I saw a “tween” recently in my therapy practice who I suspected might have some food issues. When I began asking gingerly about her eating habits she whipped out her cell phone to text her mother: “What do I usually eat for breakfast?” After a minute of messaging she turned her attention back to me to report the results of her inquiry.
Now, I’m sure this young girl could have answered my questions without electronically soliciting help from her mom. Yet her reflexive texting habit made stopping to think for herself entirely avoidable – and regrettably so, because stopping to think is often when important insights occur. That’s why I leave a lot of space in therapy sessions for thought and contemplation on the part of the children I see. Unfortunately, stopping to think is a behavior less and less common among teenagers and pre-teens.
We all know the reason: instant Internet communication plays an increasingly dominant role in the lives of ever-younger children. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that adolescents spend 6.5 to 8.5 hours a day consuming online media. Virtual technologies are now entrenched in children’s daily routines. Online chatting, text messaging, social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, and music and video channels such as iTunes and YouTube significantly reduce youngsters’ exposure to direct, interpersonal experiences.
Pushing the Pause Button
Technology is not inherently bad, of course, but the unprecedented consumption of rapid-fire electronic media makes time for uninterrupted, in-person engagement with peers and mentors all the more important to children’s intellectual, social and emotional growth. Faced with mounting pressures to perform in their classrooms, sports activities and social networks, adolescents, especially, need more opportunities to connect with one another on a genuinely personal level, in “real” space and time – opportunities to develop the self-awareness, self-confidence and human support systems required to succeed in an increasingly demanding young person’s world.
Among the best places for children to push the pause button on their electronically-driven, speed-of-light lifestyles are traditional, sleep-away summer camps, such as Vermont’s rural Aloha Camps. In simple, natural settings free of cell phones, iPods and Xboxes, children can hear the sound of their own thoughts more clearly – and learn to use those thoughts to create new opportunities and solve youthful problems for themselves. Away from the pervasive media that absorb so much of their daily attention, youngsters — especially adolescents — can concentrate on exploring new ways to be in the world, by practicing personal choice and decision-making independent of their parents.
The Benefits of (Temporary) Parent-Child Partings
For parents, sending a child to an overnight camp requires letting go for a few weeks in order to foster the very real growth in maturity, self-confidence and self-concept that comes from living away from home, playing, working and learning among peers in a supportive community. The short-lived separation is a sacrifice particularly worthwhile making, in today’s culture of “helicopter” parenting: children who rely primarily on Mom and Dad to instill a sense of self gain opportunities at camp to set their own goals and meet personal challenges head-on.
In my work with adolescents as a therapist, I often ask young clients how they know they are “good at something.” More often now than in the past, they say they “know” because their parents tell them so. These youngsters apparently lack the capacity to assess their personal capabilities and strengths through experiences all their own.
When my oldest daughter went off to Vermont camp for the first time at age ten I, too, worried that she would not get from it the boost in skills and self esteem I felt she “needed” to succeed in the competitive environment girls these days inhabit. But when her first letter home arrived in the (U.S.) mail, it was full of pride over the “glorious” experience she had had sailing a boat by herself, for the very first time. I knew then that she had achieved something far greater than the ability to maneuver a Sunfish in the wind: She had developed her own internal sense of control and esteem — without her parents’ management. That accomplishment, and many others that followed in the course of a four-year camp “career,” taught her she has the capacity to navigate through life, making her own good decisions.
Preparations for an Adult-in-Progress
Participation in rich and affirming peer group traditions is another great benefit of unplugged, parent-free camp life, especially for children who return to the same camp summer after summer. As parents, we do our best to maintain high quality and consistency in family life — regular dinners at home, bedtime at a decent hour, spiritual growth and responsible participation in our communities. Yet our best efforts are sometimes countered by the fragmented nature of everyone’s work, school and leisure pursuits. At camp, routines, roots and connections grow naturally out of places and practices sometimes generations in the making – tents, cabins and lodges built before campers were born; songs, stories and ceremonies conceived in a previous century; camp moments that conjure a time when the world stood still and quiet.
From a therapeutic standpoint, these memories and moments are bankable.
I met a young woman of 19 recently while teaching in a training program for peer counselors at a local university. Why, she was asked, would she be good at the work of helping freshman girls to deal with roommate issues, body issues, performance issues, confidence issues, relationship issues? Because, she said, she had a wealth of experience to draw on from her many summers as a camper and counselor: among friends and mentors she thought of as her second family; where looks and clothing didn’t count for much, but capability and caring did; when connecting with the real girl inside was more important than worrying about her image on the outside.
Here was a successful adult-in-the-making, whose parents had the foresight to unplug her, ten or so years ago, from the preoccupations of a (somewhat less) wired child’s world — and from themselves — so she could slow down, pause, think, share, connect, engage, risk, participate and contribute in essential, not virtual ways, on her own ever-evolving terms.
Anne McSorley is the mother of two longtime campers at Aloha Hive and Aloha. A psychotherapist practicing in Atlanta, Georgia, Anne counsels adults and adolescents on issues including stress, depression, behavioral risk management and personal empowerment. She holds a graduate degree in Counseling and Psychological Services from Georgia State University and serves as Director of the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology.