropes course at Gold Arrow Camp in Californiaevent that occurs for that camper during their camp stay. Overcoming fears and challenging oneself to attempt something that seems impossible can lead to great feelings of accomplishment and improved confidence. With the support and encouragement from cabin mates and counselors, campers feel on top of the world after successfully trying something they feared.  For the camper with a fear of heights, climbing half-way up the ladder on the high ropes course will be celebrated as a huge accomplishment, and one that can make him/her proud. This is an example of something hard that leads to something good, a theme that Dr. Mogel stresses. The camp environment offers a supportive place for kids to learn how to overcome fears and accomplish things they didn’t think were possible.

If a camper doesn’t want to do an activity because they don’t think they’ll like it based on their preferences or perception of themselves, trying something different offers an opportunity for expanded confidence. A camper who sees himself as non-athletic and more adept at target sports may shy away from the more physical activities, yet trying and accomplishing them could change his perception of himself in a positive way. A camper who likes shopping and clothes and sees herself as not an “outdoorsy” kind of person may dread going on a backpacking trip. Yet, the experience of cooking and sleeping outdoors could lead to an expanded view of herself and an appreciation for the many different facets of a personality. Sometimes, the activity a camper thought would be their least favorite becomes a favorite!

So, when a camper tells us all the reasons why they “don’t want to” or “can’t” do an activity this summer, we will continue to encourage them to “give it a try,” because we know the hidden blessings in the least favorite activity.

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Messages For An Anxious Camper

Messages For An Anxious Camper

A camper smiles happily at summer camp while looking through a cargo net

Read more of Sunshine’s camp-related posts at her website, Sunshine Parenting.

“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 recently had a JC (Junior Counselor) 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.

A summer camp camper gives two thumbs up on a backpacking tripWe 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.

Smiling campers pose at a summer camp in front of a covered wagon

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.

Two campers in life jackets smile on a ski boat at an American summer camp

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 kneeboard?  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.”

A group of backpackers looks at a mountain lake in the high sierra
Looking at a mountain lake

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.”

Campers smile for the camera at summer camp in California

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.

 

 

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