Forced Into Manhood: Males and Homesickness at Camp

by Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T.

A December 2007 article in Time Magazine examined youth sports and occurrences of concussions and stated that males are less likely than females to report symptoms of these brain injuries. The article postulates that the reason for this gender difference is, "culturally, we teach boys that they have to be tough" and that they must "play through the pain" (Gregory, 2007, p.70). Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part, but I was under the impression that we as a society had recognized the damage that comes from straight jacketing young men into outdated and pernicious expectations of masculinity. My experiences over the past several months, however, indicate the opposite: the belief is still widespread and even unquestioned, even in camps.

During the summer of 2007, my camp worked with a twelve-year-old that was severely homesick. All traditional remedies had been tried, and, finally, the boy's parents were called for their input. The father asked to speak to his son, and I left the office so as not to appear to be scrutinizing their dialogue. Yet even from outside the door, I could hear the bellowing roar of the father over the receiver. The boy barely spoke two sentences before he replaced the receiver. As he left my office attempting to obfuscate his tears with a bandanna, he told me that his father would not even think of allowing him to come home. In fact, one of the reasons he had been sent to camp in the first place was to "become a man."

Months later, after presenting on youth development at a school conference, a participant followed me outside to the front of the building. During my session I had mentioned my long experience with camps, and this woman had a question relevant to these settings. She had sent her only child — an eight-year-old boy — to residential camp for the first time. He became homesick, and in his letters even expressed a willingness to run away from camp if she did not come to pick him up. Their phone calls always ended in tears for both her and her son. After twelve days, she told the camp director that she was arranging transportation to retrieve the boy and bring him home. In her account, the director — a male — told her in unequivocal terms that this was an "egregious mistake." By remaining at camp, the boy would work through his fear and be "a stronger man" for his pain. She acquiesced to this remonstrance and allowed her son to stay. And now, three months after camp had ended, she found "a chill" in their relationship and was worried that her decision to force him to remain at camp has damaged their relationship.

Finally, one of my professional colleagues told me with obvious anger that his son was not allowed to call home from camp in spite of his homesickness, was criticized and made fun of by counselors for his tearfulness, and was told that, in spite of his misery, he would be a "better man" for living through the experience. Now this nine-yearold boy "never" wants to return to camp and threatens to lock himself in the closet and never come out if his parents even suggest another camp experience.

What is going on here?

The Cult of Masculinity

Masculinity is the end result of genetics and upbringing, and neither trumps the other in regards to influence. Still, we should not underestimate the importance of the socialization process on males. Decades of research find that masculinity is a social construct that is inculcated upon males from their very birth. In particular, boys learn early on what is expected of them as "men," and research finds that families and society at large introduce several pernicious and oftentraumatic interventions to foster such development.

  • First, parents discourage the expression of emotions of vulnerability in male children. Fear and sadness in particular are unacceptable for males. I have witnessed enough parents respond to their crying sons as they pull away from the camp parking lot on the first day of camp by sternly telling them to "stop being a baby."
  • Second, males are taught to undervalue emotions indicative of caring and affection; females learn how to express warmth and affection, while males are taught to look upon such displays with disdain. Males do not learn how to connect to other people intimately and are even shunned for such displays; empathy and perspective-taking skills are not taught and are seen as unimportant for young boys.
  • Third, there is limited subset of emotions condoned for males, most notably anger, aggression, and instrumentality, defined here as using other people to meet one's own needs. Males who do not learn expertise with these emotions become the recipients of the scorn of other males and, often, society as a whole.
  • Finally, and the most traumatic, is the expectation of an early and abrupt separation from a mother. Girls, in contrast, are allowed a much slower separation from their mothers. They can go off to explore the world around them and return to a mother's succor when frightened, unsure, or simply in need of comfort. Boys are expected to rupture this maternal connection and mark themselves off as separate individuals early on in life; those that remain strongly attached to their mothers are pejoratively labeled as "sissies."

The end results of male socialization are distressing. Sadly, when biology is imprinted with societal expectations concerning the one acceptable code of masculinity, we create males with blunted emotional ability, who are incapable of intimacy, disconnected from others, and who live lives of quiet despair.

Masculinity and Homesickness in Camps

In spite of the well-known untoward effects of male socialization and even an increasing number of studies and best-selling texts on the subject, the assumptions of what it means to be a male permeate all aspects of our lives. Let's return to homesickness: when a male child begins to exhibit signs of homesickness, he breaks many of the cardinal rules of masculinity. He exhibits emotions of vulnerability, he does not display expected toughness, and perhaps most damaging, he shows that he has not achieved independence from his mother (and in my experience, homesick males almost always miss their mothers over their fathers).

These displays evoke responses from staff and parents. Camp staff, the majority of which are young people themselves and who have not likely pondered the implications of male socialization, may respond with interventions that only further inculcate the cult of masculinity. Parents may respond negatively to learning that a boy is not living up to the expected standard of manhood. Finally, the homesick boy himself may experience shame since these emotions supposedly indicate that he is truly not a man.

To broaden our perspective on the topic of male homesickness, I interviewed two individuals familiar with camps, male socialization, and homesickness. The first, Michael Thompson, Ph.D., is the co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys and keynote speaker at the 2008 ACA National Conference. The second is Brent Satterly, Ph.D., director of the social work program at Widener University, a vociferous supporter of youth development, and a former camp director.

1. Do you believe that keeping a homesick boy at camp after all reasonable interventions have been tried will help him in the long run?

Michael Thompson: There is a line between encouraging, even challenging, a child to work through his homesickness and "coercing" a child to stay in camp. Adult encouragement supports a child's normal aspirations for independence, the latter can traumatize him. A major difference between summer camp and the Army is informed consent. When a young man volunteers for the Army he has every reason to anticipate what his drill sergeant is going to do to him and how he will react. However, when a boy signs up for camp he hopes that it will be fun and that he will make friends and have an adventure. Though he may be nervous about the developmental leap that leaving home represents, he cannot possibly anticipate how the experience will feel. The depth of his homesickness is usually a pretty big, miserable surprise to a boy.

Because boys do not, like soldiers, volunteer to be "made into men, " their young counselors must not assume that that is their job. When counselors try to turn boys into men, what is really going on, I think, is that the young male counselors have been made to feel helpless and bad. They get frustrated by their own inability to involve him or cheer him up; and as a result of their own impotent feelings, they become coercive and they rationalize it by saying they are acting on behalf of a boy's development.

In sum, I don't believe in keeping a boy at camp after all reasonable interventions have been tried. Why would you do that? Do you want to ruin the idea of camp for him for life? Let him go, he'll be grateful, and perhaps be willing to try again another summer.

Brent Satterly: Keeping a homesick boy at camp after reasonable interventions have been employed does not bolster his selfesteem and magically make him swim in turbulent waters. In fact, I would pose that it communicates that when boys express their pain, they DESERVE to be met with disdain and even disgust in an effort to "make them into men." This sexist approach forces boys into behaving like emotionally illiterate men.

2. Are there any positive short-term and/or long-term outcomes that can come from forcing a boy to remain at camp? What are some of the negative outcomes?

Michael Thompson: I don't think a camp should give up too early with your efforts to comfort, support, encourage, and even challenge a boy to stay at camp. If he overcomes his fears, that will give him confidence in life. And he may have a very good time once his homesickness lifts. So, it is always worth trying to help a child meet a challenge and surmount it. If, however, a child is coerced into staying at camp, he doesn't feel that the achievement is his and therefore cannot really benefit from it. He just feels forced, trapped, and resentful, and his trust in adults is damaged.

Brent Satterly: I don't believe there are positive outcomes. The negatives ones (some of which I mentioned earlier) will last into adulthood. Not because of ONE incident, but in a series of lifelong sexist messages that are communicated to boys about how they should feel and behave. Camp can be a wonderful space for children to learn new skills, make new friends, and stretch their emotional selves. Forcing children to stay at a place they loathe will not do these things — it will simply associate camp with negative outcomes.

3. What are your suggestions to camp staff when they encounter such a dilemma? Do you know of any training protocols that a camp director could use with his staff that would increase awareness of stereotypical male gender expectations?

Michael Thompson: Camp directors have a lot more experience in how to help a child through homesickness than I do. I don't think I have much to contribute to that. If they encounter coercive behavior in counselors, they have to train them better. As an author of two books on boys, including one which is all about the oppressive nature of male stereotypes, I have to recommend Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, and Speaking of Boys: Answers to the Most Asked Questions About Raising Sons. I also think that the PBS documentary, Raising Cain: Exploring the Inner Lives of America's Boys would be helpful in training sessions. I also recommend books by Michael Gurian, Bill Pollack, Leonard Saxe.

Brent Satterly: After all traditional interventions have been tried without success, send the boy home. Camp directors should develop emotional literacy in the staff to NOT confuse their own gendered expectations of boys and girls by projecting them onto their campers. Let their kids be whomever they are . . . while also aiding them in getting along with others.

A Tumultuous Issue

My colleague and his wife did oh-socautiously mention the topic of camp to their son. And as promised, the boy hid inside the closet until both parents promised that he would not have to attend camp in 2008. What a sad predicament that a child has been turned off camp, likely for the rest of his life. We can also expect that this boy, upon reaching adulthood, will not contemplate sending his own children to camp. An ill-planned intervention for homesickness can lead to damaged camp relations for generations.

As the research documents and the interviewees for this article refrain, interventions for homesickness may be just one further assault on boys and young men that eventually coerce them to fit into pre-existing molds of manhood; sadly, our expectations of masculinity are known, in the long term, to do more damage than good.

The American Camp Association has numerous training options available for coping with homesickness effectively. Also consider the options listed by Doctors Thompson and Satterly. My experiences with parents, children, and camp staff since last summer prove that the topic of male homesickness remains a tumultuous issue, one that is still open for exploration, innovation, and improvement. We should all shudder at the thought of a boy preferring the dark of a closet to the joys of camp.

References
Gregory, S. (2007, December 10). Head games. Time, 69-70.
Levant, R., & Brooks, G. (1997). Men and sex. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T., is the author of Coaching the Camp Coach, Secret Encounters: Addressing Sexual Behaviors in Camp Settings, and Multiculturalism in Camps and Youth Programs: How Us and Them Became Us. Michael coordinates camp programming for the City of Philedelphia and consults with youth agencies across the country to establish best practices.

Originally published in the 2008 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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