This is the third in a series of four blogs. The first two describe two critical trends that have affected children in concerning ways: 1) parenting trends [LINK] and 2) the pandemic [LINK]. If you have not read them, I suggest that they will help you understand this blog and the next one.
This blog and its successor are about the ways that summer camp can help address these trends and help our children be more capable, contributing, confident, and content. The next blog will talk about how camp allows kids to be Tech Free and Happy.
This blog is about Making Strong Kids.
As my previous articles detail, our children are more anxious now than they have been. They feel less capable of overcoming challenges and are less resilient. As parents, we strive to protect and assist them. In the short term, we can mitigate their struggles, but our ultimate goal is to have them not just survive but thrive without us.
We want our children to be strong, resilient, and confident. A few years ago, I fell in love with the concept of “anti-fragility”. The idea is that an item or a person can be one of three things:
- Fragile – stress or challenge leads to harm. Crystal glass is fragile. If it falls to the ground, it shatters.
- Resilient – stress or challenge does not lead to harm. A solo cup is resilient. It falls to the ground and remains unchanged.
- Anti-fragile – stress or challenge lead to increased capability. Our immune system and muscles are anti-fragile. Exposure to germs makes us resistant to disease in the future; working out makes our muscles stronger.
Often parents hope for resilience, but soon learn that culture, media, and parenting styles are actually cultivating fragility.
I want to suggest that our goal should be to foster anti-fragile children.
I can hear your thoughts. “Does this crazy person want me to ignore the stresses and challenges my child experiences? Worse, does he actually want to embrace them?”
The answer is no. We should not seek suffering, but we do want to find ways to cultivate strength when the challenges arise.
The best way to do this is to help your children trust their own ability to rise to challenges and self-reflect on their strength and growth. Using challenging situations as teachable moments is a worthy parental goal. For example, let’s look at Covid. We do not want our children to see themselves as victims of the pandemic. Instead, we want to help them identify ways they are challenged, encourage them to find solutions and then praise them when they show strength. Ultimately, we hope to watch them become the source of comfort to other children that have not found the same strength.
This is the best way to cultivate strength – regular, diligent, loving daily parenting.
But the second best tool is to send them to camp. Camp is ideal for this purpose because of several reasons:
- Parents are not at camp (this is not a critique of parents – see below)
- Camp has fun that distracts
- Camp has counselors and other adults that model strength
- There is no greater gift than strength
Parents are Not at Camp
Please know that I am not saying that parents are the problem. What I am actually saying is so obvious that it almost seems silly – how can a child ever know that they can thrive on their own without their parents unless they experience thriving on their own without parents?
In this way, camp is an odd magic trick. When a camper is here and overcomes a fear (like heights) or solves a problem (like resolving a conflict with cabinmates) or experiences a triumph (like learning to waterski), they think that they are doing so all on their own. No parents are here, so the triumph is their own. Here is the trick: while they think they are “all on their own”, they are surrounded by a loving and supportive community that will spring to action if they truly struggle. So they get the boost of confidence that comes from independent success without the risk of true independence.
I have joked it is like they are on a tightrope. They think it is over the Grand Canyon, but the tightrope is actually only 3 inches above a soft ground. They can fall safely, but if they do not fall, they see their success as their own.
Camp Has Fun That Distracts
Having a good time makes it easier to absorb difficulties. At camp, children will have disagreements with friends, they will go to some activities that are not their preference (nobody can go to the same favorite activity all day long), and they will not achieve every goal. Being without a phone is a huge challenge that most young people think is insurmountable. None of these experiences are fun by themselves.
But the camp environment has enough fun to make the unpleasant moments not just bearable, but part of life. You would not want to stand in line for 30 minutes to get a root canal, but you might do so to ride the best attraction at Disneyworld.
Being at camp makes engaging with challenges easier by allowing them to grow by venturing out of their comfort zones.
Camp has Counselors and Other Adults that Model Strength
Every parent realizes one day that they are no longer the exemplar of coolness to their children. This is not fun. When they were 4 years old, they thought we were without fault. As they cruise into their teen years, our “coolness fact” drops regularly. Hopefully, their assessment of our capability bottoms out around 15-17 and they slowly begin to think that we are interesting and useful again.
At camp, your child gets to be surrounded by people that they like and want to be like. People who are “still cool”. [Note: when our four children were teens at camp, Susie and I would joke that all the kids at camp thought we were special, except for four that KNEW that we were not.]
There is nothing as cool to a camper than a 19-year-old who truly cares about them.
We hire counselors and staff to encourage, support, and praise strength. They will not focus on shortcomings but help direct attention to what IS strong in each child. This support from adult role models who are not family is powerful. Family is required to love and support a child, so the child can take it for granted. But when that cool non-family adult believes in a child, that kiddo feels special and hears with fresh ears and thinks with a fresh mind.
There is No Greater Gift than Strength
I could swamp you with stories about shy, introverted children that found confidence (me); bossy children who learned to play well with others; teens that realized that they did not want their phone to “own” them; or perfectionists that learned that failure is simply a way to learn, not something to fear. But I will wrap this up instead.
To conclude, I want to share one of Susie’s best observations. Camp not only helps campers become more strong and capable, but it helps each child develop the particular strengths that they need the most. A child who thinks he can never leave his mother’s side develops independence. The quiet child learns that her voice is worth listening to. The impatient child fosters compromise and the ability to wait.
In a world that is producing many children who feel overwhelmed or dependent, few gifts are greater than strength.
Helping each camper find their own strength is a foundational principle for us. We will have fun. We will make friends. But we will also grow.
After all, the world needs more Champions.