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Role Model Relationships: Making healthy human connections
By Peg L. Smith, CEO, American Camp Association
All parents have hopes and desires for their children. I'll bet high on your list of wishes is that your children grow up to be well-adjusted adults who have healthy, nurturing relationships of their own. The example you set for them at home is vital, but so is the experience and advice they can get from other caring adults. Hopefully, your children get positive reinforcement from teachers, extended family members, and other community leaders in your area, but camp is another excellent source for finding mentors who can help kids navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of adolescence, figure out who they are and who they want to be on the road to adulthood.
Audrey Monke, owner and director of Gold Arrow Camp in Lakeshore, Cal., said, "Children intuitively know that their parents think highly of them. When an adult outside their family finds something unique and special about them, it can have a powerful and positive influence on them."
She believes that children grow from the independence of a camp experience and from developing close relationships at camp with fellow campers and counselors. "Being away from their parents allows children to be more open to developing relationships with other adults," Monke said. "These adults serve as positive role models and mentors for children and can sometimes offer insight and advice that children may not listen to from parents."
Child psychologist in the Cleveland, Ohio, area and former camp counselor Dr. Ethan Schafer agrees that the camp experience offers children a valuable personal growth opportunity that acts as a strong complement to the values and sense of self awareness they learn at home.
"If you think about it," Schafer said, "camp is probably the only living together situation outside of the home that children will experience. They get a chance to have healthy attachments with other adult role models."
So, while it may not be easy to pack your child's suitcase, hug them tightly, and load them on a bus to send them off to camp for a week or more without you, Monke feels the camp environment is important because, "Children need to learn to trust adults outside of their family and to feel safe outside home.
"We are living in a culture that has instilled fear in parents," she said. "Parents are hesitant to entrust their children to the care of others, but opportunities for children to develop healthy relationships with adult mentors offer the chance for children to grow in independence, social skills, and confidence."
Schafer confirmed that time with nurturing camp counselors shows kids that "adults are helpful, good — they're nice," he said. "They learn to be adults themselves."
Antoine de Saint Exupéry, French writer and author of The Little Prince, once said, "There is no joy except in human relationships." If that's true, then a camp experience surrounded by caring, encouraging counselors who teach by example is one great way to reinforce what you're striving to teach your children at home: that the benefits of healthy adult relationships — punctuated by mutual respect, understanding, generosity, and contentment — can lead to productive and, yes, joyful lives.
Peg L. Smith is the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association.