I normally do not blog in the winter. Afterall, people are not thinking about summer camp, so during these months my blog happily hibernates like a grizzly.
But we have had an unusual winter and I feel the need to share this off-season. Camp is more important than it has ever been. In fact, I believe it is vitally important to the growth of the children we serve. I believe that:
- Camp Builds Strong Kids
- Camp allows kids to be Tech Free and Happy
Why am I writing now? Two events have inspired my new enthusiasm: a new afterword from The Coddling of the American Mind and the evolution of the pandemic. This first blog will talk about the book.
The Coddling of the American Mind
In this remarkable book, the authors (Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff) recognize, describe, and analyze a series of critical trends that affect today’s children. Susie and I have noticed these trends in our campers for years, but we lacked the access to the research that would help us understand exactly what was happening. Not only do the authors share the correct research, but they describe the trends clearly. They also weave them together into a narrative that made me excited, concerned, and jealous.
I was excited to understand what we had been seeing.
I was concerned about our children.
I was jealous that they write better than I do and they combined these ideas together so effectively.
Four Concerning Trends
In the book, they discuss several trends, but four are relevant to us:
- Loss of free play
- Excess adult advocacy
- Social media impact
Loss of Free Play
Children have less time for unstructured free play than we did as children. Free play allows children to engage their imaginations, exercise their creativity (like inventing a game using just a wadded up ball of aluminum foil), and develop the ability to resolve conflicts. We all remember fighting about the rules of a new game or the role in a make-believe story.. But we had to learn how to resolve those fights so that we could get on with playing. When older kids play with younger ones, they tend to “go easier” on them so that everyone has fun – what better way to foster compassion?
When we replace free play with structured activities (organized play dates, sports leagues), they simply play – and learn - less.
We parents are responsible to protect our children. We need to keep them safe and healthy. That is job #1.
But parents often confuse providing a safe environment with an environment where children are comfortable and happy all the time. To be clear, if I could waive a wand that would assure that our kiddos never felt discomfort and were blissful for the rest of their lives, I would waive that wand.
But that wand does not exist.
Ironically, attempting to insulate our children from discomfort or struggle has the effect of assuring that they will suffer more in the future. Resilience is like a muscle; it needs to be developed and strengthened. The small challenges of today help prepare our children for the real struggles of the future – struggles that we cannot protect them from. They will face hardship, loss, difficult relationships, and so much more.
We cannot perfectly protect them, so we need to prepare them.
Yet when our fellow parents are being uber-protectors, it is hard not to do the same ourselves. A favorite camp conference presenter said, “we should prepare our children for the road, not the road for our children.”
Excess Adult Advocacy
This is related to safetyism and is another form of over-parenting. If safetyism is protecting from any discomfort or hurt feelings, excess adult advocacy is the active process of aiding a child in challenges that s/he should do on their own. Here are some examples:
- Making sure that a child always gets the “best” teacher. While great teachers are like gifts from heaven, our children need to know there are some not-so-great ones. After all, they will discover not-so-great bosses someday. Let them learn to adapt.
- Doing homework assignments with them every night. Helping with homework occasionally is a great service for our kids, but the homework is there to help them learn – you already have your diploma. After all, they will be the ones taking the test.
- If a parent ever says, “we have a science fair project next week”, that is a pretty good clue that they are over-involved.
- Two friends have a fight and report back to their parents. The parents decide to call each other to adjudicate the conflict. No need to do this. Friends learn how to forgive and move on as long as we let them.
Social Media Impact
Even before the pandemic, we all sensed that social media was affecting many children (especially tweens and teens) in serious ways. Having replaced face-to-face time with screen-to-screen time, our young people simply have fewer opportunities to practice interpersonal skills like listening, reading body language, and understanding facial expressions. Young people become uncomfortable with boredom or quiet moments.
But we have all since learned that it is far worse than we thought. Whistle blowers from social media companies have told us that apps are designed to grab kids and not let go – even if the companies know doing so can have serious impacts on the kids’ mental health, like depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Teenage self-harm has grown by startling amounts. In the past 4 years, teenage girls visiting emergency rooms after self-harm are up over 50%. Suicides and eating disorders have also surged terribly.
Please do not think we need to destroy our phones and go off the grid. But we do need to find ways to help reduce the influence of these apps. Here are some things that can help:
- Encourage better phone usage (Facetime is great, scrolling someone else’s Snapchat feeds much less so)
- Help reduce the time on the phone (through apps or family rules)
- Find extended periods that are completely tech free (family trips, camp).
I like to compare phone usage to food consumption. Some foods are healthy, some are just OK, and some are actually unhealthy. Having good habits (like portion control or exercise) is also critical. And even if you eat healthy food, you can eat too much of it. With phones, choose the right apps, develop good usage habits, and just use them less.
The next blog will discuss the pandemic.