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Director’s Annual Commentary

Autumn 2005: Multigenerational Influences on Youngsters


"We educators are at war with America's parents," I remarked early one summer morning to sons Rob and Mike, who laughingly responded with their typical "There you go again, dad," rejoinder. "Well, Kingswood parents certainly are not stupid but a whole lot of others really miss the point of parenthood," I shot back to maintain my hyperbolic advantage. Rob had just gone on line to find a piece written by highly acclaimed child psychologist Michael Thompson, who had spoken to The Hill School faculty last spring. Here's the Thompson paragraph which induced both my diatribe that day and this year's post-camp director's commentary: "Children don't develop because they are pushed and prodded and pressured to develop. Children don't develop because of town teams or because their parents prepare them to go to a 'good' college. Growing up is what kids do, because development is their biological and psychological imperative. It is the job of adults to create environments where they have the time and freedom and safety to grow up at their own pace."

Thompson wrote this article about a year ago after going back, naturally, to his childhood summer camp. At camp, he stumbled into some fantastic things which left him yearning for a return to the solid family values of yore. "I saw a world where nineteen and twenty-year old young men spend hours of time swimming and diving and kayaking with eleven-year old boys, and they all seem to enjoy it equally. When the swimming is over, the boys hang out with the young men and ask them questions. Even more amazing, at the end of each evening, the young men, the twenty-year olds, sit with older men in their fifties and sixties and listen to them tell stories about their lives. The young ones aren't sarcastic or dismissive the way that television sitcoms suggest they are supposed to be. They seem eager to learn from their elders, night after night."

The author was obviously struck by a strange, eerie, unsettling disconnect between what passes as benign everyday behavior at camp versus increasingly rare activities elsewhere throughout the full infrastructure of modern American culture - schools, neighborhoods and families. Most certainly, Thompson is not writing about Kingswood families, or at least most of you, when he wonders aloud if "summer camps are one of the last places that kids can learn the so-called 'family values' that hard-pressed parents no longer have the time to teach."

I tell everyone that Kingswood fishes ponds very carefully to find boys who hail from families attuned to the camp ethic and who use Kingswood to re-enforce or validate values already fully entrenched. To those of you harboring impressionable pre-teens, how sweet must it be to hear your son pronouncing that this or that Kingswood way as the only way. " Mom and dad: I'm allowed to still think about you a lot, but I don't miss you that much any more." Yeah, well, that's the company line and for quite a few, it sticks. Furthermore, I can count on the older set of boys to stand up at camp meetings to make assertions such as "To make a friend, you've got to be a friend," or "Stay busy doing as many camp activities as you can and your homesickness will soon go away like it did for me when I was your age." Best of all, they've come to really believe what they say and it shows.

While pretty obvious material to Kingswood veteran folks, to Thompson and his audience of rank and file Americana, these notions are anything but routine. At his camp, Thompson witnessed three elements in every camper's daily regimen which seem to fly way below the common familial radar screen: (1) They were living in a multi-generational community, (2) They were following hallowed rituals that were universally respected, and (3) They had a lot of downtime.

We have always given great play to the multi-generational aspect at Kingswood. We notice great interplay and influence-peddling among and between every age group from the grizzled administration to the youngest sandcastle builders. As a director who now is approaching a two generation differential from his youngest charges, I never had thought much about how I connected to young people until a family member recently remarked how she enjoyed observing me "re-articulate" with the boys. No question but that I lay in wait for campers' comments to pounce upon as universal insights. Says a youngster at Sunday camp meeting, "I think it is more important to play hard and fair than it is to win at all costs," and I'm touched off like a firecracker with affirmations galore, at the end of which the boy gets all the credit for a brilliant idea. "You've got it right, pal, and I hope the others heard you." Try re-articulation yourself.

The directorship at Kingswood, however, prefers the bully pulpit to remain the proprietorship of everyone. There is something magical about witnessing the validation of values from one "camp generation" to the next. And, by that, we don't mean merely the 50-somethings to the 10's. At this camp, anyway, generations are defined by the associations from one age group to the next. Watch the 13's mix with the 10's, the 16's with the 13's, the 21's with the 16's and so on up the scale and you will see amazing interactions. Surely, every camp espouses community values and hence multi-generationalism, but Kingswood is praised by several camper placement agencies, those who personally know the workings of many camp operations, who tell us that at Kingswood togetherness is a palpable feeling, one that is obvious to visitor after visitor. When, in 1983, I first laid eyes on Kingswood, then a somewhat dilapidated facility, I remarked to Alice within five minutes that we had found the spot of our dreams. "Not only is the lake unsurpassable, but the juxtaposition of the buildings plays to that sense of togetherness we hope to foster." So, when the door of one cabin of 14 year-olds opens just a few feet from that of a group of 9 year-old lads, it is by design, not happenstance. And, when athletic director Mike Wipfler declares that touchdowns scored by juniors in the all-camp touch football tournament are to be valued three times more than those by counselors, he, too, is acting on these multi-generational components we hold dear at Kingswood.

Thompson was also enamored of the intensity and high expectation of repeated traditions at camp. JC's tend the re-fill counter at Kingswood and Guides sub for them on occasion. But, watch how fast Roadsiders move into place when both older groups are off on trips. Amazingly, kitchen duty is just that, a job and not a perk, yet the boys come running. Everyone knows how grace is handled differently at each of the three meals and "kudos," those announcements of praise to deserving campers, follow a protocol worthy of State Department oversight. Try to slip in a "self-kudo" and you'll be put into your place but pronto. In fact, there are so many Kingswood ways of doing things that routine itself becomes ritual, and this within our environment of relatively low regimentation. Everyone gets comfortable with routine, especially if the flow of events is smooth, fair and civil. That tradition of expectation - call it ritual if you please --is an overwhelming force at camp and it explains everything from good sportsmanship on the ball fields, to hiking with a swagger despite feeling some physical discomfort, to making friends in the cabins with boys of differing temperaments and interests. Thompson is quite right to underscore the power of ritual seemingly so wanting in modern times.

Thompson's third grand re-discovery at his camp was the amount and use of downtime. Boys' freedom is a notion I refer to every year. The 2001 and 2004 autumn commentaries are totally dedicated to the subject. Drop most any boys camp director into a gaggle of kids free to be doing as they please and within five minutes he will be able to assess both their ages and the appropriate balance between self-regulation and adult-led activity for the group. For certain, none of us planners at Kingswood is smug about an unerring ability to properly judge boys' needs for structured versus unstructured time. But, it is quite satisfying to wrestle daily with the issue, ALWAYS concluding that once again we have created the best possible scenario given the intricate web of variables pulling and yanking in all directions.

In conclusion, allow me to offer this comment from a first-time parent. "I would agree with your thoughts that Kingswood isn't for everyone. As a parent, one has to accept that Kingswood's pace is not frenetic and that boys are given time to hang out and do what boys do best, have fun with each other. I think that the pace that these kids maintain during the year with school, sports, music and pressure from everyone and every direction is way more than we ever experienced when we were young a hundred years ago. When do ours ever get to be kids? You mentioned something about back yard play and it rang so true watching the pick up soccer games and the Frisbee golf. It seemed that the only thing stopping the boys was the ensuing darkness. You and your family really 'get' what boys are all about. I only wish the rest of our world would catch up with Kingswood and realize what a great gift it is to be a kid." Sweet! Perhaps we should be allowed a wee bit of smugness when, all of us twinkling, we look at one another to acknowledge simply, "Yes, this is what we do."