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A Place to Share: Building a Culture of Trust
As I plan for my trip to the national conference in Chicago, I find myself recalling when I was in town for the last conference in 1999. At the time, I was a member of the conference committee, and it was my assignment to meet the author-anthropologist Mary Pipher (Reviving Ophelia), who was our keynote speaker. We went out for dinner, and while I was supposed to educate her about ACA, somewhere between salad and dessert, she uttered one life-altering observation, which forever changed my outlook on working with parents whose children were at camp.
"It used to be the job of parents to expose their children to the outside world; today, it is their job to protect their children from the outside world."
It was a casual comment with profound implications. I recognized, at that moment, that the change I had been observing with our camper parents was a result of societal pressures, not personal demands. "It's not their fault," I deduced from her comment. Now, when I read about the recently nicknamed "helicopter parents," I remind myself that I can be the person on the ground that guides them to a safe landing.
After all, we know all about the landing pad. It's what we do for a living: create positive communities with safety nets where kids can learn to navigate on their own. That means that their parents have to learn not to hover, so I started to think that is just as important a job for us. They will trust us only if we can coach them to support their children with just the right combination of backup and encouragement. Also, because of Mary's declaration, I now understand that kids often triumph over their adjustment to a new environment before their parents can accept the next stage of their development. If we can build confidence to shore them up to suspend their assumptions, they are likely to let their children fly from the nest under their own steam, rather than be transported in that helicopter.
It requires a personal reminder, I find, since I grew up (a Boomer) in the age of exploration, adventure, and jet travel! Just this past summer, the huge difference in outlooks between the generations of parents (helicopter vs. jet!) was as clear as the snapshots herein described:
A very typical parent, a Gen Xer, recounted how much he depended on checking in on the camp's Internet site daily photo postings to scrutinize how his daughter was doing. After looking carefully for prearranged hand signals, using a magnifying glass to identify bug bites, confirming that she had changed her T-shirt from the day before, and counting how many "friends" were with her in the photo, he declared that Anna was having a great time!
Anna's grandmother had a totally different conversation with me. When I asked her how she was enjoying the "new-fangled" opportunity to view her granddaughter in action, she retorted: "Why would I want to peer into her life? I know she is safe, and I don't worry — I know how wonderful camp is and am grateful that she is having this experience. I look forward to her letters and to her return, when I can hear about all her adventures in person!"
Our opening here, I submit, is to preserve that world by supporting parents and partnering with them to build competent, compassionate, and resilient children in an era of insecurity and fear — and a culture of ensuing competition and immediate gratification.
After all, who knows better than a camp director how to help campers navigate the whitewaters of childhood and adolescence? The maneuvering is a lot easier when their parents are paddling in the same direction. Camp is a safe harbor. And we are the harbor pilots — the experts who know our currents who regularly ply the same waters. It's a hard task for parents to resist their predilection to continue the course-plotting, which takes place all throughout the year, for their kids to enable them to avert the choppy waters. It's a golden opportunity for parents to resist the temptation at camp to negotiate smooth sailing for their own kids.
Campers can learn quickly to rely upon those around them in camp — as long as the cycle of parents being in the control tower is redirected! That is our prospect; that is our contribution to healthy families and positive youth development.
Mary Pipher believes in the value of a camp experience. I believe we, as parent liaisons, can build a culture of trust. Why shouldn't parents benefit from camp as much as their kids?
Marla Coleman, the immediate past president of the American Camp Association, is a co-owner of Coleman Family Camps, which includes Camp Echo, a resident camp in the Catskill Mountains, and Coleman Country Day Camp in Merrick, New York. She is the parent liaison.
Originally published in the 2006 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.