We’ve been reading the post-camp feedback from parents and are so pleased that for the most part our hard work paid off to create a safe and positive experience for all of our campers and their families. One of the few complaints we are getting, however, is that many parents wish we would post pictures of their kids online during the summer like some other camps do. Like most things we do at camp, we have made a very intentional decision about this, and this article that Joanne published several years ago in The Globe and Mail explains why.
Camp Communication Issues: Cutting the Cord and Separation Anxiety
Every summer more than a quarter of a million children in Canada go to summer camp. The old cliché applies: To those who have experienced it, no explanation is necessary. For those who have not, none is possible. Ask an old camper why camp was important and you’ll hear stories of their first kiss, laughing with friends that they keep for life, sweet songs and gooey chocolate s’mores round the campfire, standing up and learning to be a leader, paddling through morning mist to the haunting call of the loon.
But the stories do not tell the whole tale, for underlying all the poignant and powerful moments that build lifetime memories at summer camp is one salient factor that outweighs all else: Summer camp is for most children their first extended time away from their parents, and it is that separation that most dramatically defines camp. Whether camp lasts two weeks or two months for a child, the cord is cut. No child goes to camp for the first time without terror: “Can I survive without my parents?” And few go home without triumph: “I did it! I managed without my parents!” Contained in that experience – for the children – is a whole new realization of personal ability and independence.
For parents sending a child to camp is more ambivalent. In our minds we want nothing more than our children’s successful adjustment to camp, to independence, to their own lives. But parenting young children has been so rich with intimacy and connection that we’ve come to count on their presence. When they leave for camp they’re going off to a grand new adventure but we’re left with empty rooms and quiet kitchens. Keeping in close touch with them at camp is small beer compared to their actual presence, but it’s a comfort we parents seek.
The new new thing in the camp world is using the internet to link camp and home in ways that Canada Post never imagined. Hungry internet companies have found a fresh new market in kid-sick parents of summer campers. There are American camps with webcams at the swim docks, posting kids’ pics on websites hourly. Here in Canada we’re a little behind the times; many camps have only just signed up with companies that market email services for parents and kids at camp, catering to our need to keep the umbilical cord intact. It’s all part of our increasing addiction to instant round the clock communication. At many camps kids bring cell phones, use email, send and receive faxes.
At Camp Arowhon we cherish certain old-fashioned ideas. Cell phones are verboten, email isn’t on, kids neither fax nor use the telephone, and no thanks to webcams at the swim docks. We’ve made a conscious choice not to enter the realm of instant communication, because we want to safeguard camp’s differentness from city life and the specialness of this children’s world. Camp is beyond vacation, beyond geography, much more than a beautiful lakeside place. It’s an emotionally different planet where children grow by leaps and bounds, a safe place where they learn independence and grow into their own identity. Instant communication with home is an obstacle to the independence that allows children to make that magical transformation.
Sure we teach kids to sail and canoe and ride horses and windsurf and play tennis and all that fun stuff; but that’s not what camp is about at the deepest level. Camp is a childrens’ world. But not in the sense of Lord of the Flies. If you let children be, on their own with neither supervision nor boundaries, they would make unsafe choices by the dozen and end up hurt and/or unhappy. Imagine a place where someone has laboured full time for 10 months to assemble a crackerjack team of energetic young leaders who pretty much all share a common philosophy of supporting children to learn and grow and to find the best in themselves, in a safe place. That’s camp!
Camp is a place for kids to invent their best self, to walk away from limiting preconceptions of who they are. I remember an 11 year old boy telling me: “I’m not cool at home. At school I’m a nerd but here I’m cool.” Kids come to camp with assorted invisible baggage: Acrimonious divorces, over-controlling parents who require their child to rack up achievements at activities as if camp were an Ivy League school, parents who want them to lose weight….
Dan Kindlon’s book Too Much of a Good Thing, is about my generation’s parenting style, about how we tend to hover, over-managing our children, trying to make everything right for them and by so doing depriving them of opportunities to develop character and become resourceful human beings. Summer camp is the Me Generation’s antidote to our micro-managing parenting. Kindlon, who spoke recently at a camp director’s conference I attended, believes in camp as a great place to foster children’s independence and resourcefulness.
I would hate to imply that parents have a negative influence on their children, but as a mother of two children whom I adore, I only want the best for them, and I own up to having pretty high hopes. As a parent I can’t help having an agenda for my children. Try though I might to set them free to be their own people, I confess it’s hard for me when they are less than successful, less than well-mannered. As parents we all have our lists of expectations. Giving our children time out from us, in a safe and nurturing place, allows them to discover who they want to be, and how valuable they are. When she was 12 my daughter said to me: “Mommy, you have to tell me you love me and that I’m great. But when my counselors at camp tell me that, I know it’s true.”
Summer camp involves a procedure called a parent-ectomy, which can be painful at the outset. In order to soothe the pain (called homesickness) both parties to the procedure (parents and children) may long for contact . We get our campers through their homesickness by bonding with them and running them off their feet. We don’t allow campers to use the phone, fax or email, because our experience is that instead of making the adjustment to camp, a child in constant communication with mom and dad will expect them to make everything perfect…. or else.
15 years ago we took away our camper pay phones, because too many kids made a habit of calling home over every small spat with their friends, if they were mad at their counselors because they made them do their share of cabin cleanup, or if some small thing upset them. Instant communication encouraged kids to call the parental rescue squad instead of letting us help them solve their problems. It discouraged their development of resourcefulness and communication skills. Being able to ask for help, say your needs and get support is a grand life skill, one best learned by doing.
We cancelled Visiting Day because it was an emotional bloodbath for too many children. Even some of the most well-adjusted campers who had successfully mastered the developmental challenge of separating and getting over their initial homesickness, and who were having a great time at camp, tended to get thrown right back into it by Visiting Day. We had one boy whom we had to physically restrain from throwing himself at his parents when they tried to leave…. every summer. Counsellors had to peel some kids’ hands off their parents, one finger at a time, while they screamed. There were campers who started crying days before Visiting Day in anticipation of seeing their families, because the impending visit made them think about home.
We didn’t cancel Visiting Day because of the fragility of a few people. We were always surprised at how many people it upset. A great many campers’ anxiety level shot up in advance, in anticipation of Visiting Day, and the separation issues that it raised. Some kids used the idea of Visiting Day as a defense against adjusting to camp, like one girl who used to insist that she was going home with her family on Visiting Day, and who played that card every time something didn’t go 100% her way in the cabin.
The first summer after we cancelled Visiting Day, I listened all summer for our campers to complain about losing Visiting Day. Arowhon campers are a vociferous lot. If we forget their candy in the tuck shop, or try to send them to bed early, they’re not shy about complaining. So I waited all summer to hear their angst about losing Visiting Day. But I waited in vain, for nary a child complained! Which left me guessing that Visiting Day was more for parents than for kids.
We raise our children anxiously in an unsafe world, and it is genuinely difficult for us to let go. We fear the bad things that can happen to children at camp: They can get abused, bullied, neglected, be just plain unhappy, have no friends. As a mother I have an insatiable appetite for information about my children. It feeds the beast inside me, the she-bear who would claw the enemy to death to defend my “babies” and who needs to know they’re safe at all times. Which explains why parents are such easy targets for those who market instant communication with campers.
But the irony is the cold comfort offered by these gimmicks. The road to seeing your child’s face on their camp’s web pics is strewn with potholes. I’ve heard from parents of kids at tech-friendly camps that their anxiety level was raised when their child seemed to be frowning in pictures, or they couldn’t find their child in a picture for a few days. Accustom parents to twice-weekly emails from camp and they panic if one doesn’t arrive.
Sending your child away to summer camp requires a terrifying leap of faith, a decision to entrust that which is most precious in your life to other people. At Camp Arowhon we give heart and soul to making camp the safest possible place in the world for children, both physically and emotionally, and parents who send their children to us have to trust us. Neither emails nor webcams nor web pics can substitute for that choice to trust a camp to do right by your child.
From a 2016 camp mom: "I love how my friends hit refresh every afternoon to see their kids on facebook pages from other camps while we can go for a bike ride or out for dinner. Those kids must spend half their summer posing for photos. how boring!”