The following blog was written by Bob Ditter. We are fortunate enough to work with him throughout the year and we are thrilled we can share his knowledge with you as well.
I was talking with a colleague the other day about her teenage son. She was telling me about all the self-centered, self-occupied ways he behaves around the house when she finally said, “I think the reason teenagers are so obnoxious and challenging is otherwise we parents couldn’t bear to let them go!”
This reminded me of a passage I’d read last fall in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Paul Tough titled, “Character Test: What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?”
Parents . . . have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for . . . children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts large and small. And yet we know — on some level at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves they can. [The education many children receive at home and in school may not] provide them with the skills to negotiate the path toward . . . a happy, meaningful, productive life. In order to do so, [children] first need to learn how to fail. (Tough, p. 85, September 14, 2011)
In addition to a little hardship I would add that children need to get away from their parents from time to time! I don’t think children can truly get a sense of what they are capable of and what they truly have a talent for while their parents are standing around watching. Children need an enduring sense that they can figure things out and manage what life throws at them—indeed, to trust that they have the capacity to cope! As long as Mom or Dad are in the wings to pick up the pieces a child will never truly know whether he or she has what it takes to make it on their own.
In his latest book, Happy and Homesick, Michael Thompson, the child psychologist from Boston who has written extensively on boys and the social landscape of children, talks about “the empathic connection between parent and child” as a “fundamental part of our nature—instinctive and unquestioned.” Yet, this same strong wired-in urge to protect and provide for our children can actually backfire. It can actually prevent them from finding their own strengths, their own abilities and their own self-confidence. Dr. Thompson elaborates:
As a child you don’t know what you truly feel unless you are away from your parents. Away from home children know what they hate and what they love, what makes them miserable and what makes them happy, because they are having the experience on their own. Children who go away to camp often report that only at camp can they “be themselves.”
As one eleven-year-old boy said, “Sometimes at home I feel pressured, but at camp I don’t feel people are judging me.” (Thompson, p.14, May, 2012) One of the most powerful outcomes of the camp experience is the sense of self and the self-confidence children can away from their parents. Indeed, a child is more likely to pass a swim test under the watchful eyes of the nineteen year-old swim staff than if their parents were there. As Dr. Thompson explains, “When a child is anxious and frightened, it sets off a parent’s anxious identification, and when the child then sees worry in the parent’s face—or, worse yet, a forced cheerfulness that doesn’t fool the child for a second—it makes the child even more anxious. When a child accomplishes something away from her parent she can be absolutely sure she owns that accomplishment!” (p.19)
So I have two recommendations: buy Michael Thompson’s new book when it comes out in May, 2012; and send your child to camp so you can read it!