Sustaining Lifelong Joy: Camp Is a Key Connector

by Edward Hallowell, M.D.

In the dedication of my book, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, I wrote, "Summer is like childhood. It passes too fast. But if you're lucky, it gives you warm memories from which you take strength in the cold days ahead. As camp professionals, we all want children to feel loved, to be happy now, and to grow into responsible, caring, content adults in their own right. But that isn't always as easy as we'd hope. Happiness cannot be achieved through simply telling children how to be happy; they must acquire specific qualities through activities and actions — through firsthand experience. And these are subtle qualities, perhaps not traits you would automatically think of as important, but optimism, playfulness, a can-do attitude, and connectedness are, in fact, paramount.

So how do we help equip today's children with the tools to learn happiness now and sustain joy over the long haul?

Happiness begins with a feeling of connection. Children feel connected when they receive unconditional love from their parents. They feel connected in their relationships with friends, teachers, extended family, camp counselors, and other mentors. Connection begins as a lifeline and becomes an unshakable foundation on which kids can build an entire life. Connection breeds a sense of security and safety and empowers children to courageously take risks and approach even difficult situations with optimism, a natural armor against times of turmoil or sadness.

Positivity born out of a sense of belonging can put children in a playful state of mind. And this is good because children at play are children at work — learning to use their imaginations, problem solving, and learning cooperation when playing with other kids. Daydreaming, too, is a kind of play, and an opportunity for children to begin mapping their own course following their interests and beliefs.

Repeating the same activities in a play situation becomes practice. We've all heard the saying "practice makes perfect" countless times, but practice serves another significant purpose as well. In addition to helping a child improve, such as starting with a back float and learning to do the backstroke, practice also teaches kids how to receive help, coaching, and affirmation from mentors and/or peers.

A child who begins playing in a game of freeze tag and discovers a love of running may eventually practice the act of running enough that it becomes a discipline, which will eventually lead to mastery. And more than praise, mastery leads to strong self-esteem. Mastery is a doorway to confidence, strong leadership skills, a desire to work hard — that euphoria that comes out of a sense of personal accomplishment.

In proving to him/herself they have mastered an activity, a child's actions are also on display for others to recognize. This leads to approval and acceptance by peers. Each act of mastery leads to an ever-increasing group of individuals who accept that child for who they are. I call mastery "the great motivator," because at the end of the day it is human nature to like doing what you do well. And knowing they are accepted allows a child to feel connected in a broader sense to the world around them, which closes the circle, blocking out negatives that might impede happiness. Content children grow into fulfilled adults.

Where does camp fit in to the big picture?

Camp is a natural setting for working on the cycle of qualities that lead to a life of sustained joy. It is an environment full of positive role models and new friends waiting to be made, an environment rife with opportunities for strengthening that all-important sense of connection.

Camp is a giant playground. Removed from the every-minuteof- the-day-scheduled, often stressful days at home that I talk about in by book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD, children can explore a sense of freedom, revel in some unstructured free time, and let their minds wander in a direction that might better acquaint them with their own desires and future goals.

When a child discovers an activity or two or more that they like at camp, you, as camp professionals, provide plenty of opportunities for them to practice throughout their days there. Even for games or sports imported from other countries to expose campers to new traditions, there are counselors skilled in those activities on hand to teach children the rules and offer suggestions and cheer the campers on. And, in this nurturing environment where cabin mates become fast friends, there is no tedium to practicing; it's all fun.

At the end of their week or two at camp, a child may have mastered several new skills, building self-esteem, encouraging a can-do attitude, and making it just that much easier to try something new the next time they are offered the opportunity. Owning the sense that hard work (i.e., practice) does pay off, a child may feel a new sense of responsibility, a self-mandated desire to strive for the stars.

When children master skills at camp, they do so in an environment you've worked hard to create, where recognition for their deeds comes from all sides, from counselors and peers. Much like a sports team in volleyball, for example, everyone practices until they have the skills necessary to play the game; they become masters of setting, spiking, serving, etc. Through hard work, plays are made, points are won, and the team celebrates as a whole, recognizing each other as teammates and getting positive reinforcement from the team's coaches. But actually winning the game is less important than the determination and camaraderie, the sense of belonging to the team.

Overall, camp is an excellent opportunity to expose children to challenges and triumphs in a safe and nurturing atmosphere. It is an ideal place beyond the confines of home and family for children to build their sense of community and connectedness by making treasured friends. And friends are one of those key ingredients to a happy life. Not that we cannot find happiness in solitude, but friends are a natural support system, reciprocal relationships that can bring out the best in us. Learning how to nurture friendship is also a way for children to learn how to receive nurturing in return.

Making friends is a learned skill, one that hopefully children grasp before heading off to camp (or school, church, or a social gathering), but as a camp professional, you might have the opportunity to discuss with them the principles of friendship. Leading by example, being a good friend yourself, and instilling in your campers the following points, can lead to the friendships that create treasured memories and add to sustaining the lifelong joy they seek:

  • Be loyal to your friends. Never try to get out of a date you have accepted because something better comes along.
  • Never bully or brag or embarrass someone else.
  • Try to include kids who are being excluded.
  • Treat others the way you would want to be treated.
  • Remember that uncomfortable feelings like jealousy, anger, and resentment come up in any close friendship. Try to talk it out, forgive, and move on.

With all this talk of friendship, nurturing, and positivity, it is easy to slip back into the misconception that if a child has good genes and, for all intents and purposes, a happy childhood at home, they will grow up to be a happy adult. Truth is, a large number of unhappy adults will tell you they had pleasant childhoods. And a large number of happy adults will tell you their childhood wasn't so grand. Adversity eventually finds us all, and it is those children who are rooted in the cycle of connection, play, practice, mastery, and recognition that will weather the storms that come up and be there triumphant when the clouds break and the sun shines again.

I say in the postlude of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness that "I hope you have been persuaded that happiness is best not left to chance. I hope you have been persuaded that while genes matter, they do not tell the whole story. I hope you have been persuaded that certain deliberate actions on the part of adults can greatly increase the chances that our children will grow up to be more or less satisfied within themselves and happy in their lives." And I echo that now. The friends and mentors children are fortunate to find at camp who manage to psychologically hold a mirror up to show them how special they are, the risks the camp environment allows them to take, and the decisions they are allowed to make are all important stepping stones that complete the path to contentment.

The environment you provide as camp professionals can transform the camp experience into one of those milestones in childhood, a microcosm of the world at large, one of those knowledge-building exercises that opens a child's eyes to all of life's possibilities. The camp experience helps set children up to be responsible for their own joy. Especially in these months of cold, it helps children reach for what we all dream of . . . perpetual inner happiness. Endless summer.

Edward Hallowell, M.D., a child and adult psychiatrist and graduate of Harvard College and Tulane Medical School, is the director of The Hallowell Centers in NYC and Sudbury, Massachusetts. He was a member of the Harvard Medical School faculty from 1983 until he retired from academics in 2003 to devote his full professional attention to his clinical practice, lectures, and the writing of books. He has authored fourteen books on various psychological topics, including attention deficit disorder, the childhood roots of happiness in life, methods of forgiving others, dealing with worry, and managing excessive busyness. Dr. Hallowell's Web site can be found at www.drhallowell.com.

Originally published in the 2009 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

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