What if....kids always needed summer camp now more than ever?

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It’s a central refrain as I talk to our camp parents and staff about what shape our summer will take. They all agree that as we come out of our confinement, kids will need summer camp more than ever. An experience that gets them outside, builds connection, allows them to develop their strengths and resiliencies will go a long way in helping kids recover and grow. Zoom classes, quarantine, social distancing, and having to confront new realities that build anxieties in children have all combined to help us recognize that the most impressionable among us would be well served by some positive impressions. But what if that were true all along?

What if we decided that kids need an experience that helps them not to banish anxiety from their lives but rather gave them a framework and the skills to tolerate it and put it in context. As Kate Julian says in her recent article about childhood, “…anxiety itself is not something to be warded off. It’s a universal and necessary response to stress and uncertainty.” If you have ever dropped a child off at camp or school for the first day, you can see it in their eyes, and likely feel it in your own gut. To expect that a child not be anxious about any unknown or new experience- the new cabin at camp, the first time solo sailing or jumping in a cold lake for the first time- is wishful thinking. Camp puts many of these anxieties at ease and builds emotional and physical memory on how to overcome and abide.

What if we decided that the best thing we can do for kids is to let them bump into things on their way to adulthood. In 30 years as a camp director I have never talked with a parent who does not want their child to gain resilience- the capacity to recover from difficulties. I have spoken with far fewer who see hardships as opportunities. I don’t mean to suggest that our current hardship is anything we would ever wish on anyone- especially a child. But it does lay bare some of our tendencies as parents (mine own included, certainly) to over protect our children. We all certainly need to find a balance, and it will look different for every family, but as I have said before, kids are acutely aware of our worries- whether we give voice to them or not. Finding a way to acknowledge these worries, share them and frame them with our children, strengthens them and helps them develop self-protection skills- both physically and emotionally. Camp has always served as a place for children to do just that.

What if we decided that an experience that allowed kids to recognize, assess, and process risk is the best thing we can do for them. Lisa Damour, in her book Untangled, uses the analogy of pool wall to illustrate a parenting approach. Our kids explore the shallow end, approach that line of demarcation beyond which lies the deep end with trepidation, and return to the wall before heading out a little further the next time. As the wall in this story, parents can provide security, safety, and respite, but the deep end of the pool will always be there. That bright rope, with the blue floaties, does not exist outside of pools or the daily life into which we dip our toes. Helping kids find that line is what camp is all about, and it’s one of the reasons we still teach swimming at Camp Mishawaka.

Camp is not a static experience. It’s both dynamic and timeless. The needs of the first young men who came to Camp Mishawaka in 1910 were vastly different than the young kids that share the summer with us now. But what if Camp was what these young men needed then more than ever, just as kids need Camp now? I’m confident there is a way to find out, and I think the kids are, too.

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