So here she comes. Number 2. It's been four years since we started our greatest adventure with Cassidy, and when we say our greatest adventure, you have to remember that we're serious adventurers. Cassidy has already been to Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan, Beijing China and the Great Wall, the French Riviera, Paris, California, Florida, and of course, Maine and Massachusetts. As a Camp Director, I've had the good fortune of seeing some great parents and getting to know more about their parenting styles. I've learned a lot and every day continues to be a learning experience. For Example: Never underestimate the power of a "Lovey", or of a Mom's hug, or of some play time with your child. Never overestimate the importance of every small decision about her teaching. And never stop laughing. These are relatively obvious to most parents. It's easy to get caught up in overthinking every detail about a child's experience and we all have to step back sometimes. And it's easy to see how important play time and adventure are. What is harder to learn is the proper amount of involvement in your child's experience. Recently, I took Cassidy to a playground in Boston's Esplanade. It has a small zip line for toddlers, where they climb on a rope with a little disc on the bottom and slide about thirty feet down a line. Kids love it. I watched a mom with a six year old boy run next to her child the entire way as she was apparently worried he would fall off. Other parents would just send their kids and stand back. I gave Cassidy a massive push to the side so she swung to the left and right as she went down, laughing the entire way. She wanted to go again and again and a parent there said that she was the most adventurous of the bunch. As I stood there beaming and boasting of how I came from a long line of adventurers and was espousing our philosophy of letting kids run and play and even fall down, Cassidy asked if maybe she could just go straight this time, without all the swinging. It was a classic moment of when parents try to enforce their ideas of life, the universe, and everything on a child, but they have their own ideas. I think she enjoyed the swinging but it may have scared her a little and she'd had enough. I still believe in letting kids go. In giving them a chance to fall and to fail. But there's always a limit. I don't condone the idea of teaching a child to swim by throwing her into the deep end of the pool, but I do often see the detrimental effects of too careful parents. If your child never falls down, gets a scrape or a bruise, how will they learn to cope with anything? In giving them too much love, we often hamper them. So how can we find the right balance? Use the packing system. A good rule of thumb for packing for a trip is to pack everything you think you need, then remove a third of it. You don't really need three pairs of dress shoes for one weekend away. And just the same, you don't need to run next to your child on the toddler zip line. For the average modern, American parent, just do what you think you need to do, but back off a bit. Give the kid some breathing room. Some falling room. Some failing room. Let them take a risk that scares you just a little and scares them a little too. Obviously, don't do anything dangerous or put your child at risk, but remember, as we often say at camp, greatness happens outside your comfort zone.
Once parents have decided on a summer camp, which isn't always an easy task, they are faced with a new question: How long should my child attend? How many weeks is the right amount of time for camp?
As times have changed in the 150 year history of New England summer camps, kids have become more scheduled and parents have become more involved in their children's schedules. There are more demands than ever on a child's time, including school, sports, and travel, and of course, more demands on parents (see my article "Camp. It's for Parents Too). As a result, most camps have included options for shorter and shorter sessions, but at what cost? The outcomes that parents are looking for in a summer camp experience, like life skills, friendships, outdoor experiences, unplugging from technology, etc. are all dependent on time. It takes time to establish deep and lasting friendships, to learn the camp's traditions and schedules and to perfect new skills and activities. In general, all the things you love and learn at camp get better with time. Would you go to a great restaurant and have only an appetizer, then just walk out? It would be a waste, and in some ways, that's the problem with short sessions. Just when kids have settled in and are getting used to the camp experience, it's time to go home. Sometimes, you haven't really had enough time to get the benefits, try all the activities, or bond with new friends. But before it seems like I'm only suggesting longer sessions, there are some benefits to shorter sessions and one very important reason to make sure you decide wisely.
First-timers are sometimes nervous about going away to camp, both kids and parents. While parents are mature enough to temper their worry with logic (though I've met a few parents that don't seem to have this skill!), kids are sometimes understandably nervous. A shorter session is easier to get the mind around than a longer one and kids can "mark time", basically understanding that two weeks is similar to a school vacation, which, any kid will tell you, always seem too short! It's also a good "taste" of the camp experience. At Camp Waziyatah, we allow two-weekers (we have 2,4,6 and 8 week sessions) to extend their sessions to four weeks, which means we do not fill the sessions again at the end of the first two weeks. We feel this would be disruptive to the bonding of cabin groups, which we go to great lengths to foster. So at Wazi, kids can come for two weeks, and if they're having a great time, they can extend their sessions (with parental permission of course). In general, we think two week sessions are good for the very youngest campers (under 10) in their first year, or very worried campers, and by "very" I mean much more than the normal amount of nervousness which you can usually judge. But, like all things, it's not that simple.
The most important thing to do is gauge the emotional makeup of your child. Is he the kind of child that can handle a decision of some depth? Is she a big worrier? You may be surprised at what kids worry about. They are often very concerned that their parents simply won't make it another two weeks without them. It may be hard to believe, but it's true. They also understand that there is money involved, that they have siblings and pets that might miss them and a host of other worries you wouldn't imagine children would have. For the most part, the decision isn't that hard. In the middle of the second week, I simply announce that anyone who would like to extend their stay should let me know. There is never any pressure. Some kids know the first day that they want to extend and many have such a great time that they have no trouble asking to stay longer. But for those kids who are worriers or have trouble with decisions, it can sometimes cause them to focus on the question of "Should I stay or should I go?" and that gets them focused on the wrong thing. They should be focused on having fun, enjoying their experience, learning and growing, and living in the moment, basically experiencing the magic and wonder of camp. Sometimes, that decision causes them to feel torn. They are enjoying camp but of course they miss home (see my article on homesickness) and they wouldn't mind seeing their parents. At this point, they can get stuck with a tough decision. If you think your child will struggle with this decision, I suggest sending them for four weeks to begin with. Once kids know that they are there for a few more weeks, they settle in and really enjoy it. I've seen it time and time again that kids don't have a decision to worry about and the longer sessions create better friendships, more connection to the natural world, better self-confidence and social skills and truly get kids to love camp. At Wazi, there are more reasons to stay longer as well. The third week of camp is "Trip Week" where every camper goes off camp on increasingly amazing adventures year after year, as well as our incredible "Color War" competition, our final banquet, awards, and the general closure of finishing camp and saying your goodbyes to all your camp friends. I assure you that I'm not suggesting longer sessions for business reasons. I'm suggesting them because they help us achieve our mission of building better kids and they truly work better for children.
So to sum up, I would say that four weeks is the right amount of time for most campers, even young ones. If in doubt, stick with this. It's a good amount of time for an indelible and wonderful camp experience. Six or eight weeks is the right amount of time for first time families who already accept and understand the benefits of full summer camping and are ready to go for it, as well as returning campers who absolutely love camp. Two weeks is good for very young campers and very worried campers. Kids are welcomed to come for two weeks and extend if they like, but suggesting to a camper to extend if they are happy with camp means they have a decision to make early on and that pressure can be difficult and shift focus away from the experience. Gauge the feelings and emotional makeup of your camper and the decision should be a lot easier. And if you're still struggling to decide, call me and I'll walk you through it.
Homesickness is a natural worry for parents and kids alike who about to embark on a sleep-away camp experience. While it may be scary to imagine your child being away from home and while it may scare him or her too, with a little preparation there are many ways to understand, alleviate, and overcome homesickness. And here’s the most important part to remember: Getting over homesickness can be one of the most empowering experiences for kids at camp and has lasting positive benefits.
First and foremost, parents should understand that homesickness is normal. Regular homesickness is a part of the experience of being away from home and overcoming it gives a big boost in self-confidence. While some homesickness is normal, severe homesickness is extremely rare.
Normal homesickness can take many forms for kids of all ages, but most common is simply missing home in the times when kids are getting ready for bed or when they are not busy doing other things. For the most part, keeping kids busy is the first order of business at camp. At Camp Waziyatah, five activity periods and a night activity every night keeps kids in the moment and having a blast, and leaves them little time to feel homesick. Feelings of homesickness usually go away after two or three days at camp.
Severe homesickness is extremely rare and if it continues for more than a few days, I will call to discuss the matter. In the years I have owned Camp Waziyatah, we have never had a case that required leaving camp.
However, parents can help to alleviate, and sometimes eliminate homesickness even before camp starts. Here are some do’s and don’ts:
What you should do:
1. Practice separation and encourage kids to be independent during the year. Kids get used to being away by simply being away. Sleepovers at a friend’s house are a great way to get started.
2. Encourage kids to get excited about camp before camp. Look over our website and discuss all the fun things kids can try or learn at Wazi. Find something your child is excited about and talk about it.
3. Send a care package that will arrive on the first day of camp. It makes kids feel more secure and should be filled with fun things to do and an encouraging note.
4. Talk to me about your concerns and your child’s emotional state. I make sure every single camper is doing well at camp and any information a parent can give helps me to understand each child better.
What you should NOT do:
1. NEVER make early-pickup deals. Kids must focus on the experience of camp and offering to let them call or come home if it doesn’t work out sends the wrong message. It makes kids focus on home rather than camp which is the opposite of how to get quickly past any feelings of homesickness.
2. NEVER bribe. Offering some kind of reward for being away also sends the wrong message. The reward for camp is the fun your kids have there and the many benefits they get, like making new friends, growth, self confidence, and trying new things.
3. NEVER send “we miss you so much” or “what you’re missing” messages. All communications to your child at camp should be upbeat and filled with news and encouragement. A bad message would be: “We miss you so much we don’t know what we’ll do without you. Disney World was so fun. Sorry you missed it.” A good message: “Everything is fine at home. Your brother got a double in his baseball game and the dog ate almost an entire pizza! He’s doing fine but boy was he stuffed! We’re so proud of you and we know you are having a great time at camp. We saw you in the pictures water skiing! Congratulations! Have you tried the climbing wall yet?”
4. Be the parent. Don’t let fear rule the day. You shouldn't force your child into camp, but encourage them strongly so they don’t back out of something that will be wonderful and a great experience for them.
Homesickness may seem daunting, but it’s really just a brief moment of the first experience at camp. Time and again, kids who are nervous have a wonderful time and homesickness goes away quickly. Kids are left with a feeling of confidence and triumph when they get through it and parents notice the change with pride after kids return home with happy stories to tell of their wonderful experience.
Why Summer Camp?
So Many Reasons and a Few You Can't Ignore.
When I discuss camp with parents, many don’t know why a sleep-away summer camp is so valuable for kids. Some suggest that their children have their own summer camp at home, meaning they go to a lake house or have lots of fun stuff to do. That’s great for their kids, but they are missing the essential reasons for sleep-away summer camp - reasons that have to do with your child’s development. If you’ve ever asked “Why camp?” here’s the long and short of it.
Sleep-away summer camps have been a tradition in the North East for as long as 150 years. Our camp (Camp Waziyatah) celebrates its 93rd summer this year. Years ago, camp was just a way to escape hot and unpleasant cities and a chance for kids to get back to nature. Now, camp is much more about child development and the statistics are in: summer camp makes positive lifelong changes.
Studies (like the American Camp Association’s “Directions” study) show that camp establishes self-confidence, good decision making, social skills and the ability to make new friends. In short, it helps them grow. That’s why we say we’re “Building Better Kids” one summer at a time.
But growth and self-confidence aren’t the only reasons sleep-away camp is great for kids. Here are a few more:
Kids make new and lasting friendships. My best friend from camp who I met when I was 7 years old became my college roommate and we are still close. The friends you make in camp are bonded by the experience and many last a lifetime. And now, they are more and more a part of a global community. My nephew’s new best friend that he met at camp lives in Paris, and they speak all year long through social networking.
Kids get to challenge themselves and try new things. I learned how to ride a horse, sail a boat, tie a knot, build a campfire, shoot an arrow, pitch a tent, make a best friend, and even how to spot poison ivy. I can tell you that every one of those things has been a skill I have used and enjoyed throughout my life. The challenge of trying new things on your own and accomplishing them is one of the most empowering experiences for kids. You should see the joy and triumph in their eyes when they finally make it to the top of the climbing wall or get up on skis for the first time. And when we mention their accomplishments in a “shout out” at the next camp lunch, the entire camp congratulates them. Try to imagine how amazing and wonderful that is for a child, to be cheered by 150 of their peers and friends!
Kids get to be creative. Traditional summer camps have more than just games and sports. They have theater, music, songs, skits, outdoor experiences and visual arts. During color war (a multi-day all-camp competition beloved by all campers), teams create heartfelt songs about camp (and silly fun ones too), and they are entirely written, practiced and performed by the campers. A child can be the lead in a play or perform a dance learned in dance class. The environment is so supportive that there is no way to “flop”. Everyone at camp understands this and lends their strength to the performer.
Kids learn to respect and love their environment. It’s hard to teach people to care for the earth if they don’t see how beautiful and magical it is. One parent called to thank me for “giving my daughter the stars”. She said that her daughter often stargazes at home with her father, a pastime she learned to love at camp.
Kids get to have FUN! It’s impossible to explain how fun camp is, but look at your child’s face in a picture or hear his stories when he gets home and you will know. It’s an absolute blast with tons to do and never a dull moment. Kids are even happy to go to bed on time at camp because they’re so tired from the non-stop excitement and fun. Believe it. I have made an offer to many kids that if they want to stay up later than our lights-out time, they can just tell me five days into camp and I will let them stay up as late as they want. Not one child has ever taken me up on the offer!
Camp is truly a blast, but what you can’t possibly ignore are the social skills kids get in even a short time at camp. This environment is completely unlike school with its many divisions. There are no “geeks” or “jocks” or “weirdos” at camp - just campers who are embraced for who they are and can be anything they want to be. But more importantly, they simply cannot get these experiences at home with their parents, on vacations, or in day programs. I know you love your children and you don’t want to be away from them, but I always tell moms that if they can’t possibly imagine being away from their kids for a few weeks, then that’s all the more reason their kids need to go. Being away from parents in a camp atmosphere brings about a sense of self and strength that is unparalleled elsewhere. Possibly the most important skill of all kids learn at camp is how to get along with a group of peers.
Camp is all these things, and a healthy dose of magic and wonder, which is truly an impressive mix. And you just can’t get it at home playing video games.
It's been a year now. One year since I became a father, since Cassidy became a daughter, since Natalia became a mother, and since everything changed - but that is really no surprise. Of course everything changed. That we love her with an ever increasing well of love that feels like the warmest embrace you've ever had pretty much all the time - also no surprise. What's surprising is how you actually must change - and all for the better. Parents at camp have always told me that they miss the time when their kids were infants. Others have told me that they love different ages best. Now, at one year old, Cassidy is getting more expressive in every way and interacting with us quite a bit more. She's getting more affectionate and when she hugs you, you know you're doing things right. It's a lot like a cat. Dogs, for example, are pretty much always "on" when it comes to giving you affection. Cats, on the other hand, cuddle with you only when they're in the mood, and when they do, you feel ever so privileged. "Thank you so much, oh great aloof one, for gracing me with your purring presence for three whole minutes!" At this age, kids can be clingy or not, but lately, our daughter is giving us real live hugs more and more, and they are absolutely golden. I keep telling Natalia; "Look! Look!" whenever I get a full hug from Cassidy as if it's never happened and might not happen again for a long time. And whenever she does, we feel like things are going as they should. That she's bonding with us and learning from us as she should. She's learning love and affection and she's mimicking our good traits. As a result, any parent, or I should say any parent trying to be a good parent, has really got to step up their game. They have to make smiles and laughter more a part of their lives, and all the bad emotions so much less. It's impossible to be a perfect parent, but the net effect of this is that you take stock of your behavior and you make yourself more available to your child for play time, laughter, tickling, cuddling, and hugging. What could be better than that? A being in your life that reminds you of happiness and joy and pretty much forces you to be happy and joyful. And it's no secret that kids from those environments grow to expect a happy and joyful life, just as kids in bad environments expect sorrow and stress. At camp, I see kids who have grown up in every kind of environment and I realize more and more how important the attitude of their parents is. If you want your child to be well adjusted, to have the tools to face life's difficulties, you have to start her our in all her days in a place of solid, happy, well adjusted emotions. A life where difficulties are met and handled with a minimum of stress and where daily expressions of love, humor and general well being are everywhere. And if you're worried about your job, your house, your relationship, or anything else... you have to put that away each day and shower her with all those good feelings, no matter how bad your day at work was, or what argument you had. And if you're any kind of a human being at all, you will realize how important this is and you will have no choice but to be a better, happier person. And that is a very good thing.
A cold but sunny day in Boston, and Cassidy actually wore her sunglasses, rather than simply trying to eat them. As I watch her grow, I see that every day is something new. As she continues to amaze me, I'm always thinking of the future. What will she be like? Who will she become? Given my background, she'll be a lifelong camper. Given her Mom's background, she will likely be a gymnast before we know it. Natalia was a full-scholarship collegiate gymnast at a Division 1 school, and with that kind of pedigree, I have no doubt that Cassidy will be flipping and flying soon. First classes at the gymnastics school (where Natalia taught before having Cassidy, and will eventually teach again) start at 18 months! Hard to believe, but even at that age, they can roll, climb, and do all kinds of impressive activities. Certainly it has to be good for their body awareness and coordination. Along with Gymnastics, Cassidy is bound to be an active kid. She will have snowmobiles, snow skiing, and all the dozens of activities at camp. There's never too much physical action for kids, but I hope not to be one of those parents that has her in twenty simultaneous sports and fifteen types of classes. We live in an age of over-scheduling that's becoming an epidemic. But more on that in a later post. For now, she's just a baby!
During staff training at camp, I tell counselors to try to imagine the most important single thing they own, the most valued thing, the most prized possession they have ever had, maybe their car, maybe a gift from their mother or father, perhaps an old photo of a grandparent they loved or a beloved pet. I tell them to imagine giving that prized possession to someone else for two months. Then I tell them to imagine how they would worry about that thing, then to take that image and multiply it by a billion, by a trillion, by an infinite number just to get an idea of what it's like for a parent to send their child to camp, entrusting us to take care of them and make sure they're having fun and doing well all the time that they are here. It's hard to imagine loving something or someone so much... until you have a child. Yes, it's true. It's all true. Everything they say about falling madly in love with your baby the day she's born is all true. And it keeps increasing. Every morning when I see her face I beam with love and joy and it just keeps multiplying as you are continuously surprised by how much you can love a little child. It's not to say you couldn't believe it, just that despite the love you see in your own family or that of others, despite all that you have heard, you just can't believe how much you will love that little baby. And frankly, it's not like they're doing all that much in return. Let's not kid ourselves. They're not saying "I love you Daddy" or writing you a birthday card. They're really just eating/sleeping/pooping machines for the first several months. Once they start smiling at you, (and our baby Cassidy is a big smiler), your heart just melts with every happy face she makes. Maybe it's genetics, maybe it's just the way we're wired, or maybe it's something more spiritual than that, but it's very clear. It's all true.
I meet a lot of parents at camp and they ask a lot of questions. For the most part, they are exceedingly good parents who care deeply about their kids. Some care so much about their kids they have pretty much given up taking care of themselves. It is for these good parents, and all current and potential camp parents, that I wrote the following article.
Camp – It’s For Parents Too
The great majority of my time is spent educating parents about the benefits of camp for kids. However, there’s a vital benefit I don’t speak that much about – what camp does for parents. I’m not talking now about the benefits parents see in their kids, (e.g. happier, better adjusted kids who sometimes even get along better with their siblings!), rather I’m talking about what sending kids to camp actually does for parents.
We live in a world in which parents, especially American parents, are very involved in the lives of their kids, and with good reason. Parents are juggling a tremendous amount of information about child development and of course, they want the best for their kids. Many American parents practice what parenting experts call “Concerted Cultivation”, meaning they are very involved in the free time of their kids, often shuttling them from activity to activity like piano lessons and soccer. Kids from these types of families learn a sense of structure early on. They are taught to negotiate and question authority and they tend to learn a sense of personal entitlement. Sometimes this can be a good thing and sometimes bad, but this isn't a discussion of either point. The net effect on parents is that they are very busy being very involved in almost every moment of their kids’ lives. Not surprisingly, that can be taxing emotionally and physically, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. It can also be very hard on the relationship between the mother and father. Many parents have put so much pressure on themselves to do well for their children that they feel guilty even having a night off for themselves.
With this kind of intense pressure parents put on themselves, it becomes more and more important that they have time off to be adults. That means time to cultivate and nurture the relationship with their spouses, time for friendship and fun and, to put it delicately, time for romance. Basically, parents badly need some guilt-free personal time. This is one of the least-mentioned benefits of sleep-away summer camps. It’s almost to the point where even discussing it is seen as controversial, mostly by the parents who feel guilty doing things for themselves. But why? It doesn't take Sigmund Freud to figure out that healthier, happier parents make for healthier, happier kids, and that’s one place that camp can help.
For some parents, camp is the first time their kids have been away for any length of time. When my brother Mitch (co-owner/director at Camp Waziyatah) sent his third child to camp, he said it was the first time he and his wife had spent more than a few consecutive days away from their kids in more than ten years! Ten years without a real parent’s vacation can be hard on a relationship. So now, when parents tell me it’s the first time the kids are away for more than a week, I suggest taking a nice trip somewhere. Some come up to Maine, drop the kids off for camp, and then go explore the beautiful Maine coast and quaint little coastal towns. Others head to the nearby White Mountains for a romantic stay at a grand hotel, or go camping in gorgeous Acadia national park, sometimes traveling for the entire two or even four week session of camp. Sometimes they take that trip to Paris they’d always dreamed of. At the end of the camp session, they come back refreshed and smiling to pick up their refreshed and smiling kids. It’s a well-deserved break from their children, and it’s a much-needed rejuvenation for relationships.
Some parents tell me they “can’t imagine being away from their kids for two whole weeks”. This is the point where I politely mention that if they feel that way, it is all the more reason that they should. Kids need to spread their wings and grow on their own. That’s obvious. But what may not be obvious to parents is that many of the benefits of camp, the “outcomes” that we talk so much about in the summer camp business, are based on personal growth that has to happen individually – away from parents. Kids have a tremendous support network in their parents, and they should, but much of the natural growth and social skills they need to learn in life come from experiencing things on their own, even at a very young age. The camp environment, with constant supervision, moral and emotional support, great role models and healthy activities, is the perfect place to do it. Parents do not need to feel guilty for being away from their kids – just the opposite. They are giving kids the space and freedom to become the people they want and hope they will become. And even less obvious is that it’s good for parents.
It may be difficult to be away from someone you love and protect so much, but that’s part of the general growth experience on both sides of the parent/child relationship. It certainly helps avoid some of the bad things that come with too much connection, like a kind of “fusion” that happens when parents’ and children’s needs are too intertwined. Everyone has seen families with kids that are too “clingy” or unable to spend a moment’s time playing by themselves. They are constantly begging for attention and parents don’t get a moment alone. These are the families who need camp the most, but it’s not just the overly attached that need it. All kids need to spread their wings to grow and become stronger, better people. Parents need a break too.
March 6th. That's the day our baby girl is due to enter the world. Our future camper, our joy, our sweetie... you get the point. I'm amazingly excited and can't wait to meet her. And now, of course, we're already talking about sending her away to camp. Yes, you heard that correctly and we're not talking about our camp (Wazi). Naturally, we'll wait until she's six years old, but our plan has always been to send her to another camp, at least for part of the summer. Every time I talk to parents, I tell them that one of the key ingredients of camp is for kids to be away from parents. Even for a short time, the spreading of the wings is vital to any child. For so many reasons, kids need to get out of the home zone for a bit and socialize with peers, meet new people and find their own way. It's a safe environment for them to grow and to become stronger, happier kids. Now, I couldn't exactly make that argument all the time and not believe it myself. That's why our baby girl will spend a little time at another camp. I can't say she'll go forever, as my guess is that she won't want to miss anything at Wazi, but we do intend for her to go. Growing up at a summer camp that your parents own is bound to be wonderful. A good friend of mine did that very thing. But if you always have your parents there, that isn't really spreading your wings all that much. Natalia and I plan (and hope) that our child will not be one of those clingy kids that can't go on a sleepover or be left alone for a moment, and we expect to start that life plan in motion as soon as she is born. We want her to be an independent and strong person who needs us, but just not TOO much. Naturally, we'll see how that goes. I'm the first person to admit that she's our first, so we can talk until we're blue in the face about how we'd like her to be... and of course, she'll probably be something entirely different!