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.

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.

Inside the Apostle Islands Ice Caves

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My oldest son went on a school trip a few weeks ago.  The main purpose was to participate in the Barnebirkie, the children’s version of the largest cross-country ski race in North America.  It takes place in northern Wisconsin every February.   This is the twentieth year that the school has done this trip with middle grade students, so they have become experts at making it an enriching experience.  In addition to skiing in the race with more than 1,000 other kids, they spend some time doing joint educational programming at the local middle school (this year, there was some kind of amazing science theme) and have a traditional meal with a Native American tribe.  They also somehow fit swimming at the local community center into the packed agenda.

A week before the trip, a note came home in my son’s backpack that there would be a slight alternation to the schedule.  The group would be able to visit the ice caves on Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands.  For those not familiar with the Upper Midwest, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern Wisconsin is a true gem of a national park.   There are 21 islands, windswept beaches, rocky cliffs, and lighthouses.  In the summer, you can hike the 12 miles of lakeshore wilderness and paddle or boat around the islands. You can even camp on 18 of the islands, which are only accessible by water.    You can even explore by kayak the  amazing sea caves at the western end of the mainland part of the park.

In winter, the sea caves become ice caves.  And in extremely cold winters, when Lake Superior freezes over, the national park service allows people to walk out over the ice and experience the ice caves from the inside.

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As I have never been to the Apostle Island ice caves, I was excited that my son had this opportunity to visit them.   It has been five years since the ice caves were last open to the public.  One of the impacts of climate change has been that Lake Superior hasn’t been frozen enough to make access possible.   Since the ice caves opened to the public on January 15, more than 125,000 people have made the two mile roundtrip trek over frozen Lake Superior to experience the  ice caves.

My son sent took these pictures of his visit and texted them to me.

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It’s an odd feeling – usually I’m the one who is traveling and sending the pictures back home to the rest of the family. But I really appreciated his willingness to share the experience of being inside the Apostle Islands ice caves with me.

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With warmer weather, the ice is degrading and it is becoming unsafe to be on the lake.   The National Park Service plans to close the Apostle Island ice caves to the public by 12:01 am on Monday, March 17.

 

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With special thanks to my son Sevrin for the photos!

For more responses to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Inside, click here.

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.

How Do You Define Family?

Liberian brothers at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.

A Few Reflections On How We Define “Family”

We had just dropped off my old friend Erik and his unwieldy crew at the airport, when my daughter Eliza let out a dramatic sigh from the back of the minivan.

“It’s pretty much BORING without our cousins!”

Curious, I launched into a lengthy cross-examination to determine why she thought they were our blood relations. She went along with the questioning for a while, mumbling one syllable responses out of the corner of her mouth as she gazed morosely out the window at a long, undulating line of sunflowers. Some kind person, in the interest of beauty, had planted them along the highway.  Now they were more than six feet tall, so large that you could almost see the Fibonacci sequences in their bright spirals. Even from a minivan with a six-year-old pouting in her booster seat in the back.

After several miles of this, Eliza suddenly sucked in air until her cheeks were full.  She then blew it all out, frustration personified.  I watched her in the rearview mirror as she put everything in her small, defiant being into these words:

 “Because!  I just FEEL like they are.”

How do you define family?  Is it common ancestry? Shared experiences?  Mutual commitment? Living in the same household? Common values?  The people you know you can count on for support? The people you know you can get into a knock-down-drag-out fight with but they’ll still love you?  People who you feel deeply connected to even though you rarely see them?  All of the above?  Or none of them at all?

The boys in the photo above are brothers I met at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.   Their mother Kebbeh considers them her sons, although only the oldest is her biological son.   The younger boy and his little brother (not pictured) are her neighbor’s sons.   The neighbor had gone back to Liberia with the first wave of resettled refugees, with the promise  to send for the boys after she got settled. They never heard from her again.   Post-conflict Liberia was dangerous, so they fear the worst.  But they really don’t know what happened to her.   So Kebbeh is raising the boys as her own, feeding and caring for them, sending them to school.  They are family.

When I was in Buduburam, I met a woman called Ma Fatu who ran a cook shop on the main thoroughfare of the camp where many of the refugee-owned businesses were.   The street had no name, of course, but the Liberian refugees called it “Wall Street” because so many financial transactions were made there.  Ma Fatu has a feisty personality.   I think she would have  been equally at home as the proprietor of a saloon in the Wild West or a grogshop in Regency England.  She took a lot of pride in her cooking and in knowing her customers.  She’d eye me critically as I tucked into my jollof rice and say, “I know what you white people like to eat.” Then, the next day, she would dish me up a heaping serving of jollof vermicelli.

I had noticed that there were several young people helping in the cook shop, washing dishes, waiting tables, whatever needed to be done.  It was only on my second trip to Buduburam that someone told me that they were not actually her children.  During the war in Liberia, her husband and her biological children – her entire family – had been killed.  Over the years at Budububuram, she had taken in several young people who had also lost everyone.   In the face of all this loss, Ma Fatu had created a new family.  In a refugee camp – miles from home and without even the possibility of legal recognition – she had forged familial bonds of love and support.

Like every parent, I’ve got a stockpile of my kids’ drawings of our family – stick figures showing Mom and Dad, Brother and Sister.  Sometimes Grandma and Grandpa and/or Cat and Hamster.

When you are young, the definition of family is very narrow and also very immediate.  But as you get older, you develop deeper relationships with people who are not related by blood.  In many ways, you create your own family of the people who give you what you need to flourish.  Like the heliotropic sunflowers, you turn to the light, needing full sun to thrive.  If you don’t, you wither away.

 I’ve had this discussion about the definition of family with a number of my former asylum clients.  Under U.S. immigration law, your family is defined as your spouse (only one – your first spouse), your children by birth or legal adoption, and your parents.  Of course, many people in the world use a broader definition, with half-siblings, cousins, and children adopted without legal recognition counting as immediate family members.

One of my asylum clients once said to me,

“I feel so sorry for you Americans.  Your families are so very small!”

I had never really thought about it that way before.  But I could see her point.

Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that,

“The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

Back when the UDHR was adopted in 1948, it is doubtful that the drafters envisioned even biracial marriage, much less same-sex marriage and the multiple forms of family that exist today.

But the bigger point, I think, is that no matter how you define “marriage”, the push for the changes in the legal definition has happened because of thousands – maybe millions – of personal decisions by individuals to define their closest relationships as “family”.  The reality is that there is a very human need to live in a family social structure – the natural and fundamental group unit of society.  The law can better accommodate that reality but regardless of what the law says, people – like Kebbeh and Ma Fatu – will create their own families.

Maybe my young  daughter is right. The true definition of family is a very personal one, self-defined by each of us.  The definition of family maybe really IS the people who you feel like are your family.

So I think the real questions for each of us then become:

How do you define your family?

What does your family mean to you? and

Wouldn’t we all be better off if society and the State protected and supported all of our families?

The Human Rights Lesson

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I spent some time in my daughter’s classroom last week talking to the second graders about human rights.  I’ve been a guest speaker in all of my kids’ classrooms and have done this presentation (a kind of human rightsy mash-up of show-and-tell and career day) pretty much every year since my oldest was in second grade.  But this time was different.  I discovered the night before I was scheduled to speak in her class that my daughter, who just turned 8, was planning to do the presentation on human rights WITH me.

I have a more-or-less standard routine and she knew it well.  (I wrote a post called Same and Different about doing this human rights lesson in my sons’ classrooms.)  First, I do an activity that I call Same and Different.  I have several photos from West Africa that I had blown up and mounted on foamcore.  I show the kids a photo and have them point out what they see in the picture that is the same in their lives and what is different.  It always generates great discussion and often the kids see things in the photos and make connections that I never did.  Hopefully, by showing that all humans have similarities in spite of our differences, it also plants some seeds of respect and tolerance.

When I got to her classroom, my daughter brought her small plastic chair to the front of the class and set it down firmly right next to mine.  After introducing me (with the class microphone), she sat down beside me.  She had assigned herself the assistant’s job of holding the photos for all to see while I led the discussion.  A couple of times I had to remind her to hold the photo out so that all the kids could see, but overall she did a great job.

The next activity I do is to pass around a selection of items that I have picked up on my travels for work.  As we pass them around so that everyone gets a chance to touch them, we again discuss what is the same and different in our lives.  This time, I didn’t gather a thing for the activity; my daughter collected everything the night before our presentation.  A yak wool blanket from Nepal, a wooden statue of  a traditional palava hut from Liberia, coins and bills from Cameroon – all went into a bag I had brought her from Ghana.  She even added her pink beaded pointy-toed slippers from Morocco.  When I reminded her that she would have to share and let everyone touch them and try them on,  she hesitated for a moment.  In the end, though, her slippers went into the bag.

To close out the presentation, I usually read a children’s book or two about human rights.  I have a couple of favorites.  For Every Child, A Better World by Kermit the Frog is one that we own two copies of, but of course we couldn’t find either when we needed it.  I went to library to check out a copy and discovered shelved right beside it I Have the Right to Be a Child by Alain Serres.  This beautifully illustrated book presents the concept of human rights, especially those of children as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

When I brought the books home from the library, I asked my daughter,

“Which do you want me to read to your class?”

“I want to read them both,” she said.

She did a beautiful job of reading both books to the class.  I was so proud that I teared up, right there in front of all the second graders and their teacher.

In some ways, it is easier to talk to kids about human rights than adults.  Because children generally see things in terms of black and white, right and wrong, it is easy for them to understand that we all have rights – the right to voice our opinions, to go to school, to be free from violence.  The right to have food and shelter and clean air and water.  The thing about kids is that they have a very strong natural sense of justice (as it applies to them, at least) they understand the inequities of a world where not everyone is able to access those rights.

One girl  came up and hugged me after the human rights lesson.

“It makes me sad,” she said, “to think that not all kids have enough to eat.”

“What you are feeling is empathy,” said the teacher.  “And that’s good.”

Knowing about the problem – caring about it and wanting to do something about it – is the first step towards change.

The last thing I heard as I left the classroom was another little girl saying,

“I think I am going to write a letter to President Obama and ask him why we are not part of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

There are a lot of things about working in human rights that are not easy, but this was a very  good day!

More ideas for human rights activities to do with children:

10 Things to Do With Your Kids on Human Rights Day

10 More Things to Do With Your Kids on Human Rights Day

Same and Different

Regrets

A couple of days ago, my  daughter asked me, “Do you ever have regrets?”

She asked me this in the bathroom, as I was drying my hair.  No matter what I am doing, my two youngest kids seem to hover around me, fluttering like moths to a flame.  The lack of privacy – not to mention personal space – doesn’t really bother me anymore.  And often, as on this particular morning, it provides the opportunity to talk about whatever is bubbling to the surface of  their young minds.

I weighed my possible responses. My daughter just turned eight. What could a second-grader possibly know about regret?  In the end, I answered that, in general, my regrets were not about things that I had done but rather about things that I had NOT done.

“Do YOU have any regrets?” I asked.

After a pause, she admitted, “Sometimes I’m not so nice to some kids at school.”

“But recognizing that you aren’t always nice means that you can do something about it,” I pointed out.  “Right?”

She shrugged and wandered off with her American Girl doll.  Maybe the message would sink in.

But for me,  a question remained, left hanging in the humid, post-shower bathroom air.

What do you do when you have regrets but you know that there is not a thing in the world that you can do about them?

The truth is that my daughter’s question brought me back to a conversation that I had in a very different context.  Several years ago, I spent some time in the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana. I was with a team taking statements from Liberian refugees for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia.  It was almost exactly six years ago – May 2007 – and it was grueling, emotional work.  I interviewed more than 40 people that week and every single one of them  had suffered multiple layers of trauma and unimaginably tragic loss.  One after another, in family groups and as individuals, they sat before me in a small, cramped office.  Sometimes there was power for the ceiling  fan to move the hot, heavy air; sometimes there was not.  Each one of them was a survivor of horror, a testifier to the nightmare of war.  (I’ve written about some of them before in Talking To My Kids About Death.)

Even though they had left their homeland of Liberia, what they had experienced was still very much with them.  Even if they could push it down deep during the day, the terrors they witnessed would return to haunt their dreams.   Many people I interviewed told me of how the nightmares startled them awake at night, sweating and crying.  Many more told me of hearing others screaming in the night, neighbors who were trapped in their own PTSD- induced nightmares. There is no privacy in a refugee camp.

There was one woman who has always stayed with me.  She was middle-aged, calm and collected.  She told me her story in detail, almost scientifically exact.  Clearly, she had relived the events many times over.  She told me of her life before the war, the fighting and chaos that separated her from her husband and some of her children, the desperate weeks when she, her youngest children, and their neighbors hid in the bush, the treacherous journey to the border. The years – more than a decade- of limbo in this refugee camp.

At the end of any interview, I always ask, “Is there anything else you would like to tell me?”

This woman told me of that the only true regret that she had, the only regret of her life, was about something that she had not been able to do. What she told me went something like this:

We were hiding in the bush and the rebels passed close by.  They attacked a village there.  They didn’t see us, but we saw them.   They killed a lot of people.  We were too afraid to move, so afraid they would hear us.  There was a baby crying; they must have killed the mother.  The baby kept crying and crying and crying.  I wanted to go get that baby, but what could I do?  I knew the baby’s crying would give us all away to the rebels. The baby kept crying and crying and crying, all night long.  And then it stopped.  I knew that the baby had died.  In the morning, we saw that the rebels had moved on and we left our hiding place.  Now I hear that poor baby crying every night in my dreams.

Most people will never be put in a position like this, this untenable Hobson’s Choice.  Most of us will never be faced with having to make the choice between our own life -and that of our children and neighbors – and that of an innocent baby.  Many of us would like to assume that we would find a way to not make the choice; that we would find a way to save that baby.

I knew I could not save that baby.  I wanted to, so much, but I knew I could not.  Even so, I have always felt bad about it. I have never told anyone – not one single person – about this before. Just telling you now – it makes me feel better.

I don’t have any answers here, just as I had nothing to say to this woman other than “I am so sorry.”  I can’t change the world.   I can’t promise my daughter that she won’t experience pain or sorrow or guilt or regret.  I don’t even have an image to go along with this post.

But if there is one thing that I took away from that hot, cramped interview room in that refugee camp in Ghana, it is that there is a value in bearing witness.  I had worked with refugees and torture survivors for years, but it took this one woman to bring that point home to me.  There is a value in simply listening,  and in confirming for someone who suffered injustice that, “It is not right and I’m sorry that this happened to you.”

It may seem insignificant, but it is not.  And it is a reminder that when you come in contact with someone who is suffering, in either a big or a small way, there is always something that you can do. You can listen.

So do it.