One of the most common phrases you hear during Arowhon’s pre-camp staff training is “They know what we show.” You can tell a kid 19 times not to do something but if they see their beloved counsellor doing it you can be sure they’re going to want to try it. This has become a relatively mainstream piece of modern parenting philosophy and most of us would pass judgment on someone who lit a cigarette or used obscenities in front of their kids. Why then do I almost daily overhear parents openly criticizing themselves in front of their kids?
In our end-of-summer surveys, 99% of parents say that their kids come home from camp feeling more confident about themselves. Many attribute this to people other than themselves telling their kids how great they are (they say their kids never believe them because as a parent they have to say that). But I believe differently.
Kids are not born feeling worthless and needing to be built up. It’s the opposite actually. As kids grow up, they encounter more and more messages that it’s not okay to be happy with who you are, that there’s something you need to change, that they should strive to be prettier, stronger, richer, smarter, etc. The magic of camp is not that we tell kids how great they are and they believe it – it’s that we create an environment where everyone is valued for who and what they are and not encouraged to change.
We do this by fostering diversity and having many different ways in which an individual can succeed. You can be a musician or an athlete or a drama star or the most improved swimmer or a hard-core tripper or inclusive to the vulnerable kid in your cabin and you get celebrated for all of these things. But we also do it by requiring that our staff act in ways that are down-to-earth, self-loving and kind to each other.
Sadly, by the time they get to us, most of our campers are already polluted with negative beliefs about themselves, and we can’t erase those in 4 or 8 weeks. But we can provide them with role models who take joy in jumping in puddles and dressing in silly costumes and laugh at their own mistakes and don’t try to cover up their pimples.
So, parents, think about this next time you say in front of your kid “That piece of cake is going right to my waistline” or “I’m such an idiot I can’t believe I forgot to…” The results of THIS experiment, where 50 people of different ages were asked what they would like to change about themselves, are sad yet not surprising: the adults identify a laundry list of flaws and the kids wish for wings to fly, cheetah legs to run really fast, or nothing at all because they haven’t yet been inundated with society’s messages that they’re not okay how they are. Fortunately, as camp professionals and parents, WE are the ones who have the power to change this… and this starts with how we treat ourselves.
By Mara Kates
The magic of camp is not that we tell kids how great they are and they believe it – it’s that we create an environment where everyone is valued for who and what they are and not encouraged to change.