When President Obama proposed his plans for reforming America’s schools last April, I wrote an op-ed because his strategy included extending the school day and school calendar. I have to assume he’s never been to camp, because anyone who has knows how pivotal it is to a child’s social education and positive youth development.

For the non-camp people – or if you would like affirmation and/or research to back your own anecdotal experience – click here to read my article, “Keep Camp in Summer,” which was published in Newsday on July 5.

I would personally love to hear what you think and will also share your thoughts with the folks at the American Camp Association who are passionate about providing a camp experience for every child.

Loosening the Digital Umbilical

It’s been called the longest umbilical cord in the world. That’s because the cell phone — and its related capability for texting – keeps kids and parents tethered throughout the day, unintentionally preventing children from making their own decisions and navigating their own world. Ironically, as millions across the country get ready for camp — the last bastion of an independence-fostering community for young people — the anticipated frenzy of working without a net, i.e., a cell phone, has found its way to the forefront of conversation!

Leaving the phone at home is a lot more than symbolic, especially in a world where children are more likely “in their free time to check their Facebook page than read a book,” according to English professor Mark Bauerlein, who wrote “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.”

It’s actually a fascinating distinction: modern technology, Bauerlein asserts, encourages children to think that they are the center of the universe. The camp community, in contrast, is centered on being a part of something bigger than oneself! The author goes on to say, “Parents must do more to pull their teens away from technology, including being role models….”
“Being off the grid may be the best thing for chill-challenged teens,” says Gary Rudman, author of gTrend Report.

ParentDish.com asks the question: “Isn’t getting outside of your comfort zone kind of the point of summer camp? It’s not just about eating s’mores and learning to paddle a canoe. It’s about growing through experiences that might initially feel uncomfortable to both teens and their parents.”

That said, I have a bold proposal: not only should campers leave their cell phones at home when they go to camp, but so should parents when they visit camp! It’s a golden opportunity for both generations to enjoy the best of what camp has to offer – time to connect with others, with nature, and with oneself.

“Big Chickens Fly the Coop” by Leslie Helakoski is a rollicking story of four chickens who venture from their cozy coop, ultimately conquering their fears and achieving their goals. The silly adventures and alliterative language provide a perfect backdrop for the positive aspects of confronting anxieties head-on.

Psychologist Chris Thurber observes, “Remember that camp is not… a breaking news story. It’s community living, away from home, in a natural, recreational setting. Nothing needs to be transmitted at the speed of light. Plus, children are exposed to electronic technology all year. It’s nice for them to have a break during the summer… Unplugging the digital umbilical promotes healthy growth and self-reliance.”

As for parents, turning off the cell phone has its well-documented benefits, not the least of which is giving parents the chance to be totally present for their children, once they enter the hallowed gates of camp. Everyone knows that this is a sanctuary, a respite from the “real world” and its accompanying demands of rapid responses. Imagine giving your child two gifts – the gift of camp AND the gift of your full attention!

That’s the real definition of wireless interpersonal networking!

Tuck-in Tips

  • Talk about a time when you really wanted to do something new but were afraid to try.
  • What do you think you could do next time in a similar situation?
  • Talk about a time when you were proud of yourself because you made a decision by yourself.

Slow Parenting a Prize

This is the most excited I have been about parenting trends in a long time. Lisa Belkin reported in the New York Times Magazine that a new wave is emerging that is modeled on slow cooking – “slow parenting.” It sure beats snowplow parenting, the 21st century iteration of helicopter parenting (you know, plowing all “obstacles” from the road).

But let’s stay with the food metaphor for a moment: slow food, a movement designed to counteract the fast food and the fast life, is a perfect illustration of the conundrum of what has become known as over-parenting, an inclination to raise children with a business plan. The tendency toward hyper-worry and hyper-connection which has flourished in the past decade was fueled in part by the “trophy kid syndrome” and in part by visceral post-9/11 fear.

Both understandable. But probably, experts tell us, not the best approach for bringing up resilient, courageous, and independent children.

I like Lenore Skenazy’s description of the new emerging attitude that might actually let kids be kids and enjoy their childhoods without the overarching, fear-mongering filters of adult worries: “free-range parenting” she tags it. A lot better method than “hothouse parenting,” another moniker attached to parents of the Homeland Generation (born in 2001 and later), because it brings to mind the notion of engineered fruits and vegetables. (Think hothouse tomato.)

Somewhere between the two extremes on the continuum of parenting lies the loving and firm approach, which leaves room both for acts of unconditional love as well as tough love, best characterized as giving kids opportunities to learn how to bounce back from adversity.
Maybe we could have “roasted parenting,” where the goal is to “retain as much flavor as possible while at the same time providing texture and color.” Okay, you get it. But can you do it?!

It requires a leap of faith, to be sure, in today’s environment; but just imagine the possibilities – if we keep this metaphor in the kitchen, children and parents both would no longer be fried to a crisp (Psychologist and author Wendy Mogel refers to college students as “Crispies”)!

Here’s where camp comes into focus, if I might digress – a perfect bridge because children are in the hands of trained, caring counselors who provide physical and emotional safety nets while still having opportunities to connect with nature, with others, and with themselves by making their own choices and solving their own problems – yet out of view from parents whose predilection is to create cages of protection. Karen Reivich, author of “The Resilience Factor,” explains that “resiliency lies in the space between a parent and a child.” Doesn’t that conjure up a positive image of “free-range parenting?”

I can’t resist this segue: “The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County” by Janice M. Harrington, is a delightful story about a little girl who loves to chase chickens and who learns to change her ways after numerous missteps. The first person narrative describes the child’s discoveries and subsequent change in perspective when she realizes that Miss Hen, a new mama, is cuddling “fuzzy chicks tight beneath her wing.” Indeed, this free-ranging chicken ultimately teaches the little girl a life lesson that otherwise would not be nearly as impactful had she been sheltered from the actual encounter. As an extra treat, the illustrations are gorgeous and the language is “delicious,” according to one reviewer.

Lisa Belkin expressed it well – presumed “parenting truths are really only parenting trends.” I see that as really good news. Think about it for just a moment – this could be the start of something big, a movement that frees the parent as well as the child! Baby steps.

And if you need a visual, consider the chicken’s two pre-ordained options: locked in a cage where he cannot get into difficulty but also cannot learn about the world, or roaming free on land that has boundaries nevertheless where he can explore his surroundings and develop his decision-making skills.

Tuck-in Tips

  • Talk about a mistake you have made. What did you learn from it?
  • Talk about a time where you really succeeded at something and surprised yourself!
  • What does Big Mama mean when she says, “You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it?”

Camp Tops the List

The media have been publishing stories related to the importance of camp against the backdrop of today’s economic woes. Some of the articles, in an effort to provide helpful advice, suggest that parents could eliminate camp from their household budgets – or truncate the experience in one way or another. Unfortunately, I think that reporters might be inadvertently misleading parents by advocating that children can do without the social education of the camp environment. While I know it can be a hard choice for families who are finding themselves in unexpected financial straits, I also know unequivocally that camp is not discretionary!

It’s not just me shouting from a soap box as a camp director.

It’s the research! Read it for yourself. Hear it from children who have benefited from a camp experience. Listen to parents underscore their kids’ growth in the essential 4Rs of camp: respect, responsibility, resilience, and resourcefulness.

The American Academy of Pediatrics verifies the anecdotal studies: “It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact with the world they can master, conquering fears while practicing adult roles. Creative free play protects a child’s emotional development and reduces a child’s risk of stress, anxiety, and depression.”

Just ask some successful adults who decided to let today’s parents know how camp changed their lives. Each of these celebrities attributes their camp experience to helping them invent or reinvent themselves. If you are skeptical, see and hear in their own words how their lives were improved “Because of camp.”

Some of the blog comments (not on this site!) I’ve recently read, in response to media stories, point out the difference between “camp people” and “non-camp people”! If you’ve never been to camp yourself, it’s truly hard to understand the intangible value of a camp experience, where each person knows they belong, feels connected, and is confident that they make a contribution and a difference to the world around them as a part of something bigger than themselves. If nothing else, camp is an antidote to the Narcissistic Epidemic chronicled by Jeanne Twenge and W. Keith Campbell! And it is still so much more, affording endless opportunities for closeness with nature, authentic connections, and human-powered activities.

I am saddened when parents are led down a path that encourages them to think of camp as a luxury. Today, more than ever, camp is vital in the context of our technology-tethered and pre-filtered society. Dr. Michael Thompson, a school psychologist and co- author of Raising Cain, says quite specifically that our children are paying for the loss of free play with: obesity, high stress levels, increasing diagnosis of ADHD, depression and emotional fragility, social incompetence, excessive dependence on adults, and the loss of a relationship with nature.

Camp is about a lot more than s’mores and songs. And, try as we might, even well-intentioned parents cannot fill the social educational needs with home-designed summer outings and one-on-one activities, even if they include more than mall trips and video-game arcades. Kids need to navigate on their own – make mistakes and decisions, problem-solve, find leadership opportunities… learn how to bounce back from adversity as well as practice making human connections beyond texting and Twittering.

For those gap times at home, you might leave this book on the coffee table for the camp-aged set or flip through it together with younger children: 101 Things You Gotta Do Before You’re 12! by Joanne O’Sullivan. Many of the ideas in this bucket-list book for kids are rooted in values that are part of the camp community. In fact, you could think of the camp experience as one infinite bucket list!

Deepak Chopra may have said it best: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” This summer, it might just be camp. It certainly needs to be on everyone’s annual bucket list!

Tuck-in Tips

  • Name 3 things on your bucket list!
  • What are you looking forward to at camp this summer?
  • Talk about something for the family bucket list.

Achievement vs. Winning

Mother’s Day. While I bask in the traditions and rituals of being honored once a year by my sons, my daughter-in-law, and even my husband, I also think that this is a holiday during which I should in turn pay tribute to them! John Carter Cash expresses the reciprocal feelings in his ode to his mom, which he wrote in response to her life-long expression to him of unconditional love.

“Momma Loves Her Little Son” is a celebration in itself of the enduring bond between mother and child, a magical adventure that takes them over mountains and skyscrapers, through forests and streams, sailing on rainbows and dreams. Yes, Mom (June Carter) is always by his side, ready to intervene whenever he needs her.

Oops. I think that’s where we moms (and dads) often run into trouble. It’s that unconditional love “thing” that trips us up. How do we teach our kids to enjoy the challenges and embrace the failures while still making sure they know how durable our love is for them?

Cash compares a mother’s love to the toughness of a rhino’s hide and the eagerness of planted seeds in winter. You know, it occurs to me that we can harness the power of a mother’s love to support our children while not giving them the impression of entitlement.

Jeanne Twenge, author of “Generation Me,” and Keith Campbell have just written a book called “The Narcissistic Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.” Jeanne explains that the goal should be about achieving, not winning. Unfortunately, our culture has taken the “winning” fork in the road and needs to get back on the “achieving” course before the narcissistic predispositions of today’s children land them at a dead-end. Effort and practice trump self-esteemia (the syndrome that arises from too good a self- image!) and self-admiration.

Jeanne’s advice to parents to avoid narcissism and its accompanying flaws and shortcomings is distilled into four key messages:

  • Say “no” and mean it.
  • Don’t give your child too much.
  • Be careful about the messages you are sending.
  • Don’t buy anything that says how great your child is.

This counsel is not easy to follow against the backdrop of a society where we also are told that we can alter our children’s I.Q., give them stimulants to improve their test scores, and administer standardized tests (albeit with cuddly names) to kindergarteners.

Interestingly, though, Professor Richard Nisbett, who recently demolished the notion that I.Q. is inherited only, provides suggestions for boosting genetic predisposition:

  • Praise efforts more than achievements.
  • Teach delayed gratification.
  • Tell middle school students that they can expand their own intelligence and help shape it.

These tactics are consistent with research from The Greater Good Science Center. Dr. Christine Carter details that “kids who reported facing more challenges in their lives were far happier than the kids who reported fewer (or no) challenges. That means not only is failure critical to success but it’s also a cornerstone of happiness.”

She concludes, “The thing we need to protect our kids from is not failure but a life void of failure.”

Winning, or being the best, or having an inflated sense of self all are symptoms of that dangerous disease – narcissism — that we sometimes, with the best of intentions, confuse with unconditional love.

On Mother’s Day, let’s all raise our glasses to the benefits of making mistakes and learning from failures!

Tuck-in Tips

  • What are some dreams or wishes you can picture in your imagination where a parent is helping you get there?
  • Can you think of something you might achieve on your own, and how do you think that would make you feel?
  • Talk about a time when you had to do something hard. Were you able to do it? If not, what did you learn for the next time you try something similar?

“You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.” -Kahlil Gibran