As a summer camp director for the past 25 years, I have observed a none-too-subtle shift in the way young people approach their childhood. In general, there is a hesitation to embrace their own youth as a time of discovery and wonder. Children might not describe it this way, but there is an over-riding fear of failure, shame or embarrassment that manifests itself in a variety of ways. Namely, children feel more and more pressure to behave like adults.
We look to children to become specialists at a younger and younger age. We celebrate their mastery (as we should) but often at the expense of acknowledging the drift, work and exploration that it takes to get there. The rise of social media has no doubt compounded this at a geometric pace- who posts of photo of themselves or children struggling? Children, themselves, remain remarkably resilient and intuitive, but also carry a sense of concern and worry that those of us of a “certain age” don’t recall being a part of the rites and rituals of childhood. It’s not that children don’t still act childish- believe me they do- but that they also carry adult concerns and afflictions.
There are likely many causes, and as we enter this new era of crude public discourse, the irony could not be greater. Just as we look to our adolescents to behave like adults, we tolerate adolescent behavior from our adult leaders. I have no doubt that this irony is not lost on todays’ children as they struggle to please their peers, parents and adult mentors. Just how we reconcile this contradiction, for our children and ourselves, will determine just what kind of adults we raise.
To be sure, there are movements afoot, and we in the camp industry are heartened to see studies citing the benefits of “free-play” and imaginative learning, but there is much still to do. If we hope to raise the next greatest generation of adults, who are prepared to meet the challenges of the next century (and there are many), I suggest that we first and foremost provide a childhood that embraces the joy, wonder and childlike behavior that comes with it. Regardless of cultural and societal factors that have prompted this shift in what we expect from children, restoring childhood would go a long way in correcting it. If childhood is, in fact, a phase to be “outgrown,” it is important that we, at the minimum, allow our children to inhabit this space for a period of time. I think we will find they move on quickly, with our guidance and example, into a healthier adulthood.