For the past thirty years, I have consulted to independent and public schools all over the United States, as well as to international schools. My work has given me a unique lens through which to see the concerns and preoccupations of loving, dedicated, but often very anxious, parents. Educators tell me that they are seeing a growing minority of parents who are having difficulty allowing their children to go away from them. The fifth-grade overnight science trip is no longer a routine matter. Parents pack up tons of vitamins, bag the inhaler along with a detailed list of instructions, and deliver them to the school; then they make an appointment to discuss all of their concerns with the teachers who are accompanying the children on the trip. A fifth-grade teacher in Chicago reported that these meetings were an increasing burden. A few parents refuse to let their children go on overnight school trips unless they are chosen as chaperones, and they are unable to see how their presence prevents their children from having a truly independent away-from-home experience.
When I began consulting to camps in New England ten years ago, I heard similar anecdotes from camp directors. More and more mothers were phoning directors to say, “She’s ready to go to camp, but I’m not ready.” More parents were checking the daily photos and calling because they didn’t see their child or they didn’t see him or her smiling. It seems as if there are increasing numbers of parents suffering from severe “childsickness” even though their children are obviously thriving at camp. I addressed this phenomenon at an ACA convention a few years back. My observations in that forum brought me more quirky, you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up kind of anecdotes from camp administrators.
Eventually, I decided I had to write a book for parents who are having trouble letting go of their children, or parents who erroneously believe that their presence always adds value to their children’s learning. I was very much aware that other authors had addressed the socalled “helicopter parent” by writing slashing critiques of “invasive” American parenting. The results of these writers’ efforts were predictable: Parents did not buy them. Parents do not like to read books that tell them they are hysterical and doing a lousy job with their children. A parent’s experience is that she or he is loving, attentive, tuned in, and worried about a child’s future. So what if he or she is a little bit more worried than other parents?
I decided that I would take a different approach by reminding parents how wonderful it is for children to be away from home, how much they grow and develop when they are at camp, and how brave they are in the face of almost universal feelings of homesickness. The result of my efforts is Homesick and Happy: The Magic of Camp — How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow. I am hopeful that it will succeed in calming parents by gently reminding them that the sweetest memories people hold of their childhoods — even when they come from loving families — are almost always of times they had when they were away from their parents, on their own, with their friends, undertaking new challenges. You know . . . in a place like camp.
Michael G. Thompson
If the single most important thing about camp is that a child’s parents are not there, that is still only part of the story. Camp is also not school. That simple fact can produce an extraordinary change in the climate of a child’s day, and therefore his or her emotional life. Good things, certainly different things, happen for children when they are relieved of the pressure of judgment, comparison, evaluation, and striving that are an inevitable part of the school day. Let us be honest; it isn’t just the school day. Judgment and comparison are often intrinsic in town sports. Who has been picked for the “select team” (that varsity experience for nine-year-olds) dominates adult conversations. On school teams, at music lessons, and at dance lessons, children are bathed in high expectations and constant informal and formal evaluations throughout the academic year. However, because that pressure is part of the air they breathe in schools, children mostly accept it, and they do not remark on it as much as they might, but they are always aware that it is there. The stakes of school are high; both good and bad performances have consequences. Children feel that every day.
I talked to the mother of an academically gifted boy who was enjoying a high level of success at his demanding school. He was the kind of ninth grader whom all teachers recognize as a future Ivy-League or Caltech kind of guy. If it is possible to identify high-fashion models and future athletic brilliance at fourteen years of age — and it is — it is also possible to spot brilliant professor types by the beginning of high school. This boy was one of them. His mother was extraordinarily proud of him, but also spent a lot of time thinking about his academic future. One day she was sitting in her study poring over brochures for summer internships that she believed would be impressive to future college admissions officers. Her son appeared at the door, immediately understood what his mother was thinking, and explained ironically, “Mom, I’m not going to be gifted in the summer.”
We no longer have the original agricultural rationale for a long summer vacation (in the nineteenth century children were needed to help their families harvest crops). But there remains a strong argument that young people need a break from the pressures of school. As the federal government and the states consider increasing the number of school days or going to year-round school (the US typically has 180 school days per year compared with 220 in Japan and 251 in China), and proponents of year-round school cite research about “summer learning loss,” that affects inner-city children from failing schools whose summer activities may not provide them with much intellectual stimulation, there are those of us who believe that the summer break can provide camps, much of which did not feel like learning in a school sense.
Pete Hare, a camp director and the son of a legendary long-serving camp director, worked as a successful Spanish teacher at two schools for close to fifteen years, then chose to return to the camp life full-time just as he was being offered a job as a middle-school director. I asked him why. He explained both his choice and the difference between school and camp in simple terms:
“First of all, camp is a far happier place than school. When kids and staff arrive at camp at the beginning of summer, the positive vibe and the smiles on their faces are incredible. The energy is crackling.” By contrast, he continued, “When faculty members arrive at school . . . I don’t deny that there is some excitement, but there is a lot of drag-ass as well.” That’s understandable; they are teachers. Time is a variable in the distinction between schools and camps; camps last a maximum of two months, so it is easier for everyone to stay “up” for that short stretch of time.
The essential difference between the two, however, has to do with the high stakes of school and the lower stakes at camp. You could argue that camp is full of contests, competition, and evaluation. That is true. One team wins the color war; the races are timed; there are awards for best camper. Perhaps it is not really so different than school. However, my experience visiting camps suggests that many of the competitions are, in fact, “play” or pseudo competitions that throw our intense need to win into a laughable light. Camp contests teach you to be able to make a heroic effort, to laugh about it, and move on. Camp contests, done right, are group play.
When I visited Chimney Corners Camp for Girls in Western Massachusetts, I arrived on the last day of the color wars. A counselor new to Chimney had introduced a novel culminating event: the frozen t-shirt contest. When I heard the name, I blanched inwardly, because it evoked a “wet t-shirt” contest of Florida-college beach vacations. This was nothing of the sort. Four t-shirts had been thoroughly wet down, balled up and placed in the freezer. They emerged looking like white paper mache balls, except that they were rock hard. There were four “color” teams and each had chosen a champion to represent the team. The first girl who could crack open the icy t-shirt and don it would win.
It was a ridiculous exercise into which these four champions threw themselves with a kind of insane devotion, slamming the t-shirt onto the surface of the outside basketball court to break up the ice and free the fabric. It was an extremely demanding task, and by the time they had been at it for ten minutes, the four girls were panting and sweating profusely. The girl representing the Blue Team was trim, muscular, and a total maniac. If I had to face a pack of wolves in the wild, this is the woman I would want beside me. Over and over, she would pick up the frozen t-shirt and hurl it to the ground, then tear it apart with her fingers and teeth, accompanied by the cheers and chants (recently composed) of the Blue Team, while the Yellow, Green, and Red cheered for their champions.
The organizers had left the shirts in the freezer for far too long. It was clear that our heroines would be exhausted before they succeeded, so the rules were re-written on the spot and teams were allowed to fetch warm water from a sink in the kitchen. Girls ran for buckets and plastic pitchers; bucket brigades were formed to melt the ice. The tshirts, torn and battered, were donned. One team won the color war. Everyone cheered the winner, then the teams retired to create a creative cheer/skit for every other team, which they then performed for each other. (Out go the athletes, in come the lyricists and playwrights.) Everybody hugged and laughed and headed off for the next activity. No state championships, no college scholarships offered to these ferocious queens of the frozen t-shirt contest.
Whether they specialize in soccer, tennis, or football, camps that teach particular athletic skills that connect to the skill sets valued by schools and coaches will, naturally, create a more competitive and stressful environment because everyone present, both adults and children, looks forward to real-world judgments and rewards for the summer’s work: “Will I make the varsity?” “Will a college coach see me at camp?” That kind of pressure comes with the territory of high-stakes sports, and for young people dedicated to their sport or looking for a college scholarship, it can seem like the only rational choice.
My daughter, Joanna, played three varsity sports all four years of high school, and she played at a pretty high level. (Some of her teammates went on to play in the Olympics.) I watched some of her practices and a majority of her games, and I can say that I never saw her as happy as when I picked her up at Spirit Sports Camp for Girls. The director of Spirit, Margie Anderson, who was herself a former All-American lacrosse and soccer player, would not allow her girls to specialize in one sport. They had to choose three different sports per day, each for an hour and a half, plus an hour and a half of swimming, plus evening activities.
Margie encouraged girls to play sports at camp that they did not play at school. And yes, there was a color war at the end of the season, with teams competing in silly competitions like rotating rapidly around a baseball bat held to the ground, or the ultimate camp game, Capture the Flag. Miranda, my daughter’s friend who also went to Spirit Sports Camp, reports: “It was play . . . it was fun. I was never as happy as I was playing sports six hours a day, but it was never competitive.” She saw her Spirit Sports Camp experience as an antidote to the judgmental voice she associated with school. All of her report cards read, “Miranda is bright, but she is too social. She doesn’t focus.” That assessment was a cloud over her head. At Spirit she never felt judged. “We were respectful and we listened to the coaches, but we also chatted and fooled around. They never told us we were ‘bad.’”
Camp is an escape from judgment. I sat in on the torchlight ceremony at Camp Champions in Texas while the results of the cabin inspections for each division were announced. The results were greeted with excitement, with cheers and little dances on the part of the winners, but no one there was fooled about the stakes of this content. Being recognized for a clean cabin is a sweet pleasure; a messy cabin is hardly a life-and-death matter. Even the choice of the boy and girl “torchlighter,” a real honor for the campers who are chosen, is largely forgotten by the next day. It does not go on your permanent record. The feeling that what happens at camp is sweet and fleeting is such a relief compared to the feeling of school, where everything is remembered and it all goes on your permanent record, something for your parents to worry about and for some unknown, future college admissions officer to frown over.
Homesick and Happy is available for pre-order on www.Amazon.com.
Find more books from Michael Thompson in the ACA Bookstore, including:
Raising Cain — Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys
It’s a Boy! Your Son’s Development from Birth to Age 18
Best Friends, Worst Enemies — Understanding the Social Lives of Children
From the book HOMESICK AND HAPPY to be published by Ballantine Books in May 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Thompson. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the 2012 January/February Camping Magazine.