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 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.

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.

One Day in Zanzibar

House of Wonders and Stone Town waterfront, Zanzibar
House of Wonders and Stone Town waterfront, Zanzibar

A little more than 10 years ago, I had a rare moment of clarity.  I was sitting with my second child, who was 9 months old, on my lap while my 2-year-old danced and swayed around me.  Everyone else in the Mommy and Me class was singing – with gusto – the Barney song “I Love You”.  Glancing at the clock, I realized that the week before – at exactly this time – I was being interviewed live on national TV in Peru about that country’s truth and reconciliation commission.

The stark contrast made me realize that I had chosen a life in which there might never really be a “typical” day.   Setting aside the insipidity of Barney, I realized that these small moments with my young sons were as important and valuable as the other, more high-profile moments of my career, which often takes me to exotic locales.  I learned not to compare my days.  Not to sift through the experiences of each day and measure the worth of one against another, but to see them all as a whole.  To acknowledge that each endeavor for work and for family gives me strength for the other. To realize that I am fortunate to have these varied experiences, which, woven together form the rich tapestry of my life.

So for the Weekly Photo Challenge: A Day in the Life, I am choosing to share one day that I recently spent in Zanzibar for work.  As I write this, my daughter is sitting beside me, looking at the photos and talking about them with me.  One day in Zanzibar, one day of spring break at home. Days and experiences, knitted together – so many days to be thankful for!

 

(See more Weekly Photo Challenge entries here.)

Weekly Photo Challenge: Home

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Girl walking home from school

Yaoundé, Cameroun

February 3, 2013

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Cattle head home past the US Embassy

Avenue Rosa Parks, Yaoundé, Cameroun

February 4, 2013

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Incredibly unsafe school bus (NO SEATS!) brings school kids home

Douala, Cameroun

February 8, 2013

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A young boy plays in front of his home, which has a small shop on the front porch

Nkolfoulou, Cameroun

February 9, 2013

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Welcome home (and happy Vanitimse day)!

Minneapolis, MN

February 10, 2013

This week’s Photo Challenge calls for photos that evoke “home”.  See more Weekly Photo Challenge: Home posts.

CALL OF (Parental) DUTY: Part I

Target PracticeIt’s pretty rare that a national debate mirrors so exactly one that is raging within my own family circle.  But in the wake of the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary – and subsequent comments by National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre blaming gun violence on video game makers – a public discussion has been reopened  about violent video games and their impact on society.  It is the same discussion that has been going on, on a micro level, all fall in our household.  Although, frankly,  “discussion” is too mild a verb to capture the emotions surrounding the debate between the parents and the teenager about whether he can have CALL OF DUTY: Black Ops II.

My oldest son turned 13 years old in October.  He is a great kid, the kind of kid that other parents want their own kids to hang out with.  He’s smart and self-confident, has good friends and does well at school.  He is, I think, exceptionally mature for his age.  And he likes to play video games.  He has always liked to play video games, going way back to when he would choose to play Freddi Fish rather than watch a movie for his screentime.

His father and I don’t enjoy playing video games, so we start from a position of divergence.

Allowing for a difference in entertainment preferences (which I do), there is a second preliminary point that we don’t see eye to eye on: I don’t understand why it is fun to shoot at things.  We’ve got a couple of BB guns at the cabin, and the kids are allowed to shoot them at targets.  I’ve tried target practice and found it completely boring.

When my son was born, I was very clear that we would never have toy guns in the house.  Then one day, when he was about 20 months, he saw a kid at the coffee shop make a gun with his thumb and index finger.  The kid pointed his finger at Sevrin and said,”Pew! Pew!”  And that was all it took.  Fingers, sticks, Duplo legos – it seemed like everything was turned into a “shooter”.  Before long, I had caved in to the reality of nature over nurture.  Over the years, I not only allowed, but I myself purchased, a vast assortment of Nerf gun products for birthday and Christmas gifts.  I didn’t understand it, but I saw no harm in it.  So again, I have to acknowledge that others, including my son, might find it entertaining to shoot at things.

But all of this seemed was a long way off from first person shooter video games like CALL OF DUTY: Black Ops II.   So when he asked for it for his birthday, we immediately said, “NO!”

Then I realized that, my general prejudice against video games and shooting things aside, I didn’t know anything about video games.  I didn’t know what standards were used for rating them or whether there were parental controls.  I realized that my son is a reasonable, intelligent person, even if he is still only 13 years old.  I thought that he did have a point – it wasn’t fair that we were banning the games without knowing anything about them.

So in November, I began to dig deeper.  My son and I both did research on violent video games and the impact on the brain.  We shared our findings with each other, emailing back and forth.  I spent hours not only doing research, but also reading comments by both parents and teenagers on the pros and cons of letting your kids play violent video games.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that CALL OF DUTY: Black Ops II is not appropriate for my 13 year old.  My son was bitterly disappointed, and I am truly sorry for that.  Sometimes a parent has to play the ultimate trump card, but I think it is important that we went through this process together.

This week, I will be writing about our experience in a series of posts I am titling CALL OF (Parental) DUTY.  I think my son deserves the opportunity to voice his opinions to a wider audience, so he will contribute his writing to the series as well.  Stay tuned!

Here are the links to other posts in this series:

CALL OF (Parental) DUTY: Part II “Freedom to Game is Important” (in which my 13 year old son expresses his point of view).

(I’ve been thinking about doing this series for some time, but it took a Weekly Writing Challenge: Just Do It – and a weeklong holiday – to get me motivated to actually do it.  That, and a promise to my son that I would try to be fair and accurate.)