"Hey Dad," my teenage daughter beckons. "I was talking to my friend today . . . "
I interrupt her — "Hang on sweetie, were you actually talking to your friend?'
Her: "What do you mean?"
Me: "I mean, was there sound coming out of your mouth, going into her ear and vice versa?"
Her: "Duh, of course not, I never talk on my phone except to you and Mom!"
Oy. This is where we are at in 2020. The word "talk" has lost its meaning. Communication skills are going the way of the dodo bird, with human interaction being reduced to snaps, selfies, digital acronyms, embarrassing memes, and absurdly entertaining TikToks.
Young people are more digitally connected than ever before, while being significantly less personally connected as human beings.
You may think our kids talk to each other at school, but most schools are now handing children laptops or tablets to stare at for much of the day. When they come home, what do they want to do, of course? They are little screen addicts — and they take after most of us.
Parenting in 2020 is seriously difficult. Trust me, I know. It takes a level of discipline and commitment that our parents never had to deal with — mainly because of digital devices. From the little ones in our pocket, to the 72-inch, high-def, six-zillion-shows-at-our-fingertips ones.
Then there's social media. OMG! SMH! Likes, loves, friends/unfriends, follows/unfollows, online bullying, predators, and pornography — all just clicks away if you aren't paying attention . . . so pay attention!
What is the antidote? How can parents battle this ever-growing monster, especially during summer vacation when kids have even more free time and boredom to feed their screen addiction?
Well, there is an answer, an oasis away from screens, where children actually talk to each other using the ancient art of speech and body language. A step back in time, before digital data began stressing us all out: summer camp.
Now, there are lots of programs that call themselves "summer camp," and most have their merits, but I'm talking about those that are outdoors with grass, trees, humidity, sunscreen, bugs, and dirt. Learning how to swim, and how to hold a baseball/softball bat, a paint brush, and a guitar. Where kids muster the courage to talk to strangers, ask for help, climb a rock wall, and leap onto a stage or off a zipline platform!
And what happens when it rains? I'll tell you what doesn't happen — kids don't melt like the Wicked Witch of the West! They actually have a blast jumping in puddles, getting soaked, and playing. It's what kids are supposed to do when they are kids. Because once they morph into adults . . . They just might end up getting paid to stare at screens all day.
Research confirms that today's children are more emotionally fragile than ever before, unable to cope with adversity. Half of students going off to college aren't making it to graduation day, yet most parents are on an unwavering mission to protect their children from the hardships of life. Kids are kept inside when it's too hot, too cold, too rainy, too icy. We bring them their schoolwork when they forget it at home. We wake them up in the morning, help them with their homework, and then get mad at ourselves for doing it. But at summer camp, their cool camp counselors can tell them to "figure it out" when they have a problem, and the kids usually listen to them without debate. If our children don't start figuring out things for themselves, and deal with the inevitable challenges of life, we may find them living at home for a very long time, or moving back when things don't go their way.
Humans are not born with great social skills. These are skills we learn and practice. As babies, we scream when we are upset, but eventually learn how to express ourselves to our parents and caregivers. Camp is a continuation of that process. Campers are put into challenging situations, requiring them to critically think through possible solutions, just like real (adult) life! Sometimes they will overcome obstacles and succeed, and sometimes they will simply fail — which is a super important life lesson, achieved more likely without parental interference.
Parents routinely spend or borrow inordinate sums of money for college to prepare their children for life. Comparatively speaking, an investment into summer camp is a bargain for the life skills it develops in a young person. Communication, collaboration, creativity, independence, and the ability to make and keep friends are the "soft skills" that employers are seeking in the 21st century, as well as typical outcomes of an American Camp Association-accredited camp.
So consider giving your kids an old-school, summer camp experience that they will learn from and cherish for the rest of their lives — it could end up being the wisest parental investment you ever make. And if your kids are high school or college students, encourage them to work at a summer camp to hone those same vital skills, along with empathy and some serious work ethic!
Andy Pritikin is the owner/director of Liberty Lake Day Camp; past president of American Camp Association, New York & New Jersey; and host of the Day Camp Podcast.
Photo courtesy of Liberty Lake Day Camp