I spend a boatload of cash each year for my son to do something I did for free as a kid. And it annoys the crap out of me.
On Facebook a friend of mine recently posted the following article from the Washington Post: “I send my kids to sleep-away camp to give them a competitive advantage in life.” These kind of headlines are meant to elicit a response. One camp might be thinking, “Holy crap. I’ve never sent my kids to over-night camp. Could I be denying his opportunity to get into an Ivy League school?” Another camp might think, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Whatever happened to sending kids to camp so that they have a great time?”
The content of the essay is more thoughtful than the headline, and the takeaway is this: some of the basic things we did as kids for fun may have been beneficial for us in ways we didn’t even know, and it might behoove us as parents to – as the author Laura Clydesdale writes – opt out of the "things-to-put-on-the-college-application arms race.” Instead of creating walking, talking resumes, why not nourish thoughtful, creative, independent human beings? That’s really the goal. The fact that a thoughtful, creative and independent human being will invariably have a competitive edge over robotic peers is icing on the cake.
Several years ago I read an excellent book called “The Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit disorder.” In it author Richard Louv creates a compelling case for allowing our children to break out of the regimented lifestyles we’ve created for our kids – much of it indoors – and instead give them more access to nature, which not only feeds a child’s development, but can also help alleviate symptoms of ADD, obesity and other widespread ailments of today’s children. Even something as basic is going camping as a family can provide a huge benefit for children, and ultimately provide a huge benefit for nature, as people who have a relationship with nature are far more likely to fight to save it. Time spent at a camp, where a kid can break away from wired worlds, take some time to reflect, and experience activities that are foreign to a life in the city or suburbs, can be as mentally and physically beneficial as it is downright fun.
Now, here’s my beef with all of this. Today, every activity our children are engaged in seems to be planned and administered by adults, and overnight camp is of course no exception. This also means it costs money.
My son plays drums in a band. I played keyboard in a band when I was a teenager. In my son’s band, adults pick the players, adults pick the songs, adults pick who plays on which songs, adults provide the equipment, adults plan the gigs and adults provide logistics. In my band, adults did nothing except provide a space for practice and offer an occasional ride. My son’s band costs me thousands of dollars a year. My band cost me nothing except an occasional headache as we tried to figure out the lyrics to songs pre-Internet.
I learned a lot by being in a band with other teenagers. I learned how to compromise, I learned how to not overplay (though this took several years), I learned about how to get along with different types of people, and I learned about my limitations as a performer, as a musician, and – at times – as a human being. My son has learned some of these things too, but nothing that he’s experienced can compare to sitting in a room with four other musicians and saying, “Okay. We need to learn thirty songs and find a gig so that we can play them. Ready?” There’s no doubt in my mind that my experience was richer and more developmental than my son’s has been.
Similarly, I never went to camp as a child. But I did ride my bike constantly, I walked my dog through the expansive fields behind the middle school near my home, and I played in numerous forests in my hometown, where I would make up games with my friends, climb trees, get into arguments, injure myself or others, and – on a particularly lucky day - discover a Penthouse that a classmate kept hidden in the hallow of a tree. Again, I did this for free. And as cool and rich as my children’s camp experiences have been all these years, I’m not sure the adult-supervised activities provided the same benefit as my independent ventures did.
What’s particularly problematic is this: unless you reach critical mass, “opting-out” simply means your kid spends time alone (which does have some benefits but also its limitations). I would like my son to quit his organized, adult-supervised band, but unless I can convince other parents to do the same, it will lead to a band of one. Not so much fun. Breaking away from regimentation only works when you convince others to do the same.
So what’s the answer? Well, I am going to make a concerted appeal to the parents of my son’s band to quit organized music and have our sons and daughters move forward on their own. Will I be successful? I kind of doubt it. But our kids know how to play their instruments, they know fellow musicians, and now it’s time to sink or swim. My son will be richer for it, and if I succeed, so will his parents.