My husband Tim and I operate two businesses, running whitewater kayaking and zip line canopy tours in the mountains of western North Carolina. Tim grew up going to summer camp in the area, and we have great relationships with summer camp directors and owners. So when it came time to send our son to summer camp, we had our choice of at least 20 summer camps.
Our son Finn is 8, and he is naturally a pretty cautious kid, which is kind of surprising coming from the two of us who are pretty big risk-takers. He is kind, sweet and really athletic, but he won’t take a physical risk unless he knows he is going to nail it. Among all the summer camps in our area, we chose Camp Carolina because they have a strong reputation of giving kids the freedom to push their comfort zones and take more risks.
I am not talking about inappropriate risks, but the kind you and I probably took when we were growing up. Our parents would let us run around the neighborhood, ride our bikes and go swimming in the neighbor’s pool or the lake. I don’t want to put my kids in harm’s way, but I never want to limit their life experience because of my fears or concerns about appearing like a bad parent.
Maybe this has been going on forever and I am just seeing it now because I am a parent, but often when parents get together, it seems like the ones who are considered the best parents are those who have their kids’ lives the most scheduled. As a result, I think some parents make decisions about what they let their kids do based on what other parents think. Yes, kids need sleep and regular meals and feeling like their lives are settled. Some routine is important and makes humans healthy and happy, but I think we as a society overdo it. Over-scheduling kids can leave them feeling anxious, worrying that they are not doing things exactly how they are supposed to.
We work really hard to make decisions about what our kids can do based on our own knowledge of the activities and of our kids and their personalities. I don’t want my son to break a bone, but if that is the consequence of him having a really cool life experience, it is worth it.
That statement may seem kind of shocking given how many parents try to control every aspect of their kids’ experiences and protect them from anything bad. This is so common we even have a name for parents who hover over their kids and jump in to rescue them at the first sign of trouble: helicopter parents. A July article by Arit John in TheAtlanticWire.com titled The New Puritan Parent describes them as people who let fear govern their parenting decisions, such as “that couple from the PTA meeting that gasped when you admitted to buying Lunchables for your kid – these moms and dads monitor everything their kids eat, watch and read.”
Helicopter parenting is not in the best interest of kids. Kids who are always in a controlled environment may not learn to think on their feet or react in a creative way. Parents who allow fear to guide most of their parenting decisions may pass fear and anxiety along to their kids. They may even become a hindrance to their children as the kids grow up and try to start life on their own, according to a recent CNN.com article by Sara LeTrent titled How helicopter parents can ruin kids’ job prospects. LeTrent quotes Aaron Cooper, a clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, who says that over-involved parents can hamper kids from developing resilience, self-sufficiency and autonomy.
A big problem of over-protective parenting that I see is it prevents kids from learning on their own. If we keep kids’ lives in this little box – if we pack their lunch for them every morning and they are always clean and have to go to bed at 7:30 every night – they may miss out on other things. It may limit their life experiences and inhibit their development of problem-solving skills. If they are never allowed to make a mistake, where’s the learning?
This is one reason we feel it is important for our kids to go to a summer camp that allows them to push themselves through outdoor activities. So many children these days spend most of their time indoors, whether it is sitting in class, watching videos or playing computer games. Allowing kids to explore nature is a great way for them to learn about themselves and the world around them.
Unfortunately, many people have become so disconnected from nature that they don’t understand the risks and responsibilities posed by being outdoors. Every year there are countless drownings, near drownings and other serious accidents that happen because people are unfamiliar with the outdoors and the risks involved with meeting nature on its own terms. Many people just don’t recognize the power of rivers, the danger of slippery rocks around waterfalls or the need to prepare themselves before venturing into the woods.
In our businesses, we understand that and take the necessary precautions. Our goal is to expose as many people as we can to the power and beauty of nature while having as little impact as possible on the environment. We hope this plants a seed that our natural resources are amazing and worth protecting. If that leads to a person not throwing their trash out the window on the way home, that is great. If it is such a life-changing experience that it leads them to do more and experience more in nature, all the better.
This is why it is so important for kids to spend time outdoors, starting at an early age. Kids need unstructured time to play, explore and create their own fun. They also need the opportunity to learn about the world around them under the guidance of trained outdoors professionals, like those who work at the camp our son is attending this summer. At camp, kids challenge themselves through activities such as whitewater paddling, mountain biking and rock climbing, while at the same time learning a healthy respect for nature. Along the way they learn about themselves and their own abilities. They gain self-confidence as they learn to think on their feet and solve problems on their own and with other kids – without assistance from their parents.
Kids need to have the experience of their own accomplishments, and summer camp is a great place to allow them that freedom. This point is illustrated in Michael Thompson’s book Homesick and Happy – How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow. “Thompson explains that kids are better off when they accomplish something without having to think about how their parents would view it,” John Dickerson writes in Slate. “Those memories are also more indelible. The self-confidence that comes from that accomplishment sticks better because it is completely earned.”
I am the oldest sibling in my family and have sisters five and nine years younger than me. My youngest sister just graduated from college, and my middle sister is working a few years into her first real job. My mom has seen us all in tough life situations. Our mom has always been the mom who would come and save you in bad situations, but lately she is working hard to let us as adults feel the consequences. All of us have come out of these situations stronger, smarter, more confident people, knowing we can handle more rather than looking to mom and dad to fix things.
That is what I want to see with my kids. If they are riding their bikes and kids have made a bike ramp in the neighborhood, I let them try it. Maybe they will hit the jump with more speed or less speed or even crash and get a little banged up. I want them to have these life experiences so they learn to be resourceful, resilient and eventually, independent.
Adventure Sports Entrepreneur Sara Bell and her husband Tim are co-owners of The Gorge, billed as the fastest, steepest zip line canopy tour in the United States, and Green River Adventures, which specializes in whitewater outfitting and instruction. For more information, visit www.TheGorgeZipline.com and www.GreenRiverAdventures.com.