Should I Be Sending My Children to Camp?

While the campers are messing about in the woods, many of their peers will be attending summer school or specialized skills programs. Their responsible, if sometimes Tiger-ish, moms and dads will be investing their money in their children’s future differently, sending them to one week sport and hobby classes, Entrance exam prep courses and unpaid internships designed to polish skills, boost scores and impress college admissions personnel. Instead of spending three weeks at an all-around camp, these children will be focused on skill-building, sometimes in three different specialized programs to which their parents drive them every day (allowing time for that all-important debrief in the car going home).

Which set of parents has it right? Or more to the point: Does an overnight camp experience still make sense in this competitive, resume-building world? From an analysts, point of view, the answer is a resounding YES. I believe that children develop in profound ways when they leave their parents’ house and join a camp community.

Learning to sleep away from home is, of course, a critical step on the way to independence. Part of the challenge is beating homesickness, which may be hard for some children, and which, by definition, your parents cannot help you do. Kids know they have to do this sooner or later. As a friend’s son once remarked with horror, “If you can’t learn to sleep away from home, you have to live with your parents for the rest of your life.” But beyond that, there are things that, as a parent, you cannot do for your children, as much as you might wish to. You cannot make them happy (if you try too hard they become whiners); you cannot give them self-esteem and confidence (those come from their own accomplishments); you cannot pick friends for them and micro-manage their social lives, and finally you cannot give them independence. The only way children can grow into independence is to have their parents open the door and let them walk out. That’s what makes camp such a life-changing experience for children.

From the book, “Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow,” I know that many young people do not really know how strong they are, how competent they are or even who they are until they get away from their parents and test themselves in a new and challenging environment. Many children told me the best thing about camp was, “I can really be myself here.” What do they mean by that? I am pretty sure I know the answer. When children are away from their parents, they do not have to view their own life and achievements through the lens of my-athlete-father-standing-on-the-sidelines-watching-me or my-mother-is-worried-that- I’ll fail. When a child is on his own, the experience is his alone, the satisfaction belongs only to him and he does not have to filter it through what his parents think and feel.

For the dedicated, loving and anxious parent, letting a child go can be tough. “Will she be happy at camp? Will he make friends? Will she be homesick?” But homesickness can often be confused with a parent’s child-sickness  The director of a girls’ camp in Mumbai tells me she has more and more parents of 9-year-olds calling to say, “Well, she’s ready for camp, but I’m not ready to have her leave.” If you want an independent child, you have to master your own child-sickness  Try remembering the sweetest moments from your own childhood. Most adults tell me that the sweetest, most memorable times of their childhood were when they were away from their parents, doing something with friends in the out-of-doors, taking a challenge or doing something a bit risky. That sounds like camp to me.

By the way, when college admissions officers were interviewed about how they view campers, they say that they think former campers are more likely to succeed in college because they have had successful experiences away from home, and they are always impressed by seniors who have been counselors looking after younger children. Camp helps build confidence and identity; it also builds leadership skills.

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