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sleepaway camp

Parenting Time Machine: Imagine your children in the future, and how you got them there

Here's a little exercise that can help you think about what you want to prioritize as a parent. 

First, engage in some time travel.  Imagine yourself in the future, when your kids are grown.  (If you want, you can have it turn out that you don't look any older than you do now and that you’re driving a convertible sports car instead of a stinky minivan.)  From that vantage point, look back at the way you raised your children.  How will you feel about the parenting decisions you've made?  The experiences you've given your kids. 

For me personally, I'm constantly learning new things that make me say, "I wish I'd known that earlier."  I expect I'll probably write a book in the future about what the parenting expert wishes she’d done differently, given the perspective of time (and emerging research.) 

But if you were to ask me now to predict what I will one day say are the most important things my husband I did as parents that made the biggest difference in how well our three boys turned out—in my imagined future, it so happens that my kids are fantastic humans who have a very young-looking mother—here’s what I’d say. 

  1. We disciplined by using reflective dialogues and collaborative problem-solving, rather than punitive consequences.
    Actually, I wish we did more of this, but I truly believe that traditional punishment as a discipline technique is not only less kind and caring, but much less effective as well when it comes to changing behaviors and building character.  (Watch for my upcoming book, No-Drama Discipline, written with Dan Siegel and published by Random House, for a book-length discussion of this idea.) Nearly any discipline situation can be better handled by talking to our kids and at times even asking for their opinions on how to address a situation.  Firm boundaries and high expectations can be maintained while also using discipline moments to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving.
  2. We built secure relationships with them.
    Instead of simply "managing" our boys and getting them to their activities, we got to know them, and let them know us.  We all talked and laughed and argued together, deepening the connections between us all.  We consistently (not perfectly) responded quickly and predictably to their needs, and they had repeated experiences that wired their brains to know that they can trust in relationships.  And, we were tuned in to their emotional world—we focused on understanding and talking about the internal experience:  thoughts, feelings, wishes, regrets, motivations, etc.  Sensitive, emotionally attuned, predictable care leads to secure attachment.  Secure attachment is the single best predictor for children to thrive.  We weren't perfect parents, but we did build strong relationships with our kids.
  3. We sent them to sleepaway summer camp.
    Our boys happen to have gone to a magical place called Camp Chippewa in Northern Minnesota.  But summer camp in general is great for kids, in that it allows them to overcome difficult situations like homesickness.  Being away from parents and living in a cabin with other kids and mentors of all ages is transformative for many children.  The activities at camp are great; they have a blast learning to canoe and shoot a bow and pitch a tent, but it’s the skills, the mastery, and the frustration management that make it so good for their development.  The friendships they make, the traditions and rituals they learn, being in nature, and the independence they gain are fun, and they build resilience.  They learn a lot about themselves through this experience.
  4. We made our home a place their friends wanted to be.
    One of the best ways we got to know our kids was by watching them interact with their friends.  We also liked getting to influence the environment our boys and their peers grew up in. 
  5. We gave them other adults who cared about them.
    Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other close friends all became important people in the lives of our children.  They never wondered whether they were worth loving or being paid attention to, because there was always a crowd of people in their lives who were loving them and paying attention to them.
  6. We were present with them without rescuing all the time.
    Sure, there were plenty of times when we gave the distracted "uh-huh" while we heard about the latest Lego creation.  But we did our best to really be there with our boys.  To listen to them, to talk to them, to pay attention to what bothered them and what mattered to them.  We wanted them to know that we delighted in them as people, and that we were there for them.  Always.  Even when they were badly behaved, or they were having meltdowns.  We saw our job as walking with them through struggles and letting them know we were there with them—without rescuing them from every negative emotion or situation. 
  7. We gave them a chance to find and do what they loved.
    Whether it was sports or piano or art or joke-telling, we did all we could to let our kids chase and enjoy their passions.
  8. We protected playtime.
    I'm not saying that there weren't periodic seasons when our boys ended up being over-scheduled, but for the most part we worked hard to make sure they had time to just hang out and play.  We were big fans of enriching activities, but not at the expense of having time for unstructured play that let them imagine and dream and even deal with boredom.

So that's an example of my list.  What would be on yours?

Notice that this exercise asks you to think about what you're doing well.  You could make a similar list about what you wish you'd done differently.  (Watch for a future article in which I outline some of the regrets I imagine I'll be living with in the future.  There will be plenty of those, I'm sure—although I always remind parents, as I do in this article, that even our parenting mistakes can be beneficial for our kids.)

The point in all of this is simply to remain aware and intentional about what we're doing as parents.  We might see changes we want to make, but we'll also realize that there's plenty we're doing that we'll look back on some day and smile, and even be proud of. 

 

 

Bunks Are Good for Brains: The Neuroscience of Sleepaway Camp

[The following interview appeared in the December, 2013 edition of the official magazine of the American Camp Association.  You can read the original interview here.]

 

Tina Payne Bryson, PhD will be delivering the opening keynote address at the 2014 ACA National Conference in Orlando. Bryson is the co-author (with Dan Siegel) of the bestselling The Whole-Brain Child, which is now in seventeen languages. She's a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist who speaks to parents, educators, clinicians, and camp leadership all over the world. She is a school counselor and the child development director for Lantern Camps. Tina earned her PhD from the University of Southern California, where her research explored attachment science, childrearing theory, and the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology. ACA sat down with her and asked her a few questions.

You're known as someone who teaches parents and educators about the brain. Is that what you'll talk about at the ACA conference?

It’s true that I spend most of my professional time talking to people about the brain. But it's also true that I'm a mom of three boys, and I've become a huge proponent of the camp experience over the last few years as my boys have attended Camp Chippewa in Minnesota, and as I've visited with camp directors and counselors and learned more about the important and meaningful work they're doing.

Put these two roles together — the brain lady and the mom who's passionate about camp — and you get someone who can go on and on explaining to parents, mental health professionals, and anyone who will listen just why camp is so beneficial for the developing brains of kids. I’m quite excited about the tremendous consilience between what camps are doing, can be doing, and what we know about optimal brain development. 

Tell us about the influence camp has on kids' developing brains?

When I visit a camp and consult with the leadership team there, I usually have two main messages. Number one: Whether you know it or not, you're significantly impacting the brains of the young people you work with every summer. In fact, it turns out that the things that build the brain and are best for kids’ development are also the very things that are important for running a successful camp with high camper and counselor retention and successful recruitment. 

And number two: if you know just a few basic facts about the brain, you can be even better at everything I just mentioned. Knowing just a little about the science of how the brain changes in response to experiences, particularly relational experiences, can help camps be even more successful — in all kinds of ways.

Your first point is that camp builds the brain?

Right. Bunks are good for brains. All the things that camps and parents say that camp does for kids — promoting independence, confidence, friendship-building, resilience, thriving, character, grit, etc. — these are undoubtedly real outcomes for kids who have quality camp experiences. But why do these outcomes occur? How do these changes happen in short periods of time, and then over years as well? How do we explain this?

The brain. I could go on and on about cutting-edge brain science and how it relates to the camp experience. For the sake of time, I’ll briefly introduce you to one part of the brain that's responsible for these skills and character qualities, and show you how it relates to the good, meaningful work that goes on at camp.

I want to introduce you to the middle prefrontal cortex. It’s right behind the forehead and eye sockets and is the front most part of the frontal lobe. It gives us the ability to do all kinds of important things: regulate our body and emotions, have insight into ourselves and others, feel empathy, communicate in an attuned way, bounce back after failure, adapt to new situations, make thoughtful choices, and overcome fear. That’s pretty much what's needed for a successful life with good emotional and mental health, meaningful relationships, and the conscientiousness to make things happen in the world.

And camp can help develop that part of the brain?

Whether camps have thought about it in those terms or not, yes. And that’s the exciting part for the camp world: We don’t just influence kids' minds and help them feel more confident. We actually change the structure of their brains.

Experience changes the brain. And yes, I mean the actual activation and wiring of the brain. Particularly when experiences are emotional, novel, and challenging, the repeated experiences kids have alter the actual architecture of the brain. It’s like a muscle. When it’s used, it grows and strengthens. So, when kids have camp experiences that require them to overcome fear, be flexible, handle their emotions (especially away from their parents), be persistent to master something, build relationships, and so on, it builds this important part of the brain. And by the way, this can happen in even more significant ways when counselors are trained to handle emotional reactivity in campers in ways that reduce reactivity and promote resilience. 

But the main thing to know is that when the structure of the brain changes, the function of the brain changes. This means that camps can play a role in how these kids function in the world, and ultimately who they become as adults, even on a neuronal level.

It’s so great that camps that are intentional about all facets of the camper experience and how they train their counselors already inherently provide the kinds of experiences that activate and build this “character” part of the brain. That’s why we can see significant changes in kids who have camp as part of their lives.

So you're saying that camp aids in this development because of the challenges children face when they're away from home?

Yes, that’s part of it, but it's about much more than just the challenges, because kids have lots of challenges in their everyday lives as well. One thing that's unique about camp experiences is that camp is usually fun, so kids are willing to work harder and tolerate more frustration and setbacks because they’re having a good time doing it, and they’re doing it in the context of relationship. They see their peers pushing through as well, and when staff is well-trained, kids have mentors or counselors who are empathic about the struggle, but still encouraging them to endure — pushing them to continue to learn and try. Then they face the frustrations and persist through the challenges. This is one way “grit” gets built in the brain.

So that's your first message to camp directors you work with.  That camp helps build the brain.  What's the second point?

The second is that knowing some of these basic facts about the brain can help directors and counselors be even more successful--both at helping develop great kids with the time they have them at camp, and at running a successful camp with high retention rates and happy campers and parents.

What can camps and camp directors do better?

First of all, even when camps are already doing some really fantastic things in terms of social and emotional and character development, they often aren’t as savvy as they could be about communicating in their recruitment materials how their program and decisions are contributing to that development.

It's about thoughtfully and strategically communicating to parents all the great stuff camp is doing for kids. Learning and using the language that child development experts know can make a big difference. With so much vying for children’s time, most parents want much more than just fun or better tennis skills for their kids. They want to feel confident that their child’s time is spent in ways that lead to their child thriving and being successful.

Can you give us an example of how camp does this?

There are dozens of ways that camp traditions and activities make kids better people and help them develop specific skills, like sustained attention (archery and riflery), overcoming fear (in safe but challenging activities), and serving others (helping with kitchen duties). If a camp can speak the language to make those connections, they’ll attract more parental interest.

Speaking this language also allows camp directors and leaders to clearly communicate to their staff each summer that there are more things going on than just the activity itself.

You're talking about staff training.

Yes. We want staff to keep in mind that in addition to the skills of sailing, counselors are also teaching kids about frustration management, flexibility, responsibility, etc. I love training the staff at Camp Chippewa each summer, and one of my main messages to the young counselors is always, "You’re doing more than just hanging out and keeping kids physically safe — you’re the relational safety net as well."

This is the science of interpersonal neurobiology. When kids feel connected and protected, when their needs are predictably and sensitively responded to, it actually builds the middle prefrontal cortex that I talked about earlier. There’s a hierarchy that staff should understand. When kids feel safe (physically, socially, emotionally), their social engagement system and receptivity circuitry can turn on. As a result, they're more willing to build friendships that make them want to come back. These friendships and counselor connections are a buffer against stress and homesickness and struggles. And they build character skills. In the attachment literature, this is referred to as “a secure base,” and when kids feel secure, they are capable of moving toward independence and they are better able to make friends.

So camps must create a culture and community of safety and connection. When they provide this kind of relational connection, they become the kinds of places kids want to return to summer after summer, and that parents want to keep sending their kids to.

So relational safety nets help retention rates?

Right. And there are all kinds of ways to foster this kind of relational environment through programmatic decisions. This is a lot of what Michael Thompson, the co-founder of Lantern Camps, and I are doing through Lantern Camps, where we visit camps and evaluate their programs, helping them not only provide better training for staff, and more intentional experiences for kids, but also communicate these important ideas to their staff and to parents in their recruitment materials.

Aren't camps already doing a lot of this?

Yes. The good ones are. Like I said, I am already a believer that camp can be a magical, transformative place for a child. In fact, I expect that down the road, when I think about the top experiences that made the biggest difference in who my boys turn out to be, going to Camp Chippewa will be on that list.

What I’m saying, though, is that many camps — and often, even good camps — can do even better at being intentional about what they want to accomplish. We're talking about honoring tradition and what’s working great, while also evolving, refining, and being more intentional.

Sometimes, a camp's automatic and unexamined ways of doing things aren't the most effective strategies — for dealing with homesickness, or difficult personalities, or emotional meltdowns, or whatever — and they’re not optimal in terms of what the science tells us about child development. Many camps are still doing a lot of what doesn’t work very well, which leaves kids feeling disconnected. As a result, they have a negative experience and don’t want to come back. I try to teach staff the same things I tell parents in my office, and teachers at the schools I visit. I try to help them learn how to decrease emotional reactivity and get kids quickly back to a place of feeling adaptive, stable, connected, and receptive to having fun.

I'll say again –camps impact kids — and their brains — in hugely positive ways. Bunks are good for brains. After all, it's experience that changes the brain. So when kids have experiences that challenge them emotionally, when they’re given opportunities to make friends that are outside their typical circles, when they have to keep working at a skill to achieve mastery — these are the kinds of experiences that change the connections in the brain regarding kids' capacity for persistence, how they see themselves, and how healthy they can be, both emotionally and relationally.

 

 

Second Thoughts About Sleepaway Camp? How to Warm Your Child’s Cold Feet

Last month your child was completely gung-ho about attending sleepaway camp.  But now that the weather’s turning warmer, that enthusiasm might be turning to apprehension.  Doubts, fears, anxieties, and even dread are normal for kids who are going to be away from their parents for a period of time, especially if it’s their first time, and especially if they are introverts.

We’ve got checklists for all the gear our children need at camp, but it’s also helpful to compile a checklist for preparing them emotionally if they are experiencing some cold feet or worries.  It might look something like this.

An Emotion-Prep Checklist for Sleepaway Camp:

  1. Talk directly about feelings.  It’s really unhelpful for parents to dismiss a child’s feelings and say, “You’ll be fine.  You’ll love it!  Don’t worry.”  (Has someone telling you “Don’t worry” made you say “Oh, OK. I hadn’t thought of that.”  Not helpful, right?)  Instead, if you sense your child is having some worries and he’s not bringing them up, you can begin the conversation by saying something like, “Some kids feel nervous about camp as it gets closer.  How are you feeling about it?”  And whether or not your child is initiating the discussion himself, it’s important to really listen and validate those feelings instead of trying to talk him out of them or dismiss them.
  2. Problem-Solve.  Find out what your child’s specific worries are, and then collaboratively problem-solve with her.  Most kids worry about being homesick, but it might surprise you what they are concerned about.  Kids worry whether they’ll like the food, that they won’t be good at the activities, that they’ll wet the bed, and even that their shoes will get wet.  Whatever the worries, it can be helpful to brainstorm together and talk about the “what ifs,” and what she can do in the circumstances she’s thinking about.
  3. Normalize the feelings.  Just knowing that other kids feel that way, too, and that it’s normal to feel worried about doing something that’s different, can be quite helpful.  Talk about a time you stepped outside your comfort zone and how you felt apprehension at first, how you handled your feelings, and how the experience ended up being great. (Make sure to pick a resilient story—no stories about how it ended up being even worse than you could’ve imagined.)
  4. Give kids a strategyor two to help them calm their worries.  One thing you can begin now that will give them tools they can use while they’re at camp is something I use with anxious kids in my private practice.  I give them an assignment that each night, once they are peaceful and relaxed and ready to fall asleep, they should place their hand on their chest (pledge-of-allegiance style).  Only when they’re feeling calm and peaceful.  After doing this every night for a few weeks, the brain makes a connection between the sensation of the hand on the chest and a feeling of calm relaxation.  Then, when the child is feeling worried or upset, he can easily place his hand on his chest wherever he is, and his body will begin to relax and his mind will begin to feel calm. 

    Another strategy is to teach him that while his feelings might feel really wild and stirred up, if he pauses to take a few deep breaths, the worries will settle, allowing him to see clearly again.  The best thing I’ve found to teach this is the “glitter ball” analogy that Susan Kaiser-Greenland created.  You can teach this to your kids by having them watch this super-short video with you.  Then send a glitter ball, or a small snow globe, to camp with your child, explaining that he can shake it up and watch the glitter settle when he’s feeling upset. 

    If you do these two things in the weeks before your child leaves for camp, you can build some skills and empower him with some tools he can pull out when he needs them.  This allows him to avoid becoming a victim to his feelings, but to be able to use his mind to change how he feels.  (You might try some of these tools too, if you are feeling worried about sending your child off!)

This moment is a great opportunity to teach kids that while we should pay attention to our feelings, our feelings shouldn’t rule our worlds.  If you talk, listen, normalize, and strategize, you will be preparing your children to go to camp with the best chance of overcoming their fears and learning something really important about themselves—that they are braver and stronger than they think.  You’ll be doing much more than just prepping them for camp, you’ll be prepping them for life.

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

My Daughter Wants to Go to Modeling Camp!

I recently learned of an increasingly popular summer activity for teenage girls: modeling camp.  As I understand it, parents of teens and even tweens shell out around $1000 to have their daughters spend five days learning to hold their shoulders back when they walk, turn with elegance, and flawlessly shape their eyebrows. 

If you’ve read much of what I've written in the past, you know that I believe that one of the best things we can do for our kids as they grow older is to feed their passion.  Sports, music, academics, dance, or whatever pulls them.  Self-esteem and confidence come from mastery, so giving kids a chance to do what they love and achieve success in those activities can be an important way for them to believe in themselves. 

Fashion and modeling may be a passion for your daughter.  If that’s the case, you might be feeling that you’re in a bit of a parenting dilemma. On one hand you want to feed that passion. On the other hand, you’re probably worrying about some pretty legitimate concerns, like these: 

I don’t mind my daughter competing, but I hate to see the competition focus on superficial issues like looks and clothes. 

We want our kids to learn to hold their own when they have to go up against others in their life.  But usually, that means developing a skill like in athletics or music, or working extra hard for a math competition.  Competing over who can look the prettiest isn’t exactly the character-building exercise we dream of as parents.

I don’t want her self-worth wrapped up in her external features. 

Another good point, especially considering that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder—which means that someone else will always be prettier, at least to someone.  Plus, what happens as your little girl becomes a woman?  If her self-esteem has been based on how she looks, she might struggle (even more than we all do) as she ages.

I’d rather she care less about what others think about her.

Granted, this concern might also apply if her passion were chess.  She’d still likely enjoy the accolades she’d receive from her chess teacher for successfully executing the Panov-Botvinnik Attack.  (Yes, I looked that up.)  And you’d still want to work with her about finding meaning from within.  But again, as opposed to most activities, modeling is, by definition, primarily about how you look to other people.

So those are probably some of the main things that bother you about modeling camp.  But what if you’ve thoughtfully addressed these issues with your daughter, and she still pleads with you to let her go?  What do you do?

I can’t answer that for you.  But I will make three suggestions for conditions you might require your daughter to accept before you even consider allowing her to attend modeling camp.  These might serve to counter-balance some of your worries:

Condition #1:  Sleepaway Camp

Before she attends modeling camp, make it a prerequisite that she attend some sort of girls camp that puts her in the outdoors, far from technology and all things having to do with materialism and looks.  Spending time in nature developing authentic friendships, as opposed to having to navigate the social jungle that makes up the normal environment for so many teenagers, can give your daughter the opportunity to look at her life and relationships in a whole new way.  She’ll learn how capable she is at many new things that she might not have imagined, while building confidence, competence, and resilience.

Condition #2:  Service Project

Require that your daughter get involved in, or better yet design herself, a service project that is completely other-focused. Whatever it involves—helping younger children or homeless people, or working on a downtown reclamation project—require her to spend a significant amount of time thinking about “inner-beauty” issues and meaningful ways to invest her time that have nothing to do with make-up or clothes or the length of her hair.

Condition #3:  Empathy-Focused Activities

A related suggestion is to encourage your daughter to “get out of herself” by spending time understanding the problems that others have to deal with. Maybe she joins a group helping teens deal with trauma. Or maybe she volunteers at a homeless shelter. The more she can think about and understand the real difficulties that real people deal with, the less you will have to worry about her dedicating herself to more superficial interests.

 

In the end, I can’t tell you what to do for your daughter. I’ll just encourage you to continue to pay attention to her passions and desires. As you do, remain a loving, constant presence in her life, one that stands by her and also challenges her to grow into the kind of person who lives life with depth and meaning.  If all that is taking place, you won’t have to worry quite as much about what will happen when she spends a few days learning how to move on a runway.

 

To see the original of this piece, go to mom.me.