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Psychologist: Summer Camp Gives Kids Crucial Experiences

(Flickr/Schooner Adventuress)

Even though it’s felt like November in Boston all week, summer is right around the corner and that means it’s time for camp.

New England was the birthplace of the American summer camp movement in the late 19th century. To this day, many parents of the Northeastern megalopolis still send their children to while away for a few weeks on an isolated lakeside in New Hampshire or Vermont. But not as many as you’d think, according to Arlington psychologist Michael Thompson.

Thomas said parents are getting more and more anxious about sending their kids away, and that’s depriving a whole generation of some crucial developmental experiences. He has a new book called “Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow.”

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  • Alan Scott

    FYI: It’s not just Vermont and Maine. One of the country’s first and oldest camps is Camp Becket-in-the-Berkshires is in Massachusetts.

    Please – they are “resident camps’  – not sleep-away camps!

    Not allowing kids to attend camp or school field trips is yet another example of moronic helicopter-parents who are raising a generation of fearful, dependent children who probably won’t ever be self-reliant and independent.

    The Danes and the Dutch raise the world’s most independent and healthy kids – we could learn a lot from them. Of course, their kids grow up to be “socialists” and we could not tolerate that.

    • FestinaLente82

      I am raising a 10 year old in Holland and can confirm that the dutch children are indeed very happy and independent kids.  I am not sure that we can relate that to summer camps as that is a rarity here (short 6 week summer holiday makes it difficult).  However, children here are asked to manage their own lives much more so than the average american.  As of 9, most kids walk or ride their bikes to school by themselves and generally are allowed to roam freely without “fear”.  Schools do however start around the 5th grade with overnight school camp trips of 3-4 days, in Germany they start even earlier!

  • Dsw_s

    Some time without parents: yes.

    Mixed-age groups: YES!

    Hazing: no.

  • Rex

    I worked at a summer Camp Thunderbird in South Carolina during my college summers. Kids would come in not wanting to stay and two weeks later didn’t want to leave. It was great watching them grow and learn how to interact with other kids outside of a school setting.

  • Mary

    I missed my daugher terribly (only child) when I sent her to a 5 night program in New Hampshire (she was 7).  The day I went to pick her up I receive my one letter from her.  She said “I don’t miss you.  I’m having such a good time!”.  I was overjoyed.

  • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

    My parents had trouble always putting food on the table. We never took so much as a family vacation. Dad worked two jobs Mom worked too.  Going to a “camp” be that an away camp a band camp  that’s more of a 1% problem.  Yet I still grew up to be self-reliant and independent.

  • Elaine

    I so wish I could have spoken with you but the woman who called about how camp changed her into what she is today could have been me!  I smiled the entire show.  As a mother, I then sent my very shy daughter to Girl Scout Camp, sure she would not last a day, never mind two weeks.  Boy, was I wrong!  She went for many years even becoming a counselor!  Today, she is no longer shy and has a wonderful position as a program manager at a fine museum!  Camp….the best experience!  My campmates and I even just had a 50th (really) reunion!

  • Samanthajess

    I’m 27 years old, I was a “camper” (either day, overnight or counselor) from preschool until 2005 and I  went to sleep-away camp for 6 years (1994-2000), 4-8 weeks at a time. When I got to college,  I was utterly shocked at my peers who, after less than a week, wanted to go home and missed their families. I know that camping made me a much more independent person. In my first few summers, it taught me to motivate myself to do simple things like brush my teeth, shower, change my sheets, clean up after myself, and clearing tables. As I got older, I learned important socialization skills, how to put shave my legs on a towel in the middle of the floor and how to get out of swim class. I am a better person because I was a camper and I’m certain that my children will be campers too.

  • jimzien

    I had the privilege of attending a workshop session with Michael Thompson at a recent conference of the American Camp Association/New England, where he was the keynote speaker. Thompson conducted several rounds of role playing 
    with camp-director members of the audience, who offered up real life scenarios involving demands made on them by overreaching parents. In each instance, he demonstrated how a modest application of skilled psychological jujitsu can bring about child-affirming outcome. 

    At the 100-plus year old camps of The Aloha Foundation in Vermont (www.alohafoundation.org), we have pioneered a mentoring method called ”Success Counseling” that works well with campers and parents alike. It’s outlined briefly here: http://tinyurl.com/Aloha-Camps-Success-Counseling .

    Jim Zien
    Executive Director
    The Aloha Foundation

  • AK53

    What do you do when you’d love to send your kids to camp but they don’t want to go? 

    • Rob

      It is your decision … they are kids. Make’em go. They will thank you (when they come home).

  • danny

    B-B-B-Becket in the Berkshires

  • andywell

    Michael Thompson’s observation that camp should provide a positive growth and bonding experience and not simply an opportunity to master a new skill echoes an article in The New York Times business section that suggested many longtime general interest camps have been transformed into specialty programs because of the marketplace.

    As director of a day camp for ten years, I can confirm this trend first-hand and I believe it is not a positive one. The program I ran for The Cambridge School of Weston  had a long history of establishing the kind of strong bonds that had families returning year after year. While we offered a wide variety of activities, the focus was on hiring skilled, caring staff who understood that camp is really about building friendships and a place to relax, free from the pressures of the school year.

    Two years ago, The Cambridge School replaced the program with a generic arts camp, a duplication of numerous similar programs in the area. The head of the school who made the decision to discontinue its camp was unaware of its long history. (She was quoted in The Boston Globe as saying it was 2o years old. In fact, it was over 60). All the current leadership of the school apparently knew about this venerable program it was discontinuing is that it was less profitable than it had been before recent years of neglect.

    The fact that camps are a business is nothing new. However, when even non-profit institutions like the one I worked for replace “real” camps with programs built on nothing more than the bottom line, the unique experience which Radio Boston listeners spoke of so passionately is in jeopardy.

  • johnmartin

    I never had the chance to go to camp as a kid, but as a college student, I started working at camps and seeing how it gave kids independence and confidence changed my own life. I found a home working at a small adventure camp for boys (Flying Moose Lodge) in Maine, and am saddened that camps everywhere are struggling to survive. Kids need “wild places”—  and camps are some of the last vestiges of that.

    • Nolan Stokes

      John, I went to FML too. Life changing. 8 weeks each summer. No substitute for the experience. Nolan

  • Melsau

    Neither one of my two sons wanted to go to camp, but when they were 12 and 11, I sent them off to a resident camp in New Hampshire. When I went to pick them up, they begged to stay for an extra week. It helped to give them both so much confidence and independence.  

    In fact, my oldest suffered from anxiety and I brought his medication with him to camp.When I picked him a week later, I discovered a happy boy. Not only did he not take his medication that week, but he hasn’t taken it since. That was three years ago.

    BTW, camp is not for the 1%…I never went as a child either, but I make sure to save throughout the year and make sacrifices so my kids can go. Most camps also have financial aid!

  • Lori44q

    I think that summer camp can be a positive experience. However the idea that communication between the parent and the child must be cut off makes no psychological sense to me. for many children and parents the complete communication blackout is truamatic. It seems to me that a phone call or Skype call here and there would help the transition.

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