Advice For Parents

The big 'secret' of summer camp

Bob Strodel
The big 'secret' of summer camp

The reward for the late summer nights, the constant unanticipated events that occur with 500 people on grounds, and the occasional headaches and heartaches with campers and staff, are the thank-you letters I receive from parents every year.

Each letter, like each camper, is unique. However there is a constant thread from letter to letter: “My kids really grew up while at camp.”

Parents have often asked me our “secret” on how we accomplish this from year to year. Is it special food? Maybe getting hit with a paintball knocks some sense into their heads? Perhaps the wilderness experiences give them a perspective on life they have never seen while they climb a mountain?

Clearly these activities contribute to the experience; however I need to share with you our “secret.” The secret is kids can be stretched and be challenged by being away from you.

The job of parenting is a balancing act. On one hand we protect and nurture; on the other hand we need to prepare our kids for the future for when they are on their own. It is a balancing act that most parents struggle to achieve and maintain.

The New York Times ran a series of articles about “helicopter parents.” It refers to parents who “hover” over their kids in an overbearing manner, when the balancing act goes too far in one direction. The hovering is done at home, school, Little League and through life. The intentions of a helicopter parent are good, but sometimes the noise from the rotor is a bit much to take and can get in the way of a child becoming independent.

The article went on to state that the last 18 years have provided the helicopter parents new tools that make the process easier and faster. I was speaking to a camp parent the other day and asked her how her newly married daughter was doing having moved out of state. “Oh, I don’t miss her at all. She and I are on the cell phone several times each day.”

The constant contact situation is getting worse. Cell phones and e-mail were only the start of technology applications that tie together family members and friends. For today’s adolescents, it is now text messaging because email is too slow.

We should be concerned about the helicopter parenting style for several reasons.

First, our job as parents is to prepare our kids for the real world. In the real world, adults don’t have helicopters protecting them. You forget your lunch and mom is not there to drive it to you at work. Kids with helicopter parents sometimes lack basic social and survival skills. They don’t know how to solve their own problems through negotiations and coexisting with other people. Accountability and responsibility is always someone else’s problem, not their own.

Secondly, life is filled with consequences and we need to allow our kids to experience those consequences. Many consequences are natural, and some are spiritual. The consequences do the teaching; the parents don’t need to nag, yell or embarrass the child. When we deny our kids the chance to learn through consequences, we deny them a more powerful learning opportunity than we can ever provide as parents.

Third, we undermine the child’s refinement by never giving them the opportunity to fail. We all learn by doing, and if we develop children who have the fear of failure, they never will try. Failure is not falling down after trying something. You are not a failure until you don’t get back up.

How does this all relate back to camp? The environment at camp is a special world where kids learn lessons through natural consequences and trial and error.

Many times, at this stage of development, adolescents will be more responsive to some non-parental involvement and coaching. As parents, we need to recognize this, not feel threatened, and enlist other adults and organizations to help support our kids as they grow into themselves – and their own identity.

This is why most camps don’t allow cell phones, or for the campers to email home, or for campers to receive phone calls. It is important for the camper and the parent to have time away from each other.

On each incoming day, I meet with first-time parents, and my advice for them is always the same. You have entrusted us with your kids. We have been doing this for over many years. Go home. Relax. Have some fun. Don’t feel guilty about leaving your child at camp — it is one of the best learning experiences you can give them. 

Bob Strodel is the Executive Director of Camp Brookwoods and Deer Run, located in Alton.

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