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Director’s Annual Commentary

Autumn 2006: The Beauty of a Skinned Knee


As do most of you parents reading these words, Alice and I recollect with nostalgia the nursery days of our three children. I can still picture Robbie's darting eyes as he followed his dangling mobiles. So, too, am I able to summon the sound of baby Mike sucking on his pacifier while rubbing the label of his blanket. Who could ever forget lifting dozens of stuffed animals to locate a nearly-buried Sara? However, to me the number one emotional trigger of those long bygone days was the picture of a group of baby animals sewn by the children's mother. Hanging right above the crib, it read, "To love something is to give it room enough to grow." I've carried that thought with me all these ensuing years to include my current reign as Kingswood's director and author of these yearly "Director's Commentaries."

More than one parent sent me a copy of a guest editorial by a woman named Judith Warner which appeared on July 20, 2006 in The New York Times. Titled, appropriately, "Loosen the Apron Strings," the article chastised those moms and dads who cling too tenaciously to their kids. Two sentences in this piece struck me dumb. "Parents aren't not sending their kids away to traditional camps just because they want them home drilling for the SAT. They're not sending them away to camp because they want them home, period." Yikes! Or, how about this one? "Some parents even question whether those who send their children to camps 'really love their kids' " Before I write another word, I've got to tell you how happy I am that a vast majority of Kingswood parents don't think like that!

Even parents who eventually bite the bullet to permit a brief foray from the nest deposit their kids at camps that could well be located in their own back yard. In short, many of today's moms and dads want their children in environments that not only cater to the child's every whim but also provide perpetual feedback to the home base that every human need is being totally met. Kudos again to those wonderful Kingswood folks who accept my limited but heartfelt communication and feedback approaches.

So, where am I headed with this essay? I wish parents of all stripes could be there for the "real stuff" of camp. A story: I thought I had hit a good note one night around the campfire when I spoke of a spirituality of sorts associated with hiking in the mountains. Next day, sons Rob and Mike assigned my performance an OK grade, admonishing me that I hadn't talked about the hardships, the aches and pains, the inevitable mishaps and discomfort, which, overcome, make a hiking trip a bonding and true life-enhancing adventure. That same evening, we had another campfire where I squared the ledger by contributing numerous examples of "those wonderful hardships" associated with experiences away from home, hiking trips as well as other hurdles cleared by many boys at camp. I told the assembled kids of a time rather recently when a group of our campers got mired in the mud of the Mahoosuc Range of northern New Hampshire for five days. At trip's end one boy's feet showed signs of infection, which he laughingly described as "rot." At the campfire I acknowledged to the campers, too, that windsurfing and waterskiing are not easy to do, nor are tennis and baseball easy games. "If there was no such thing as a face plant into the water, a double fault or a strike out, those activities would be no challenge at all," I told them, urging at least an effort to try new things. "Who cares if you fail at camp?" is a line I used then as well as over and over again throughout the summer.

What is important about these examples, and countless others I could have cited, is that the youngsters at camp are given the opportunity to endure real and not imagined difficulty. Kids at camp who struggle learn to cope. They often succeed but sometimes fail. And, they eventually feel that certain buzz of euphoria for what they have accomplished or nearly accomplished. One of my counselors, Scott Shupe, actually argues that failure is better for kids than is success, at least in the short run of competition. "Losing provides a far better character check than does winning," he implores. I enjoy debating him on this point. Yet, who among the multitude of parents would have griped at the news of some moaning and groaning by his child? Who among you would have criticized me for allowing a group to start a long hike in potentially inclement weather? And, who among you, upon learning that we had chosen to celebrate a close loss, might have suggested we get our heads examined? The right answer, of course, is that any rough and tumble camp experience, properly handled by children's supervisors, should be cause for parental delight. I just wish parents could be that proverbial "fly on the wall" and see the great lessons of camp first hand.

I am calling this article "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee," after the book of same title by Wendy Mogel. (New York: Scribner) The book uses Jewish tradition and literature to help guide parents in raising self-reliant children. One review of the work commended Mogel for her effort to assist parents in drawing the line between permissiveness and over-protectiveness. There are chapters on gratefulness, moderation and self-control. All good stuff, surely. But the title is perfect! "Let a boy skin his knee" is yet another image I have kept handy over the years and summon whenever reports of camper hardship are brought to my attention. As a camp director, I have to make hundreds of decisions every day regarding young peoples' health and safety. Were I to forbid every activity fraught with skinned knee potential, we'd end up being "Camp Do-nothing" in no time.

OK, so one person's definition of real risk to children surely will vary from another's version. This is where parents can and must learn to be very discerning. First, they have to accept the notion that some risk, some discomfort, some momentary failure is not only good but great for their kids. After that, however, they must select child supervisors whom they trust -- people whose line in the sand between acceptable risk and unacceptable risk is at about the same place as theirs. Wipflers feel that a few bumps and bruises (physically and emotionally) along the way are all part of growing up. Developing "foot rot" in the mud or getting nicked up on a sensational fall off water-skis or twisting an ankle on the tennis court all fall well within the range of skinned knee experiences. On the other hand, whenever a virus starts making the rounds at camp (inevitable, some summers,) Kingswood trained staff are instantly on board with the nurses in insisting that campers take all necessary precautions. Or, try taking out a sailboat without putting on that life jacket and a counselor with Kingswood vision will be on your case at once. And, any camper found goofing off when lightning is near will soon comprehend the exact letter of Kingswood law!

I think most kids are ahead of the parent curve on the skinned knee scale. We can count on boys to respond positively to our policy of no griping on hiking trips and they take those maddening bruises mostly with a grin, once they know help is at hand. And, they are united to the person in NOT wanting camp to be part of their professional upbringing. "Just let me have some fun, absorb a few body blows along the way, make a few mistakes, too, and learn from them." That has to be every child's mantra for camp. Most of you are on board for this plan, but are all of you? Suggestion: Raise your children as firmly and with as much groundedness (my word) as you please. Then, simply let go a bit and trust them to make good decisions at camp and elsewhere. If they err, at, say, age 12, it's not that big a deal. I am upping the dialogue here. Now, I am speaking about human issues mistakes, not a poor choice of tetherball over tennis. Some kids make poor interpersonal judgments not because they lack the proper upbringing but rather because those inculcated values haven't been tested yet. In short, parents have to let their kids skin knees value-wise as well as physically. It has dawned on me recently that perhaps some adults won't let go of their children more out of fear that the kids will reflect badly on parental character than anything else. Obsessive and controlling parental behavior could easily be as much values driven as simply an irrational fear for their children's' safety. To parents such as these, turning childhood into an adult career, replete with special tutoring or professional coaching - with mom or dad at the end of a very short tether, is the solution to raising their children fully and properly. They will insist that this simply is the way they do things. Fine, but allow me to argue that such a limiting and stifling approach is not necessary.

A decentralization of parenthood can begin as soon as mom and dad sense their child is old enough to assimilate real life experiences. At Kingswood we have this catchphrase, "To make a friend, you have to be a friend." Clever, and we see to it that every Kingswood camper knows it. But, we go further and demand that boys cite examples of the idea at work. We get the same replies every summer: "You can make friends by sharing care packages from home." "We should be quiet in the cabin when someone is tired and wants to go to sleep." "Take someone's laundry bag to the collection area if he is on a trip." "If you don't like another guy's music, let him play it anyway without complaining." "Do your share in cleanup and let the boy in the upper bunk climb over your area to get to his." "Don't get mad at a friend if he messes up in a game versus Camp Pemi." This is how boys see friendship and we are certain to summarize the dialogue by suggesting that the main idea is to meet the other guy half way. Many campers, in due time, begin to get it.

My argument is that camp is a great place for these values to be validated for some and learned anew for others. How satisfying must it be to have confirmation that your child shares with others, or that he makes friends with ease, or that he found a lost item of value and returned it to the proper owner? We see deeds of this ilk every day of the summer. But, if a child is selfish or lacks good strategies for making and keeping friends, and the camp deals that person fairly and with a mind towards permanent assimilation of lessons, both you and the youngster still are winners.

In conclusion, I don't see how any parent could reject the true value of the camp experience for their kids. It's always a win-win proposition for you. Be it the bumps and bruises of the metaphorical skinned knee or validation of some really hardened values, camp is the place for any parent to send his child if he agrees that "To love something is to give it room enough to grow."