An insightful and powerful look at the magic of summer camp—and why it is so important for children to be away from home . . . if only for a little while.
In an age when it’s the rare child who walks to school on his own, the thought of sending your “little ones” off to sleep-away camp can be overwhelming—for you and for them. But parents’ first instinct—to shelter their offspring above all else—is actually depriving kids of the major developmental milestones that occur through letting them go—and watching them come back transformed.
In Homesick and Happy, renowned child psychologist Michael Thompson, PhD, shares a strong argument for, and a vital guide to, this brief loosening of ties. A great champion of summer camp, he explains how camp ushers your children into a thrilling world offering an environment that most of us at home cannot: an electronics-free zone, a multigenerational community, meaningful daily rituals like group meals and cabin clean-up, and a place where time simply slows down. In the buggy woods, icy swims, campfire sing-alongs, and daring adventures, children have emotionally significant and character-building experiences; they often grow in ways that surprise even themselves; they make lifelong memories and cherished friends. Thompson shows how children who are away from their parents can be both homesick and happy, scared and successful, anxious and exuberant. When kids go to camp—for a week, a month, or the whole summer—they can experience some of the greatest maturation of their lives, and return more independent, strong, and healthy.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)|
About the Author
Michael Thompson, PhD, is the author or co-author of eight books, including the bestselling Raising Cain. A consulting school psychologist and popular school speaker, he is also a former board member of the American Camp Association. The father of two, he lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, with his wife.
Read an Excerpt
I have worked for a decade as the consultant to a canoe tripping camp in northern Ontario. After the youngest campers, the eleven-year-old boys and girls, complete their first five-day canoe trip away from the main camp, they return to home base. The community holds a campfire in the evening where each child gets to tell his or her story about the journey. Because most of the older campers and their staff are “out on trip,” there isn’t a huge audience to listen to the youngsters’ adventures. Nevertheless, after supper everyone walks out of the dining hall—there are no electric lights indoors—and gathers in a circle by the lakeshore. It is still daylight at seven o’clock in the evening and the water twinkles in the summer sun. Behind the assembled crowd are the simple wood cabins. To the right and to the left are the skinned log frames that cradle the canoes upside-down when they are out of the water, their green canvas bottoms facing up. It is a simple setting: the lake, the sun, the cabins, the canoes, and this small gathering of people, not much more.
Tradition requires that each staff person describes the journey his or her section has completed, where they went, on which lakes they paddled, and the distance of the portages they completed. Standing next to the head counselor is the guide, who is typically a few years younger, perhaps nineteen instead of twenty-three, and then ten campers in a ragged line. Some of the children are delighted to be in front of an audience; others are shy and uncomfortable. The counselors are dressed in the most beat-up outfits imaginable: ragged jeans and T-shirts are featured. Wearing new outdoor gear is not valued at this camp. A few are wearing checkered flannel shirts, which signal that they have been at the camp for ten years. Every head counselor introduces each camper by name and says something personal about that child, often a wry comment about a personality trait or a klutzy start that ended in a moment of mastery. Finally, each child gets to tell his or her own story.
Without fail, both boys and girls talk about all the worst stuff that happened to them. A boy will say, “We paddled in the rain for four hours and when we got to the campsite, we couldn’t light a fire because the wood was so wet. We had to have a cold dinner.”
One eleven-year-old girl described hiking along a portage with a pack bigger than anything she had ever carried in her life. She stepped into a sphagnum moss bog and as she struggled to get free, she got slowly sucked in until she was stuck in mud up to her waist. Her friends had to pull her out, muddy and wet. A second friend had to fish in the bog to recover her shoe.
A boy described being out on the lake when a thunderstorm broke out. They had to paddle frantically to get to shore, away from the threat of lightning. His group tried to tie a tarpaulin to four trees to shelter them but the wind was so strong that the tarp kept blowing away. In any case, the rain had been almost horizontal at that point and there was no way to stay dry. They slept in semiwet sleeping bags that night.
Another boy spoke about the hundreds of mosquitoes that surrounded his face and attacked his bare arms and legs on a swampy trail. He was wearing shorts at the campfire that evening and we could see the multitude of red bumps up and down his legs. (The parent in me wanted to shout, Put on pants! It’s dusk—don’t you know that’s when the mosquitoes come out?)
Summer after summer, as I have listened to these campfire horror stories, I’ve been struck not by the particular discomforts recounted, but by how proud and happy these children seemed. They had just completed one of the scariest and most uncomfortable five-day trips of their lives, yet they looked triumphant, with big smiles, upright posture, and—from the boys—a bit of arm-pumping and self-congratulation. But this wasn’t superficial bravado. They didn’t hide their fears from the audience. They talked honestly about having been scared, having felt overwhelmed, and especially not being sure that they could do it. The girls often adopted a tone of: “I know this doesn’t sound like a girl thing, but . . .” or “I never imagined myself in this predicament, but . . .” You could see their identities changing and their definition of what it meant to be young women expanding in the moment.
I am always very proud of these children. It is impossible not to be. And as I’ve listened, I’ve had two strong and contradictory thoughts: I wish their parents could see them now, so they could see the remarkable growth in these children in just five days, and, I’m so glad that their parents aren’t here. Because I believe that the developmental leaps these children have achieved in a week would not have taken place if their parents had been present.
Wonderful things can happen for children when they are away from their parents. I am deeply convinced that the presence of Mom and Dad does not always add value to a child’s every experience. This remains true, in spite of the fact that this generation of parents, especially college-educated mothers, are spending more hours with their children than ever before.
For years I have been asking audiences of parents a deceptively simple question: “What was the sweetest moment of your childhood?” (Before you read on, take ten seconds and answer this for yourself. Don’t dissect the question; just let your mind wander; a scene will come to mind.) I wait some moments so that audience members can come up with a memory, then I ask, “Please raise your hands if your parents were present when that sweetest memory took place.” I have done this with thousands of people and the result never varies much. Around 20 percent of adults say that their parents were part of their sweetest memories; approximately 80 percent say that their parents weren’t there. When audience members turn in their chairs to see the result, they laugh self-consciously. As parents we’re hoping that what we’re doing is laying a foundation of happy memories for our children. When we are confronted with the fact that our own best memories of childhood took place away from our parents, we are a bit confused. That’s a slap in the face to dedicated parents. Or is it?
When I ask individuals who said their parents were present to speak about their happiest memories, they cite the moments that most parents work pretty hard to create: opening presents on Christmas morning, cooking Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by relatives, being together at the beach in the summer, having Mom or Dad read a favorite book at bedtime, playing cards or Monopoly, a family road trip.
When I ask for the sweetest moments without parents, 80 percent of adults tell variations on a similar story that always have the same four or five elements: The child is away from adult supervision, out-of-doors, with friends, facing a challenge and doing something a bit risky. Many people remember being out in the woods, building a tree house with buddies from the neighborhood. Others recall standing knee-deep in a stream following a big rainstorm, building a rock dam with friends. A woman remembered walking eight miles with her friends through an unknown town and along an unknown road after the mother of one of the girls failed to pick them up.
A Canadian colleague of mine remembers that, at twelve, he and his friends used to walk two hours from home to play at the construction site for the brand-new campus of Simon Fraser University. They roamed for hours in the dangerous construction site, playing hide-and-seek and various chase games on unfinished multistory buildings. Years later, as a young man in his twenties, he attended Simon Fraser as an undergraduate. He recalled looking out the window of the library and seeing a ledge along which he had walked when he was a boy when it had been was a newly poured concrete wall, four stories aboveground. The sight and the memory scared him. What he had done was dangerous. Now the head of an international school in Africa, it was clear how proud he was of his boyhood accomplishments, even his risk taking, and how sad he felt that the children in his school no longer have the freedom to play the way he and his friends did.
One Indian woman volunteered that the sweetest moment of her childhood was when her parents allowed her to take a plane alone from India to the United States and change planes at Frankfurt Airport on her own. This was back in the day before airlines began requiring minors to be accompanied. She was nine years old.
The trust and confidence of her parents meant everything to her; she was giddy with the feelings of independence. When I asked her whether she had ever allowed her children to do the equivalent, she said yes. She and her husband had allowed their son to make the reverse of her childhood journey on his own, from America to India . . . at age twelve.
When I pointed out that she had waited three years longer to trust her child than her parents had, she acknowledged my point, but stated that we live in a scarier world. We can argue about whether this is true. Rates of violent crime are at historic lows in the United States. However, with the Internet, continuous online and broadcast news, and social media chatter, bad news travels fast and far, fueling parents’ sense of constant catastrophic possibility. Naturally, parents feel they must protect their children more than they themselves were protected. That is the tension at the heart of this book: When and how do we learn to let go? And why is it so important that we do?
Table of Contents
Introduction: A New York City Boy Goes Back to Camp xiii
1 Off They Go 3
2 A Lost World of Family Time 35
3 A Fire in My Stomach 62
4 Homesick and Happy 86
5 A Little Paradise 107
6 OMG, I Love You! 130
7 Passages 154
8 "I Wish You Luck in Being Yourselves" 180
9 The Magic of Camp 198
10 "Childsick" and Happy 238
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Parents should not hesitate to send their kids to camp. Kids are tougher than one might think, and camp prepares them for life. Homesickness hurts, but does no lasting damage. It is evidence of a loving home left behind that is appreciated all the more upon the camper's return. Camp is fun! Concerned parents should read this book. It rings true for me, capturing my experience as both a camper (4 years) and a camp counselor (5 years).