Why I Send My Kids To Camp

Originally posted on World Moms Blog

I just returned from two weeks in the woods of northern Minnesota. This was my sixth summer reprising my college job as a camp counselor.  The opportunity to be at camp at the same time as my three children has allowed me a unique perspective:  I get to witness firsthand the benefits of sending my kids to camp.

I am proud to work at Skogfjorden, the Norwegian language and cultural immersion program that is one of the fourteen Concordia Language Villages.  Respekt is the guiding principle and all deltagere (campers) promise to have and take responsibility for their actions as part of the Skogfjorden promise. I hope that the language camp immersion experience will inspire my kids’ interest in global affairs in the way that it inspired me to pursue international affairs. But I am willing to bet that most of the following benefits of sending your kids to sleepaway camp apply to pretty much any high quality program.

Kids do things at camp that they may never attempt at home.  Being outside of their normal social circle allows kids to try new things. Sometimes this is as simple as a picky eater who samples food at camp that he would flat out refuse at home.  My daughter, for example, barely nibbles the kid-friendly items in her lunchbox but she chows down on almost everything she is served at camp. But sometimes I have seen kids do incredible things at camp, things that they would never even dream of doing at home.   I remember a girl in my cabin one year whose parents pulled me aside when they dropped her off to brief me on  how incredibly shy she was. And she WAS painfully shy. But exactly one week later, I saw her stand up in front of the entire camp and sing a solo a cappella in the talent show.  It was so beautiful that I teared up.  Her parents saw a video of it on the camp blog and were. Totally. Blown. Away.

The corollary of this is that kids get to explore different aspects of their personalities at camp. At school, a kid may be labeled as this, that or the other, but they get a chance to start fresh at camp.  At camp, most kids just get to be valued for who they are, without having to worry about how they are viewed by their long-term peers.  In fact, two of my three kids kind of don’t want their friends to go to camp with them. It is THEIR place and don’t want to cross the streams of their lives.

Camp helps kids learn how to problem solve and make decisions for themselves. One of the things that I have learned from parenting is that kids actually have very little control over their lives.  Understandably, that is frustrating. In a lot of ways, camp helps children feel in control of what happens to them.  At our camp, kids get to choose between activities twice a day, choose what they want to do during free time, choose how much money they will take out of the bank and what they will buy with it.  I think that these experiences make kids feel competent and independent, which in the end will help them to be better problem-solvers in any new situation.

And sometimes it can lead to brilliance.  One summer, I was assigned to work the camp candy store (or kiosk, as we call it at Skogfjorden). In terms of kid priorities, candy is at the very top of the list.  Since the store was only open once a day, the lines were looooong.  My oldest son showed up one afternoon and placed a massive and complicated order of  soda, chocolate, gummies, etc.  He had done the math in his head and paid with exact change for each category of item.  I flipped out.  “What do you think you are doing? You can NOT have all of that candy!”  “Mom,” he responded calmly, “it’s not for me.”  Turns out he was running a business.  For a small but reasonable fee,  he would stand in line for you and buy your candy.  Understandably, he had quite a customer base.  Not only that, but what he bought for himself he would save until the next morning – when everyone else had eaten up all of their own candy and were desperate for more.  Then he would sell at with a steep markup.  I gave him $20 at the start of camp on Monday.  By Friday, he had doubled his money and started a matching fund for a kid in his cabin who didn’t have much money.  (This was the day I realized that I could probably stop worrying about my small nonprofit salary.  This kid is going to take care of me in my old age.)

Camp forces kids to take a break from their ever-present technology. Everyone talks about how one of the benefits of sleepaway camp is that today’s plugged-in kids are forced to unplug and commune with nature.  That’s true, of course, but it doesn’t capture the sheer beauty of some of the things I have seen at camp.  I helped a 7-year-old with her camp evaluation last week and the most important thing for her was that she “had seen more animals than she had in a really long time”.  This happened on a day that I saw two deer sprint through camp, as well as a woodchuck, a red-headed woodpecker, and a hummingbird, not to mention all the various insects, birds and bees.  (We have bears, too, but that just means you have to sing on your way back to the cabin.) I especially love how the girls in my cabin were constantly showing me the caterpillars, inchworms, moths, shells and frogs that they discovered.

Speaking of frogs, I have to share the beauty of the Night of the Frogs.  It had rained hard – torrentially hard – that day and then cleared off.  On my way back to my cabin, I encountered my son Simon and 3 of his buddies in the middle of the flooded path, catching frogs in the moonlight.  There were frogs EVERYWHERE – big and small.  It was like something out of the Ten Commandments.   The boys had already caught more than a dozen frogs of all sizes.  Somewhere they had found a cardboard box.  They showed me the inhabitants of their cardboard box with pride.  They had worked out a system for catching the frogs and their cooperation was yielding enormous success.  Sometimes, I just close my eyes and remember their young voices raised in laughter and exhilaration.

Kids benefit from relationships with trusted adults who are not their parents.  who are closer to their own age.  At camp, kids have to create new relationships – on their own, without parental influence.  New friends among their peers are important and perhaps what they will remember most about camp.  But the relationships that they forge with trusted adults who are NOT their parents is hugely important.   While counselors are not parents, they are more than teachers.  They are positive role models who have time and energy to listen, talk, and laugh with our kids. They reinforce the messages and values that we parents are trying to instill, but – unlike us parents – they are inherently cool.  Sometimes kids listen better to these non-parental authority figures who are closer to their age. Parenting is a lot of responsibility and I, for one, feel better knowing that my husband and I am not alone in raising these kids.

Camp helps kids figure out who they are, helps them to grow up.  The truth is that putting a kid in the somewhat uncomfortable situation of living with a lot of other people in a small space helps them learn not only about cooperation and teamwork, but how to respect others and negotiate.  This helps kids build confidence, courage, independence, resilience and flexibility.

I sent my two sons off to camp today. They have reached the point in their teenage lives when they don’t especially need – or want – their mom around when they are at camp.  But that’s ok with me. I know that they are in one of the most safe and supportive environments that they will ever be in right now.  And that they will come home to me the better for it.

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A Mother’s Love is a Force of Nature

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Mother and daughter in Nepal

There are more than 2 billion mothers in the world today by some estimates. In my travels, I have seen the special role that mothers play in making the world a better place for all children.

A mother’s love is a force of nature, whether making sacrifices to ensure that her daughter is able to get an education or fighting for justice for their children. The mothers of the disappeared (ANFASEP) in Ayacucho, Peru lost their sons during the long, violent conflict in Peru.   For nearly 30 years, these women have been trying to find out who killed their sons and where their remains are.  

Mothers of the Disappeared in Peru
Mothers of the Disappeared in Peru

With their love, mothers are changing the world – one kid at a time.

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Me with my daughter in Norway.

Happy Mother’s Day – and thank you – to each of you mothers!

The Beauty of Teens

Photo credit to my son Sevrin
Photo taken by (and used with permission from) my son Sevrin at his high school sailing team practice.

As I write this, there are seven teens asleep in my basement.  My son and his friends came back from their high school dance in high spirits last night. Laughing and joking loudly, they boisterously descended on my kitchen, devouring everything within reach (even some chips that I thought I had hidden pretty well).  These guys were the human equivalent of an invading colony of army ants, foraging insatiably through my refrigerator.

Now these boy-men are dead to the world, asleep in a puppy pile on my basement floor.  And I have to be honest – I am loving every single thing about these teens.   In fifteen plus years of parenthood, I have grown accustomed to – perhaps, in some ways, inured to – the many and diverse aspects of wonder in babies and children.  But I find myself surprised and overjoyed at the sheer beauty of teenagers today.

My friend Doug describes my feelings perfectly:

I continue to be dumbfounded, flummoxed, and gobsmacked by my kids, in all sorts of great ways.

The conventional wisdom is that teens are “challenging”.  And, no question about it, there are challenging aspects of parenting teens.  But I think teens get a bit of a bad rap in our society. I know I’ve had many people say to me over the years, as I struggled with sleep deprivation, no “me” time, etc. etc.:

 “Just WAIT until you have teens!”

But now I am starting to wonder. I wonder if it could be possible that I was misinterpreting these statements for all these years?   Instead of a dire warning of impending misery (based perhaps on my then-existent sleep deprived misery coupled with a tired, old societal cliche), is it possible that what they actually were trying to say to me was:

“Hang in there, it WILL get better! Teenagers are the BEST!

Because now that my oldest son is 15 and a freshman in high school, I am finding that this stage of parenting is a comparative cakewalk.   Here are a few reasons why:

Teens have the capacity for So! Much! Joy! The photo above, which my son took of his high school sailing teammates at practice last fall, illustrates what I mean. Teens can make anything fun.  Sure, there are pretty major hormonal changes and brain development going on that help explain this facet of teen behavior. But I also think that teens are just not afraid to show it when they are having fun.  Somewhere along the way, most adults seem to lose the capacity for emotion that they had as teens.  We keep it in, stuff it down, don’t laugh out loud. Living with a teenager is a good reminder that sometimes you just need to turn up the music and dance around wildly.

You can reason with them.  This will come as a pleasant surprise to parents who have spent more than a decade living with toddlers and young children.  And I say this as a mother who freely admits to having resorted to Tootsie Pop bribery – believe me, one day your child will in fact become a rationale human being.  Stuck in a situation that he would (no doubt) have preferred NOT to be in recently, my teen son summed it up like this:

“I understand what you are saying. I understand why I should do this. I’m just frustrated, that’s all.”

Then he sucked it up and did what he had to do for his family.

The social relationships of today’s teen reflects a lot more equality. My son is friends with both girls and boys.  Heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual.  I don’t know about transgender yet but I have no doubt that he wouldn’t give a rip.  My teen and those he hangs out with just don’t seem to care that much.  This is a huge step forward from when I was a teen myself.   Sure, there is still plenty of drama.  But things seem to be, somehow, just a little bit less – fraught. And so much more accepting. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I think that is totally great.

Teens can contribute.  Carrying in groceries, washing dishes, shoveling snow – it struck me recently that my teen son is doing a lot to help keep the wheels of of our unwieldy family of of five moving forward. This is huge! A total sea change from the days of constant care and feeding of babies and small children when the parents are always, always DOING for the kids.  Sure, you often have to remind a teen to do a chore.  But if you give them the challenge of responsibility, by and large, they will accept it.

They expose you to new – and sometimes wonderful – things.  My son introduced me to Avicii way before his music made it to the mainstream; that was just the beginning of the new music he has exposed me to.  The other day, I was doing laundry and I heard him in his room playing his guitar and singing “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved”.   I had never heard of The Script or this song before.  But before suddenly,  I was loading the dryer with tears in my eyes.

But it’s not just music. My teen curates movie and program selections us (his lame parents) based on our tastes. His recent recommendation of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to his dad was spot on.   I’m sure I would never have even heard about the growing popularity of eSports if not for the influence of my teen, who competes for his high school Starleague  team.   I’ve also learned several iPhone tricks that I would never have figured out on my own.  And, by the way, my in-house teen tech support can’t be beat!

Teens are more connected to the global community.  My son, who plays eSports, routinely chats online with teens in other countries.  Thanks to his fantasy geopolitics team, he knows much more about what is going on in Iran and Ukraine than I do.  Part of this is without question due to changes in global society and technology that have made our world smaller and more interconnected for all of us.   But I think this increased connection across borders can only be good for the future of our planet, particularly when it comes to solving big problems (like, say,  human rights abuses.) I am hopeful that this is the generation that begins to truly live out Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Teens know how to find the information they need. Today’s teens came of age in the era of Google – they know how to use a search engine.  But I am referring to more than just their search skills.  What I mean is that this is a generation that has a unique attitude towards information as being infinitely accessible and independently attainable.  Information is easily and immediately obtained, disputes are easily settled.  Pearl Harbor happened on Dec. 7, 1940 or 41? (1941) Pizza dough is two weeks old and slightly gray? (edible) Who wrote the Art of War? (Sun Tze) What are the requirements for an out-of-state resident to get a driver’s license in New Hampshire? (this one for my nephew Eli, another great teen.) In a sense, this attitude makes them a generation of empowered autodidacts.

Teenagers are downright hilarious.  My son, his friends, and the other teens in my life crack me up.  They make me laugh all the time.  They have mastered puns; they have evolved into excellent purveyors of sarcasm. They get (and make) jokes that reference popular culture  – even when the popular culture being referenced occurred well before they were born.  (For example, they totally got it when I described them during their kitchen rampage as “Gremlins who had been doused in water and fed after midnight”.)

And they can be so very creative in their humor!  For their vocabulary homework for Spanish class, my son and his friends made this video.  The assignment was not to make a video; the assignment was to come up with a dialogue that involved specific Spanish vocabulary. But remember my point about how teens can make anything fun?

Teens give you the gift of revisiting things that you’ve done before – but with a new perspective.  Here’s just one example: If I didn’t live with a teen, I may never have gone back and re-read books that I read in high school.  Classics – books like The Giver, Of Mice and Men, and To Kill A Mockingbird – where  I fully recall the plot and the major characters but not the details.  The author’s tone, poignant quotes, turns of phrase that knock your socks off.  All the things that really make these books classics? These I had forgotten.  I was surprised to discover how much my perspective has changed on some of these books, my opinions shifting and resettling after years of life experience.  I empathize with some characters that I used to have nothing but disdain for; I’ve lost patience with others that I used to love.  When my son gets a new reading assignment, I now see it as an opportunity.  I started re-reading Romeo & Juliet because my son, describing the priceless hilarity of his teacher reading 500-year-old bawdy humor out loud to the class, reminded me that “Shakespeare was a BOSS!”

Although not yet fully formed, you can see in a teen glimmers of the person that he or she will become.  Teens today have opinions and they speak up for themselves. (My son has even shared his opinion on this blog before.)  They are not afraid to like something just because the LIKE it, even it it is not the current thing.  I was surprised that one of the first songs my son taught himself on guitar was Semisonic’s Closing Time – from 1998, the year before he was born.

Perhaps because they are more open and expressive than previous generations have been, you can catch glimpses of today’s teens’ developing inner selves.  Between this and his external behavior, I feel like I can truly see the proto-adult that is growing in my adolescent son – and I really, REALLY like him.  The guy who stays cool in a pinch.  The guy who doesn’t hold a grudge. The guy who can be counted on to be there for his friends.  The guy who always walks the girl home at night (for safety reasons).  I look forward to watching him grow into the wonderful adult that I can now say that I feel sure he will become.

My middle son turns 13 in two weeks.

With him, I’m looking forward to discovering the beauty of teens all over again.

Closing time
Open all the doors and let you out into the world

Closing time
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

Yeah.

The Radius of Hollow

I am not a poet.  But when my son was injured in a hockey game this week, it seeded an odd inspiration to write a poem about an important life lesson.  Pain and disappointment are part of the human experience, an inevitable part of life.  I witness this on almost a daily basis because of my work in human rights, but I also know it as a person who has sometimes experienced it. I want my son to understand that, while many things are outside of his control, how he responds to adversity is almost always within his control. I want him to know that learning from his disappointment will build courage and resilience – “sharp edges” for life.

I am not a poet, but, in truth, anyone can write a poem.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Radius of Hollow

Two players collided at
Mad hockey speed.
Fully padded – protected – and yet
My son was cut open.
Steel blade freshly sharpened,
One swift, true stroke that
Slashed through the sock,
Bit hungrily into his tender skin.

My own son, down
On his knees in the cold.
A supplicant pleading.
Or praying.
Blood pumped out and
His white sock bloomed crimson.
His heart’s blood,
Congealed dark on the ice.

I remembered his tears,
That morning they posted the team.
His name was not there.
He was in.
But then,
In a flash,
He was out.
He was the last to be cut.

A skate’s blade has twin edges.
In the center, a valley:
The radius of hollow.
Dull edges, you fall.
Yet sharp edges require
A rift through the core,
This concave depression.
The radius of hollow is what gives you control.

No need for stitches, coach said.
It’s not deep. But it hurts.
Violet and sallow-green blossoms on pale skin.
An angry contusion that will resolve.
Rough edges of torn flesh
Will adhere.
Up! Back on the ice, my son!
These wounds will heal.

Childhood Treasure

Little House

Recently, I bequeathed one of my childhood treasures to my eight year-old daughter – my box set of Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. My daughter Eliza had to first prove herself worthy; I refused to pass it on to her until she had finished reading both Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie.  

Little House in the Big Woods is the first “real” book that I can recall reading.  My grandmother Lillian started off reading it to me, but somehow, somewhere around the family goes to the “sugaring off”, I found myself reading it to her instead.  For the rest of my childhood, I read all the books in this pale yellow box again and again.

Even as a child, I picked up on the fact that Ma’s attitude towards Native Americans was racist and cruel.  It seemed wrong to me that Laura’s only occupational choices were schoolteacher or wife.  My daughter and I have been talking about these things as well.  It is a part of our history that is better to acknowledge than to ignore.  But my daughter likes the books because they include so many details about life in a very different time.  The books aren’t about heroes, but about ordinary people. Laura and Mary, Carrie and Grace, Ma and Pa, even Jack the dog are vividly alive for her.  Maybe next summer we will have to take a mother-daughter field trip to Walnut Grove, MN to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum.

The real treasure for me has been watching her discover the same joy in reading these books that I experienced as a child.  Maybe one day, she will pass this treasure on to her own children.

This post is a response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Treasure.

12 1/2 Clichés I Want My Kids to Live By

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You’ve heard ’em all before. Clichés are a popular form of expression used throughout the world.  There are many sayings that are so overused that we barely even notice them anymore.  I started to think about clichés recently because of The Loud Talking Salesman guy who works in the office next to mine.  He seems to speak entirely in clichés. The wall must be thin, because all day long I hear him on the phone with clients telling them that “at the end of the day” “it’s a win-win situation” etc etc.   (I’ve never met him, but if I ever do, I’ve already planned what I’m going to say:  “Working hard?”  To which he will most certainly reply, “Hardly working!”)

Once I started actually paying attention clichés, I noticed that we are not only constantly verbally but also visually blasted with them.  Clichés are plastered all over the place, on everything from bumper stickers to throw pillows to Pintrest. Some clichés are silly or sappy or just plan wrong.  But if you stop and think about it, some of them make a whole lot of sense.

Many clichés are, in fact, the moral equivalent of Tootsie Pops – they have a sweet, chewy truth at their center.  Some of them are actually pithy, shorthand statements of deep wisdom.   Some clichés embody true lessons about living an ethical, fulfilling, righteous and joyful life in community with other humans.  In some ways, these clichés are shorthand for the life lessons that I am trying to teach my children so that they will grow up to be citizens of the world, fully empowered to exercise both their rights and their responsibilities.

So on the theory that “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice,” I decided to write down some of the clichés that I want my kids to actually remember and use when I’m no longer around to nag them.

“From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” 

One of the most misquoted sayings of all time, I’ve seen this clichés attributed to everyone from Voltaire to Bill Gates’s mom.  While  John F. Kennedy did say,  “For of those to whom much is given, much is required,” the saying actually comes from the Parable of the Faithful Servant (Luke 12:48) in the Bible.  “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked.”

The point for my children is this – you have been blessed with intelligence, a loving family, comfortable home, health and so much more.  You each have different talents and strengths.  It is your responsibility to use  your gifts not just for your own benefit, but also to help others.

“You are what you eat.”

If you eat garbage, you feel like garbage.  I’m serious – eat your fruits and veggies, kids!

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“Think before you speak.”

Or send an email or post something through social media.  Count to 10 in your mind before you open your mouth.   Write it out, but wait until the morning to send that email.  Hurtful words, once said, are hard to take back.  Of course, the corollaries to this cliché are:

“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

and  

“If you are thinking something nice about someone, go ahead and say it.”

OK, that last one is technically not a cliché since it is not overused.  I count it as half cliché since I made it up myself when I was 18.  I was a camp counselor and I lived in a cabin with another counselor that I didn’t get along with particularly well.  But one day, when I was brushing my teeth, I heard her singing in the shower.  She had a beautiful voice that I had never noticed.  As I brushed my teeth, I remember thinking that I should just tell her.  Why keep those nice thoughts to myself just because I we didn’t like each other?  It was hard for me, but I did tell her.  I was surprised how appreciative she was at the compliment.  And while we never became friends, we did get along fine for the rest of the summer.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”  

Don’t just sit around wishing or waiting for things to change things.  YOU can create change yourself through your own actions.  (This quote is usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, although there is no reliable evidence that he actually  said it.  Gandhi did say “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”)

It’s worth pointing out that Dr. Seuss wrote the same thing more directly in The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

“Don’t Postpone Joy”  

No, I don’t mean the “go ahead and buy those really expensive shoes to make yourself happy” kind of joy (although it is important to treat yourself somtimes.  I mean the “Daddy quit his job and moved to Minneapolis to be with me”  kind of joy.   Because your Daddy did do that.  He didn’t have a dramatic boombox scene like Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, but it was the same kind of going after love and joy thing. (This reminds me to add Say Anything to my list of Movies I Want My Kids to See.)

And while we are on the subject:

‘Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all.  

I know that this one is often up for debate, but I think it is true.  Even if your heart ends up getting broken in the end, the experience of loving another is worth it.  It is worth taking a risk.

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“The best way out is always through.”

Robert Frost is credited with this one.  Rather than avoiding a problem,  it is always best to confront it directly.  You can spend more energy fretting about it than it would take to just deal with it.  In the long run, it is less painful to just do what you need to do to get through it.

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.”

I don’t have much to say about this one other than I believe it in, deep down in my bones.  The same goes the the next one:

“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”

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“Better late than never.”

It’s never to late to fix past wrongs.  Remember Darth Vader and what happens at the end of Star Wars Episode VI?  Redemption.  But it is also never to late to go down a different path.  Every day has the potential to be a fresh start.  As George Eliot wrote,  “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

“Always look on the bright side of life.”

It’s been my experience that a positive attitude really does help you in life.  Everyone gets down and has rough patches; that’s perfectly understandable.  You don’t have to be cheerful all the time.  But in the macro sense, try to be an optimist.  It’s a worldview that will get your farther in the long run.  As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity.  An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

 TO BE CONTINUED …

I’ve got more clichés I want my kids to live by, but I’d love to hear from others about clichés that hold important life lessons for them.   I will end with, not a cliché, but a quote from A. A. Milne.  Christopher Robin is talking to Winnie-the-Pooh and he says (in your mother’s voice):

“Promise me you’ll always remember:

You’re braver than you believe,

and stronger than you seem,

and smarter than you think.

P.S. Also remember:

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Rainbow Looming Our Way To Gender Equality

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There are little plastic rubber bands all over our house.  On my way upstairs this morning, I noticed them strewn on the stair treads like colorful flower petals after a spring storm.  That’s because my 11 year-old son spent more than an hour yesterday at the top of the stairs, “where the light is good”, perfecting his starburst bracelet on the Rainbow Loom.   Technically, it’s his 8 year-old sister’s, but his Rainbow Loom will be arriving tomorrow via Amazon Prime.  He used some of his Christmas money to buy one for himself.

Anyone with kids in elementary or middle school will understand what I’m talking about, but this is something worth talking about even if you don’t have kids.   The Rainbow Loom has been popular for months. What is striking for me as a parent, however, is that this is a toy that is equally popular with both boys and girls.  Of the more than $3 million in sales since August, almost half of the Rainbow Looms reportedly were purchased for boys.

I first noticed the Rainbow Loom’s gender-neutral popularity last month at a PeeWee hockey tournament.  Since the tournament was out-of-town, the team and their families were all staying at the same hotel.  I noticed that all of the younger siblings – especially the boys – were prodigious Rainbow Loomers.   A group of younger brothers, all 9 and 10, were Rainbow Looming by the pool.  Later that night, they were Rainbow Looming at the rink before the game.

“Do the guys on your team like to Rainbow Loom, too?”  I asked my son.  He’s one of the youngest on his PeeWee team; most of the boys are already 12.

“Sure,” he said.  “But we didn’t have much time for it this weekend. You know, because we had to focus on hockey.”

Before my oldest son was born 14 years ago, I thought I could raise my kids in a gender-neutral way.  I had a wide range of toys on hand for him to choose from, including a baby doll.  But he and his younger brother showed no interest at all in playing with dolls or stuffed animals or Barbies or anything like that. When I caught them drop-kicking the doll, I finally gave it away to a more loving home.   By the time our daughter was born, we had no toys left that could be characterized as stereotypically female.   That is, until the day that I found her cradling a Darth Vader action figure.  She was kneeling next to a bowling pin that she had put to bed with a Kleenex for a blanket.   The premise of my nurture v. nature theory having been blown out of the water, I took her to Target and let her pick out a baby doll.  At eight, she is still taking excellent care of her “family”.

The bigger lesson for me was that kids will choose to play with what is interesting to them.   My kids inherited a substantial Hotwheels collection from my brother, but the boys never played with them much.   My daughter has always enjoyed playing with the cars, although she often plays with them differently.   Sometimes I’ll find them all lined up by color, for example.  Instead of making car noises like “Vroom! Vroom!”, the conversations I’ve overheard coming out her room are about relationships.  “Oh, Baby car!  Are you lonely? Do you want to park by Mommy car?”

Toy choice is the single most sex-typed behavior that children display.   Sure, my daughter chooses the stereotypical feminine toy most of the time.But the point is that she should be able to play with any toy and in any way that she wants to, regardless of what our society traditionally dictates as the appropriate gender-based toys.  And that goes for her brothers, too.

This holiday season, my daughter and I talked a lot about the gender-based marketing of toys.  It’s especially noticeable in the toy section – some stores even have aisles blatantly identified with pink for girls and blue for boys.   On the same toy aisle where she picked out her first baby doll, we noticed a ultra-pink display for “Lego Friends”.  My daughter, unimpressed at this new line of Legos marketed to girls, observed that,  “I don’t get it. It seems like they should just sell all the Legos in the same aisle.”

Which brings me back to the Rainbow Loom, a toy that has grown tremendously popular without much marketing at all. Rainbow Loom is popular because of word of mouth and YouTube.  Kids decided it is cool and fun to Rainbow Loom, and they shared that information (along with the colorful, plastic bracelets) with each other.

I witnessed something similar last summer when my son and the other boys at camp were obsessed with fingerweaving.  I have a mental picture of a group of them, all 11 and 12 years old, sitting around and fingerweaving during their free time.  In the middle of the circle was a huge mound – yards and yards and yards – of their collective fingerweaving.  Every once in a while, someone would call out, “I need more yarn!” and someone else would make a run for the craft room.  Fingerweaving was cool and fun in their social context and everyone, regardless of sex, was doing it.

I see the same phenomenon with the Rainbow Loom.  When tween boys are making jewelry at the hockey rink, you know it is not a popularity bogged down by gender-stereotypes.

“Why do you like to make things on your Rainbow Loom?”  I asked my daughter.   “Because it is creative and fun!” she replied.

When I asked my son the same question, he replied,  “Because it’s fun.  And creative.”

That pretty much says it all.   In a gender-biased world, they found a gender-neutral toy that they both love for the same reasons.   So I ordered them each a new package of 1800 colorful little rubber bands.  I won’t even mind picking them up off the floor.

The Rainbow Loom – and the kids that have made it wildly popular – give me hope.  Hope that this generation will keep our society moving, slowly but surely,  towards gender equality.