February 7, 2017

Camp Kids and Success

Parents want kids to be successful in life. Some of us indulge, sometimes, in the little white lie that says we just want them to be happy. Sure, and I resemble Angelina Jolie. We want our kids to be successful because we want them to have good lives, not hard lives. We want them to do well in the world, to have energy and drive. Like us!

So how do you grow that kid?

A quick perusal of recent studies (yes, real science rather than guesswork) gives us some key requirements for raising successful kids. Funny thing, all these factors are in ample supply at summer camp. Some of them are hard to do at home – all occur naturally at camp.

Make kids do chores. This is so often a battleground at home. Or something that gets skipped over in the hurly burly of our hectic daily lives. Of course we want our kids to do chores. Of course we know the value in that work. It’s just hard to make it happen because we’re all so busy. How crucial is it? What better way for kids to learn to contribute to a group? According to the Harvard Grant Study, kids who do chores (like their own laundry) are more empathic, more able to take on tasks independently.

At camp, cabin cleanup is sacrosanct. Everybody does it. You make your bed, tidy your area and your cubby and do your cabin chore. Kids who refuse to clean up very quickly discover that the group enforces cabin cleanup with its disapproval of cleanup refuseniks. It’s a powerful motivator: Lids learn that they have to do the work of the cabin in order to be part of the cabin.

Teach kids social skills. Another thing we want to teach our kids, but for some weird reason they oftimes have trouble accepting these lessons from us. Whereas at camp it’s like falling off a log. When kids mess up socially, gentle tips from trained counsellors help them get back on track with their peers. Plus, there’s always the feedback of the group. How much do children’s social skills determine adult success? Big time, according to major studies.

Have high expectations. A big US survey showed that kids mostly live up to expectations. That’s an easy one for lots of us. Faithful readers of this column will know that I have some ambivalence about how high my expectations were for my kids. I see in hindsight that without meaning to, I put so much pressure on my kids to excel academically that I caused them undue stress. Probably not helpful to well-being. Which makes high expectations a double-edged sword.

High expectations are so much simpler at camp. Does the counsellor think the camper can make it to the top of the climbing wall? Get that big award at an activity? Go on a tough long canoe trip? YES! The counsellor believes in the camper, encourages the camper, helps, teaches, coaches, mentors and celebrates. Walks the walk with the camper, which softens the pressure of the expectation.

Teach grit. That setbacks = comebacks. Research correlates grit with significant measures of success in later life. Grit is not about being a successful child.  Success that comes easy doesn’t grow grit. Grit is not about winning, or getting anything the first or second or third time you try it. Grit is very hard for parents to teach because we get so sad, so emotionally over-involved, when we see your kids fail, so we try to shelter them from that lesson.

Grit is who you become when you fall of the windsurfer 17 times, and the 18th time you get up, you pull up the sail and stay up. Grit is who you become when you’re carrying a huge pack on a portage in the rain, you slip in the mud. And you struggle to your feet.

Grit is who you become when you’re my friend Laura. At age 11 you start going for your highest award in swimming. You fail the award that summer. The next summer, and for the next three summers, you train for that award again, and you don’t pass. The summer you’re 15, you finally pass. The speech about you, in front of the entire cheering camp, is moving and wonderful.

But so much more important is who you became while you were picking yourself up from those failures. You became the person who know that setbacks = comebacks. You got grit. Nobody can ever take that away from you. And that’s why camp.

How do you grow grit?

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