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.