By Russell Roeder
I think every parent should figure out a way to get their kid to a sleepaway summer camp. They should go for at least a week (two would be better), and certainly before the child turns 12.
Kids need to get out from under their parents’ wings to spread their own. Whether it’s soccer or baseball or dance lessons or music instruction or karate, our kids spend nearly every waking hour of every day being transported from one highly supervised activity to the next.
As parents, we’ve come to believe that all these structured activities somehow serve the dual purposes of building character and learning about focus and teamwork.
To some extent this is certainly true, but what parents don’t consider is the simple fact that the highly structured and hypercompetitive nature of these activities stifles the most precious and promising elements of childhood: creativity and the joyful freedom to explore, experiment, stumble, recover and succeed on their own terms, and without the unspoken but omnipresent pressure to please us — their parents.
Disagree if you want, but I am pretty sure that if you’re honest you’ll admit that by the time they are 10, every kid has a fairly well-established place in the pecking order of the classroom and school yard. For the 10 percent of kids who are the combination of gregarious, athletic, good looking, funny and smart, this is wonderful. The other 90 percent face the uncertainties of how and where they are going to fit into the increasingly stressful social order.
As well-meaning parents, we do everything we possibly can to get our kids into a better and more competitive position in the social chain by signing them up for all those highly structured activities that we assume will give them a sense of success and bolster their self-esteem.
The problem is that I just don’t think you can manufacture self-esteem in kids. It is a personal discovery. And the more we as parents do to fill their days and structure their lives, the less time and opportunity they have to themselves to find it on their own.
What kids need is a place where they can learn about themselves without the continuous doting eye and well-intentioned judgment of their parents. They need to feel the weird and beautiful exhilaration that comes when you realize you are a stranger among strangers in a safe place and have nothing to lose or prove. You get to discover and be who you really are — not who your schoolmates, teachers and parents expect — or hope you will be.
It doesn’t matter if you’re especially good at soccer or dance or karate. What matters is that you’re willing to cooperate in a group of your peers, find ways to have fun and solve problems and care about the people you are living with. When these are the things that matter, growth and genuine self-esteem follow.
I started going to a summer camp when I was 9. I finished as that camp’s program director when I was 21. It taught me honesty, caring, respect and responsibility. It gave me confidence I never would have discovered in the classroom, school yard or even in the loving home I was blessed to have. It gave me lifelong friendships that have continued to this day (I’m 58). It provided a basis for a long and successful career in the health care industry.
Most importantly, it taught me that collaboration is a more effective way to achieve success than competition. I cite this as the most important lesson of camp because our country is in trouble. We need less competition and more collaboration. We need to get our kids to camp because we need a generation of leaders and citizens who are interested in solving complex problems — not just winning battles.
Christmas is coming. I bet your kid (or grandkids or nieces/nephews) already has a house full of laptops, video game equipment and smartphones. Consider giving them the gift of freedom and discovery. Send your kid to camp next summer.
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