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Why camp is great for kids (and parents too)

Boy in the woodsGod, I hated camp.

No, that’s not really true. I didn’t hate all camps – I loved the bare bones country day camp I grew up at (where the only “facilities” were a lovely lakefront, a dusty/muddy field and a falling down barn), and some of my all-time best memories are from my teen years as a sleepaway camp counselor.

I just hated the fancy camp my parents inexplicably sent me to the summer I turned 11. I was a bookish, slightly awkward tween stuck in a cabin full of queen bees and wannebes. To say I didn’t fit it would be a significant understatement. One of the counselors made fun of my clothes.  (Apparently shopping at Miracle Mart didn’t put me on the fashion radar.) I somehow got stuck stacking the plates at every single mealtime, and was so socially marginal I didn’t realize until years later the kind of social collusion this must have involved.

But I digress.

This was a different era, before it was possible to research camps online, before the very concept of camp consultants crossed our minds. We had grown up chewing on our lead-painted crib bars, bicycling without helmets and sitting on our dad’s lap in the driver’s seat, so what did we know?

That one negative experience certainly didn’t stop me from wanting to send my own three girls to summer camp. Our older two have loved their few weeks each summer at sleepaway camp, and our youngest is experiencing it for the very first time. It’s been very clear to us that their weeks in a lakeside cabin full of kids have been great for them in all kinds of ways. It turns out that they have been wonderful for us parents stuck at home too. Here, in no particular order, are some of these benefits:

Your kids grow up. Not just literally (although the evidence suggests that kids tend to grow faster in the summertime), but in terms of their independence and maturity. The camp dynamic forces kids to organize their own stuff, choose what they will wear, eat and what activities to add to their schedules. Some camps let the campers decide when (or if) they will shower, write letters home or wear their sun hats. The increased autonomy teaches kids consequences for their actions — consequences many of today’s parents never let their kids experience for themselves.

You didn’t wear sunscreen? Ouch, that sunburn is going to really hurt. You didn’t brush your teeth for a solid week? Your friends and bunkmates may avoid spending time with you because your breath stinks and your teeth are full of yellow gunk. You didn’t wipe your feet off before you got into bed? You’ll spend a night in a sleeping bag full of sand.

We can lecture till we are red in the face, but there is no better lesson than the consequences of our own actions, a philosophy of self-reliance beautifully explained in Wendy Mogel’s book, Blessing of a Skinned Knee.

Your kids relax. It isn’t just the lack of homework that counts. It’s the absence of televisions, computers, DS games, iPods and cellphones. They are spending loads of time outdoors, and plenty of time doing physical activities. Isn’t this what we plead with them to do every day? And yet at home it’s an uphill battle and constant source of tension and conflict. In camp there is no choice, and parents are removed from the equation.

There are no hectic schedules, doctor’s appointments, frantic carpools to soccer games, and overcrowded family commitments. The camp takes care of making sure everyone gets where they need to be. There is even scheduled quiet time, and hanging out by the lake/ pool time. Staring at clouds time.

Try and remember this if you haven’t gotten a letter or email, or you don’t see them doing anything in the pictures posted on the camp website. All of this relaxing time doesn’t jive so well with the technological surveillance camps now offer. It’s tempting to spend hours hitting the “refresh” button on the website in the hopes of getting a glimpse of your kid, but this can also make you crazy. (I’m so glad our daughters’ camp doesn’t post pictures — I would be in total stalker mode.)

Your kids spend time with kids of all ages. Especially their counselors. And for some reason these 18 and 19-year-olds are able to get your kids to do magical things, such as making their beds or stacking their dishes without being reminded. New York Times blogger Michael Thompson says this is because kids are wired to emulate and closely observe older children. The influence of these high school and college-aged kids (who are also way cooler and better looking than us relatively ancient parents) is their due for hanging out with younger kids. After all, as Thompson points out, “In our age-segregated society, camp is the only place in America where an 11-year-old can get the sustained attention of a 19-year-old.”

Without all the complicated emotional connections of a parent-child relationship, these enthusiastic but inexperienced teens tend to be much more successful at encouraging our kids to ride horses, windsurf, water ski or eat vegetables.

Parents get some perspective. Taking a bit of a break from the day-to-day dynamics of parenting is refreshing for everyone. If younger siblings are still at home you can give them some rare “only child” time. Our youngest daughter absolutely loved this in past summers, though she also missed having her sisters around. And if you become temporary empty nesters you can find some time for yourself or your spouse. My husband and I are enjoying two weeks together for the first time in 13 years, and we’ve really enjoyed being able to spontaneously hop on our bikes after work, or head out for an impromptu movie. It’s easier to talk about things other than our children, and the brief reprieve from making lunches, doing laundry and cleaning up has meant a lot more free time.

The challenge is to hold on to all of these things when the kids come home. It’s easy to slip back into old habits. Remember that your kids now know how to sweep, stack their dishes, make their beds and organize their own clothes (more or less). Build on this independence by incorporating it into their daily routine. They have spent hours outside without being “too tired” to do anything but play on an iPad or Xbox.

Set your expectations high. Don’t give in to old ways just because it’s easier that way. You may need to re-sweep an hour after your eight-your-old empties the dustpan, but taking the broom for a spin is the only way she will learn good technique. Let them show you what they can do. You may have to be patient, but you won’t be disappointed.

And maybe, just maybe if we can hold on to some of the lessons learned from camp, we can hold on to a little bit of summer all year long.

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Dear 12-year-old me

JournalEver wonder what you might say to your younger self, if only you could pass on the wisdom you’ve accumulated throughout your teens, twenties, thirties or beyond?

This isn’t the same thing as writing out a mini-lecture to your own kids, full of rules, warnings and admonishments. It’s about taking the time to think through the hard lessons learned through experience, the insights gleaned from our regrets, the pride in choices well made or effort exerted. It occurred to me that this was a worthwhile exercise for anyone, parent or not, who worked with kids. You might also learn something about yourself.

If you’re willing to try it, let me know (info@risk-within-reason). Feel free to forward and share your notes to your younger self with your partner, your friends, or a friendly parenting blogger and educational consultant. Or fold it up and tuck it into a hiding place where no one else will find it. Or write and burn it. All good.

Dear 12-year-old me,

Hi there. It’s me, only older and with a few more lines on our face. And maybe a few extra pounds. But things are actually pretty good where we’re at right now. We’re happy. Really happy. We’ve gone one to do some wonderful things and meet some fabulous people. And maybe make a few mistakes along the way.

Mistakes are mostly OK. That’s how everyone learns. You just hope they don’t have irrevocable consequences and no one gets hurt by our ignorance or stubbornness. But see, that’s what I wanted to tell you. Looking back from middle age, there’s a few things I would love us to have known when we were 12. When everything seemed new and exciting and shiny. And a little scary.

Now that we have 12-year-old daughters of our own, it all seems so much clearer. I know they have to make their own mistakes, just like we did. But it’s hard not to try passing on some of the stuff we picked up along the way.

First thing, grow a backbone. Don’t worry so much about what everyone else thinks. Do what feels right. About the way we look. About our interests, beliefs and choices and even what we want to do on Saturday night. Honestly, from our perspective 28 years down the line, it won’t matter if we stayed home with some good books now and again instead of suffering through outings we went on out of some misplaced social anxiety.

For the few short years of high school, it seems so important to fit in, and have people approve of what you wear or who your friends are, or who you date. But as soon as you get past those years, you see that the people who rise above that are the truly interesting, original thinkers. The ones who go on to do amazing things with their lives, contribute to the world and find their own standard for happiness. It really does get better.

Don’t ever do anything that feels wrong just to be cool. Nothing good ever comes from drinking too much or trying drugs. You’re never going to impress those popular kids anyway, so just forget them. They aren’t worth it. Some of them will grow up to be just as irritating as adults as they were as teenagers: any 40-year-old woman I’ve known since childhood who still doesn’t smile at me out of courtesy when we pass in the grocery store aisle deserves my pity, not my outrage.

Cultivate our interests. Really interesting, successful people are well read, well-travelled, curious about others. They pay attention to what’s happening around them. They are engaged with the people the meet for their unique contributions. People genuinely like to be around them for who they are, not just what they can offer on a practical level.

Don’t worry so much about boys. Mom was right about this one. Have a fulfilling life, friendship circle and career — don’t wait for a man to come around and complete it. (That being said, and as an aside we wouldn’t have listened to anyway, I’d take a more critical look at Ted G. when we’re 16. Behind those blue eyes was a pompous idiot, but it took us 10 years of reflection to figure that out. Mom was right about that too, although she had the self-discipline to let us figure it out on our own.)

Cherish our friends. Forget the drama. We don’t fully appreciate how wonderful our high school girlfriends are until years later. Keep an eye out for each other. The boys that seem so important in high school are just memories now, but we still speak to almost all of the wonderful women those girls became.

Don’t wish any of this time away. It’s hard to see when you’re 12, but time totally runs away from you. We spend so much time wishing high school would end and our lives would finally start that we sometimes forget they already have. Even dark November Mondays or exam weeks, or the 5 days before summer break. All of those are days to be cherished. Because you know what? We never get to be 12 years old again.

Don’t give up math classes in grade 10. Probably the biggest mistake we ever make. We work hard to be a top-tier student, and although we totally love that grade 11 North American Literature course, not taking pre-calculus has some far-reaching implications down the line.  I know math can be a big of a slog for us, but it’s one worth taking on.

Aim for great, not just good. We like to be comfortable, but it never works out when we settle for good enough. Takes us a while to figure this out, but we do get it in the end.

Don’t stop writing in our journal.

Listen to mom about almost everything (except the dress she’ll recommend for Jamie’s bar mitzvah).

There are a few other things I’d love to throw in:

  • forget the perm in 9th grade – BAD IDEA
  •  take all of our meagre savings and buy stocks in a company called Apple. Or Research in Motion. Or Google.
  •  carefully check the destination sign for each car on overnight trains to Switzerland so we wake up in Geneva, and not somewhere else
  •  do NOT eat that turkey sub from D’Angelos in October 1994
  • avoid roommates with OCD and heroin junkie boyfriends when we get to grad school
  • wear sunscreen every day

These extra hints should probably be against the rules. But since I’m making up the rules, and we won’t listen to them anyway, what the hell.

And last but not least, take a moment every day to appreciate everyone who loves you, even if they just seem really annoying, incomprehensible and stupid to our 12-year-old eyes. Honestly, this is the most important thing we will ever learn.

With love,

Forty-one year old me

 

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