Sure, I should have known not to cut my own bangs. And yes, I should have known that curved manicure scissors were not the way to go. And, admittedly, when things went predictably and horribly wrong, I certainly shouldn’t have continued to cut my bangs shorter and shorter in an attempt to straighten them out!
That was just another invaluable life lesson, courtesy of summer camp. Whether it was late-night missions to steal popcorn from the kitchen, running away from camp only to get caught and dragged back by my older cousin, or my aforementioned revelation that I should never become a hairstylist, summer camp always gave me the sort of freedom that leads to large and small mistakes.
And that’s exactly why I send my own kids to camp every year. After a long school year of rules, schedules, homework, and adults planning and overseeing nearly every moment of their lives, they deserve a break. More to the point, they can benefit from a less structured environment, in which they learn how to succeed—and fail—without me to fall back on. Without experiencing that sort of independence, kids simply can’t understand or appreciate everything they’re capable of achieving.
New research in education and child psychology supports my point of view, suggesting that the overprotectiveness of recent generations of parents may have done children more harm than good. Consider the rise of the “adventure playground”—a space that’s filled with things like tires, boxes, old furniture, and pieces of wood instead of standard playground equipment. Kids are given almost total autonomy: adults keep watch for impending accidents but otherwise don’t interfere. The point of this somewhat radical idea? To let kids figure out lessons about safety, camaraderie, fairness, and self-reliance on their own.
Of course, independent play in a potentially dangerous environment may be on the extreme side, but I send my kids to summer camp with similar goals for their development. For example, last year at camp, my 9-year-old daughter learned to water ski—a structured activity to be sure, but one that posed a challenge and even a bit of a risk. She fell down countless times, facing frustration and discouragement; however, by conquering that risk alone, without me standing by her side, my daughter had to summon a level of courage and self-confidence she’d never had before. She still considers learning to water ski one of her biggest achievements.
I can hardly begin to count all the ways in which my summer camp experiences as a child and adolescent have contributed to my career success as an adult. Those couple months away from my parents every summer prepared me for the adult world in ways I never could have imagined at the time. In addition to building courage and having the opportunity to surprise myself with what I could accomplish, camp helped me strengthen my own identity by enabling me to pursue things I loved, like theater. That’s why I believe the best way to help my kids grow into confident, happy, independent adults is to let go—just a little.