In a world where young people's spheres of exploration have become increasingly narrowed, how do we build the important qualities of resilience, social competence and independence? Psychologist Michael Thompson looks for answers in his exploration of summer camps in his recent book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow. Clearly impressed with these camps' abilities to create life-long skills and devotion in their attendees--he is a former camper himself--Thompson examines these places and uncovers the psychological underpinnings of the emotions the campers feel about them.
Through discomfort and homesickness, as well as the natural surroundings and a different sense of time and place away from their parents, young people come to feel more independent, something which, Thompson argues, is essential to them becoming autonomous adults later on. They yearn for an environment that allows them creative and social freedom under the watchful eye of someone other than their parents, a place where they can feel part of something larger than themselves, and where there is little or no pressure to succeed.
For many campers, the attachment to a particular site becomes so strong that they want to return year after year. Often, the ultimate goal for these young people is to come full circle in their involvement and become counselors, passing on their knowledge and passion to a younger group of campers. They have benefitted tremendously from the opportunity to be away from home.
Of course not every student is destined to love camp. Thompson acknowledges that a certain percentage (less than 10% in his estimation) will either become so homesick that they must be picked up from camp, or endure the experience but chalk it up as a "not-for-me" adventure and never return.
Beyond the advocacy of summer camps and independent, non-parent led experiences, Thompson's book has ramifications for the importance of our experiential education programs and private schools As we continue to expand these opportunities through Interim, field trips, summer travel experiences and exchange programs, the benefits are ever more apparent.
Every educator who has seen a student be transformed through the power of a non-traditional learning opportunity can speak to the value of such experiences. And these transformations go in both directions--teachers often emerge from these excursions re-energized and impacted as well.
The first full chapter in Homesick and Happy, "Eight Things You Cannot Do for Your Children," serves as a useful reminder that we cannot--try as we might--make our children be happy or independent; we can only provide them with positive opportunities for growth and then trust in ourselves and other caring adults that our kids will be all right. "Give your child the gift of letting him or her go," Thompson suggests, and then be amazed at what happens next.