WASHINGTON -- In the venerable tradition of summer, my wife and I sent our two children -- a tween and a young teen -- off to camp last week. Both boys had butterflies, evidenced by their distracted silence in the car to the airport and the pained, nervous wave from beyond security. But this year there were no tears.
At camp, they gain many pointless, essential experiences -- of unfiltered starlight, and outdoor showers, and musty cabins, and spiders in odd corners, and the morning mist off a lake, and belligerent mosquitoes (my youngest claims to have once counted 40 bites), and sweltering evenings when sleep comes hard, and the glorious, eye-watering pleasure of watching a campfire rise and burn.
But the ultimate goal of camp is the cultivation of independence -- for a child to be away from home and face problems without the assistance of parents. Children stand on the edge of a cliff, willing themselves to jump into the water below. Or manage a canoe during a thunderstorm on an overnight trip. Or ride an impossibly high zip line into the lake. In the process, they pass from taking external direction to accepting internal challenges: I will do this, because I choose to do it -- because I want to test myself.
In a way, it is like teaching a child to float: Lie back, and somehow the water will hold you, even if I don't. Lie back, and somehow the world will hold you.
Many parents don't quite get this theory. Last summer in The New York Times, Tina Kelley reported how camp officials and counselors are besieged by nervous, high-maintenance parents, calling about bunk placement, private lessons and special cereals and vitamins for their children. It is not uncommon, according to the article, for parents to smuggle cell phones to their son or daughter against the rules of a camp. Clearly, some parents don't know how to let go.
Much of this has to do with the modern mania for minimizing risk. A Girl Scout leader in California recalls how, as a child, she broke her arm on two separate occasions. Now, because parents become outraged and litigious at the crunch of bones, the Girl Scout camps where she works forbid even the climbing of trees.