The instinct to keep your offspring safe is totally natural, but when that impulse crosses the line into overprotective parenting, nobody wins. If adults remove too many obstacles from their children’s paths, experts say, kids can have difficulty learning to manage themselves.
For many parents, summer camp — especially overnight camp — ranks high on the list of fear-inducing activities. But camp is a terrific, safe place for kids to try out new things. “Risk taking is what promotes growth, whether in business or in life,” says Bud Copeland, director of membership and engagement at the American Camp Association’s New England chapter. “You’re not dropping them off at the Greyhound station in downtown Manhattan.”
“It’s really better to take the risks without your parents there,” says psychologist Michael Thompson, who reminds parents that their job is to help kids become confident and survive in the real world, sometimes without them. “Parents have to cope themselves,” he says. “Anxiety is a communicable disease.”
“We don’t want to raise a bunch of teacups,” says camp owner and director Audrey Monke, referring to emotionally delicate kids afraid of taking on challenges. “Even with shorter stays [at camp], kids benefit and learn a lot.”
Most homesick kids are sad for only two or three days, according to Thompson. And many children find the structure comforting. For kids who shuffle between two parents’ homes, sleepaway camp may be the place where they string together the most consecutive overnights. And meals are typically eaten together on a predictable schedule, not in the car or whenever a busy adult gets around to ordering pizza.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, old-fashioned traditions and regularity may be even more powerful now than they were 50 or 60 years ago. “Knowing what’s coming next is something that kids need,” says Jen Hyde, executive director of Camp To Belong, which reconnects siblings in foster care who have been separated.
Anxious parents who do manage to part with their kids sometimes drop them at camp with unwieldy bags of vitamins, unwarranted just-in-case medications, and other provisions intended to ensure that their special snowflake gets plenty of extra attention. Don’t be that parent, cautions Thompson. “That’s raising fragile children,” he says. It’s unhealthy for kids to spend too much time, as he puts it, “marinating in their parents’ worry.”
To quell fears, Milisa Galazzi of Brewster Day Camp encourages parents to speak with a camp director personally. Ask how a camp hires and how staff members have been coached to work with kids.
She also recommends assessing whether a camp’s principles align with your own. Do you emphasize kindness? Competition? Hard work? Adventure? “It’s really about finding the right fit for your family and what kind of
values you want to instill in your children,” says Galazzi. “And if you haven’t really thought about your family values, now’s a good time to articulate them.”
Camp can be a big commitment, both financially and emotionally. But Copeland says loosening the reins and sending kids off can help moms and dads grow, too: “It can have the same positive risk-taking effects for parents.”
Meaghan O’Neill is a writer based in Newport, Rhode Island. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.