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A Closer Look - Summer Camp Parents

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May 16, 2006, 11:08 AM

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A Closer Look - Summer Camp Parents

Different Perspectives on The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel

Compiled by Bob Ditter

"I don't care about this character development stuff — I just want my child to be happy!" I was listening to a couple of venerable camp directors last fall who were relating to me the gist of many conversations they had had with camper parents during the previous summer, and this is just one such conversation she shared. "I had called the parent of one of our middle school female campers to tell her that her daughter was having a little trouble adjusting to life in the cabin," said one director. "I was hoping to get some ideas from the mother about an approach to take with the camper and enlist her support in encouraging her daughter. What I got instead was an immediate threat — that if I wasn't able to get the other girls to be nice to her daughter, she was going to come right up to camp and talk to the entire group! Of course, I wouldn't allow that, but parents are so concerned with their children's comfort, they don't seem to be thinking straight! It's as if they want to put their child in a bubble so they never experience a hurt, set back, or discomfort."

Sound familiar? If you are like many camp professionals, you probably have several stories of your own about well meaning, but over-anxious parents trying to micromanage and manipulate their child's environment in an effort to give them a "competitive edge" and protect them from any physical, social, or emotional discomfort. It reminds me of one story told to me by a camp director in the Northeast this summer about a homesick camper.

"I had called the father to enlist his help with his thirteen-year-old son," the director told me. "The boy had come to me to say, ‘I'm really homesick, but I love it here and I want to stay. But I'm worried when I see my parents on visiting day, I'll get upset. I don't want to cave into it and go home!' I thought this kid was being genuinely courageous," the director continued. "How wise of him to come to ask for help in getting through what he was afraid would be a tough weekend for him. When I called the father for help in reassuring and supporting his son, he told me flat out, ‘If my son says he's homesick, I'm taking him home!' How could the father not see how destructive that would be? What kind of message is he sending his son?"

Indeed, I hear many camp professionals musing about the state of parenting these days. What, they ask, is driving the apparent need of parents to control every aspect of their children's lives? How is it that so many children have become special beyond belief, entitled to special considerations and exemptions at the behest of anxious, demanding parents?

These are just some of the questions Dr. Wendy Mogel addresses in her popular book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. "The current trend in parenting," she writes, "is to shield children from emotional or physical discomfort. I can't blame parents for reacting with horror to nightly news reports about our violent, dangerous society, but many of them overprotect their sons and daughters. They don't give them a chance to learn how to maneuver on their own outside of home or school (pp.32-33)." Dr. Mogel could easily have added, " . . . or let them go to camp where they can learn how to cope on their own in a safe environment focused on strengthening their sense of self and independence!"

I was given a copy of Dr. Mogel's book in June 2004 by a camp director who had read it and given it to all her colleagues. Like most of my camp director friends, I am so focused on helping people get ready for camp in June that I have precious little time for reading! The first time I was able to sit down with it was in the calm of the following September. I picked it up and devoured it! After the first two chapters, I began to think Dr. Mogel had been listening in on conversations I had been having that summer with directors and camper parents! By the time I was halfway through the book, I knew I had to meet this astute woman and convince her to share her insights and practical wisdom with camp professionals throughout the country.

Indeed, this February Dr. Mogel will be leading a general keynote address at the ACA National Conference in Chicago where she will share many of the insights of her book. In an effort to offer camp professionals a glimpse of what they can expect to hear, I have asked two other camp professionals to join me in sharing their thoughts about this timely and valuable volume, as well as a parent.

The first is veteran camp director June Gray, from Camp Wawenock in Raymond, Maine, who has used the book as the basis for training her staff for the past three years. The second is Robert Selverstone, Ph.D., child psychologist and an experienced consultant to children's summer camps from Westport, Connecticut. Selverstone is also the son of a camp director and grew up at camp. The parent interviewed is Diana Tigner, a mother of two children, both campers, from Irvine, California, who has also been a camp nurse.

June W. Gray, Owner/Director, Camp Wawenock

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee was recommended to us by a camp parent who supports our efforts at building a stronger partnership with parents. Once I read the book, I immediately saw how many of Dr. Mogel's insights could be used as the basis for training staff. For example, her comments that "every child is unique" and "don't treat all children the same way or you will not reach them" seem especially relevant for staff getting ready to work with our very individual campers! The notion of approaching each child individually has been a key focus for our staff.

There are two other important concepts from Dr. Mogel's book that I have emphasized in our staff training. They are "parents should not expect their children to be anyone other than who they are" and "a child's intrinsic strengths are the key to developing children who have a true sense of who they are." Again, these ideas became the basis for us to encourage our counselors to get to know each of their campers as individuals in terms of their interests, strengths, talents, relationships, and style of learning.

At Wawenock, staff training is an ongoing practice that occurs throughout the summer. Dr. Mogel's ideas opened up many possibilities for discussion and role playing with staff in this process, as follows:
  1. Expect differences — understanding a child's temperament is important.
  2. Respect — "If children are to develop genuine respect, they need to know what respect looks like in action." Children need to be treated with respect, and they need to be expected to treat others with respect.
  3. A child's job is to find his or her own path in life instead of parents (or counselors) "fretting and fixing." Let children make mistakes and learn from them. (Thus the title of her book, the blessing of allowing children to take their falls and learn from them.)
  4. Children confuse "what they want with what they need." Teach children to accept "no" and appreciate what they have. Gratitude is an important value for children to learn from adults.
  5. Chores are a foundation for development of a child's character. They are basics. They promote a sense of pride and responsibility, allowing children to be contributing members of a family or community, like camp!
  6. Teaching children to eat in a healthy way with good judgment about the food they choose fits with the family-style meals we have at Wawenock.
  7. What is acceptable and unacceptable in behavior and helping children look at or rethink their interpretation of events.
  8. Looking at how slowing down the hurried life restores connections to one another. Another facet of this slowing down is allowing children the chance to get "bored." It is not the job of adults to entertain children!
  9. Children need to see beauty and goodness in nature and people and express gratitude for what they have and what they experience.
The values in Dr. Mogel's thesis coincide well with the values here at Wawenock. Happy, engaged campers and positive comments from their parents are proof that her ideas have merit.

Robert Selverstone, Ph.D.

Not just one, but two directors at camps where I conduct staff development workshops went out of their way to recommend this insightful book to me. I was so impressed that, even before completing my reading of it, I purchased a dozen copies for parents in my therapy practice. In a similar vein, I encourage you to gift yourself and to recommend this book to your staff and to your camp parents.

"It is not your responsibility to complete the work [of perfecting the world] but you are not free to desist from it either."

"A father is obligated to teach his son how to swim."

It is not surprising that Dr. Mogel highlights these "mission statements" of "responsibility" and "obligation." This is a most accessible book — both for parents and for camp people, who work in loco parentis. As more and more camps return to what is fundamental about camp — fostering personal and interpersonal development — we are challenged to prepare children to find their own path in life, to become sufficiently strong and self-reliant in order to leave us and fend for themselves, and to help to "repair" the world. While most of Mogel's examples address parental issues, directors and staff will find innumerable applications to the camp situation; from cabin and dining hall cleanup to seeking ways to help children invent new games. This small gem of a book is a most welcome resource to help develop campers into independent, self-reliant, respectful, and responsible adults.

In her lucid and inviting style, this insightful psychologist chronicles why she abandoned her crisis intervention work in psychotherapy with children, teens, and their families and refocused her efforts toward the primary prevention of social and emotional problems. In so doing, she turns a spotlight on both contemporary culture, and on the wisdom of the teaching of her own religious perspective — Judaism.

However, while Mogel details her metamorphosis from secular Jew to a more religiously observant one — and often uses traditional Jewish texts as a touchstone — her own wisdom on raising emotionally healthy children transcends parochialism and has a great deal to offer to camp directors and leaders, camp counselors, and, very importantly, camp parents. I am reminded of a decades-old ad which showed Asians, African-Americans, Eskimos, etc. savoring their bread. The ad copy was: "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levi's Jewish Rye Bread." You certainly don't have to be Jewish to appreciate the contribution of Mogel's book to what should be in every camp's library, along with my other all-time favorites: the relatively new John Gottman's Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, and Stephen Glenn's Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World; and two of the old standbys, Thomas Gordon's Parent Effectiveness Training, and Haim Ginnott's Between Parent and Child.

Diana Tigner, Parent and Former Camp Nurse

An important responsibility of parents is to impress on their children all that it takes to make camp happen. I think there should be an overall awareness of how hard everyone is working — the grounds crew; the kitchen staff; and everyone else — to make sure they have a good time. I want my children to be grateful. I tell my children, "When you're there, make sure you thank your counselor!"

I also think children need to think about what their part in this effort is. For example, I have said to my kids, "If there is a child that needs a friend, try to be that friend." I once heard from my son's counselor that, while out on a hike, he went back and helped out another kid who wasn't into hiking who needed help with his backpack. I was so proud of him!

Let's face it — children do not naturally think this way. They need help thinking this way. This is what we as parents need to help them with. Dr. Mogel's book is right down my alley!

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.

Originally published in the 2006 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

This ACA Camping Magazine article is reproduced with the permission of the American Camp Association


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(This post was edited by ACACamps on May 16, 2006, 12:04 PM)