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Director’s Annual Commentary

Autumn 2004: The Professionalization of Childhood


Not long ago, a friend sent me a story by The New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, whose cherished childhood summer camp in Connecticut had been shut down for several summers but, happily, now is reopening under more savvy management. Brooks draws attention to three forces pulling against traditional camps like his and Kingswood. First, he identifies the liability crisis afflicting all youth organizations in America today: "Camp was a place where teenagers learned to build courage. There was cliff diving. There were river rapids. There were survival-style camping trips, with kids sleeping alone in the forest. But, society has become more risk-averse, and liability costs have escalated. So, in the 1990's, the people running the camp banned most of the activities that scared and thrilled us. Camp became safer, but also more tepid and less meaningful."

The second broadside he calls the professionalization of childhood. "Parents have become more involved in running their children's lives, even by remote control when the kids are away at summer camp. So over the past few decades, camps that promise to develop a specific skill " music, basketball, computers, video-making " have prospered while generalist camps have suffered."

Lastly, Brooks sees upper-middle-class families becoming more isolated and insulated as a group. Parents become driven by the idea that their children develop career skills which often trump the life skills offered as the underpinning of the camp experience. Enrichment opportunities and internships are the buzzwords of many of your compatriots. "In short, over the past few decades, parents have made childhood more to their liking," says Brooks.

Of course, Kingswood is aware of these forces of social change as we, too, have altered some of our approaches to keep pace with the trends of perpetual societal evolution. On the liability front, Morris Gold, Kingswood's insurance agent, delivered an engrossing speech to the counselors during our orientation week in mid-June. While Morris scored maybe a hundred points with the guys, two stuck out as prime responsibilities for camp staff anywhere: First, maintain a keen supervision every waking hour and especially during down time and while off-campus. Second, always follow Plan A " that is, stick with the approved (and always time-tested) program.

At staff meetings we talked time and again about the importance of "open eyes and ears" not only at organized events such as swimming and riflery but also during free periods such as B-Block (free time) and those amorphous half-hours before meals and lights out. "Bush Patrol" and "Zone Defense" have become Kingswood staple assignments which simply translated mean "Go where the kids are." That our cabins and buildings have a fabulous juxtaposition thus creating a village green ambiance is a big plus in our oversight schemes. And, while we ran the usual gamut of bumps and bruises in 2004, at no time was negligent supervision the culprit for things gone wrong.

The Plan A approach, too, has long been Kingswood's guiding programmatic principle. Sure, boys may check out sailboats during B-Block, but they have to be certified to sail alone, life guards must both be observing and on call to summon the rescue skiff at a moment's notice, and that life vest needs to be worn and buckled! To a camper, therefore, sailing on Lake Tarleton is a scintillating freedom, the sort Brooks laments having lost at his camp. To us at Kingswood, however, freedom to sail within the rules is Plan A all the way. Ditto for everything else we do including jumping off rocks into mountain streams and hiking steep mountain trails. Trip leaders have a mandatory indoctrination at the directorial level before departure, and, thanks nowadays to cell phones, can and often do call me with crucial updates and requests. Plan A-2 often gets approved because, like Plan A-1, we've done both many times before and can foresee a happy outcome.

With his reference to the "professionalization of childhood," Brooks identifies a tough nut to crack. Every parent professes to absolutely know what is best for his child and some are hesitant to accept time-honored guidance from educators and other child specialists. "My son's situation is unique," uttered a parent who pulled his boy out of camp four days into the session due to a mild homesickness issue. "Wow!" was the only word I could muster at the moment. To be sure, many children's lives are completely adult driven. Parents view their kids through the mature lens of their own eyes and thus organize, regiment and generally put their children through adult paces.

Kingswood, we insist, is truly a kid's place " a legitimately child-driven environment which I liken to back yard play. Sometimes Kingswood's best athletes shun organized teamsports in favor of Frisbee golf, guitar jamming or inventing their own games on Pines Field. It is easy to see they have had enough formal coaching during the school year. Campers have been known, too, to disdain overnight trips so as not to miss the daily dinnertime comedy routines in the dining room, hide-and-go-seek in the woods or the silly Egg Drop game. Brooks struck a nerve with this director when he defined a good camp director as "mature enough to run something, but deep down immature enough to get excited by the things that excite kids." Yeah, that's me behind the camera recording all those cheap bits for the camp web site reports. Our ultimate job, of course, is to seek a balance between the challenging and the easy. To accomplish this we heavily promote every tough activity, often assigning the most challenging ones to very popular counselors. "Sell it with a nudge" is our style but at the end of the day, each and every Kingswood camper truly has been a free bird.

The other hard sell with parents is to convince them there's plenty of time next school year and down the road for developing professional skills, resume building and networking future contacts. Increasingly, not only teenagers but even younger kids are being pushed in this direction by over-zealous parents. Some of what these youngsters end up doing is what I call "stacking greased BB's," i.e. executing mindless tasks for the sake of looking good on paper. Other parent-promoted activities surely are more rewarding but often come at the expense of camp-like experiences where a young person learns to assimilate a sound grasp of social and community mores. "Oh, but my child has already has good values," I can hear many a parent contend. Maybe, but not necessarily of his own free will, unfettered by immediate parental influence. Camps such as Kingswood harp on the notions of the collective will " the requirement that what is good for one must be in the best interest of all. Upper-middle-class kids can be as sweet as sugar in many personal traits (thanks to their upbringing) but complete dunderheads when it comes to respecting the other fellow's privacy, his space, his feelings or his gear. If we are guilty of preaching to boys, which I doubt we are to any distraction, it is in this area of personal responsibility towards others and to the community as a whole. The good thing, too, is that the camp experience is sustained enough for these sorts of lessons to begin to stick. When a mother asked me how could it be that Kingswood boys were able to play rough, competitive games but within in the context of a civilized, respectable ethos, I remarked (hopefully not too haughtily) that over the years at Kingswood we have successfully developed a tradition of expectation, one fulfilled by our now mere assumption that camp activities happen the way we say they will. I always call these outcomes "good camp." Moreover, positive camp experiences gradually internalized produce many GREAT CAMP children. And, while it would be arrogant of Kingswood, or David Brook's camp, or any camp to insist that its kids were a world apart from other, non-GREAT CAMP children, we certainly strive for such an outcome. In this complex world of today, any clever plan which manages to balance both a child's and his parent's needs is a really good deal.