Summer Camp and Peer Socialization

My 9 year old spent last week at a nearby nature center for summer camp. It ran from 8-4 with an overnight camp-out Thursday night. It was really the first time he’s spent that much time in that short a period away from his family. He had an absolute blast, got along very well with the other kids and only had one serious discipline problem through the whole week (which is some kind of record for this kid). And at the end of the week, I came to the conclusion that there is no way in heck I’m going to be sending the child off to school anytime soon.

While I’m pleased as punch that he handled himself well with other kids, I am not nearly so pleased with how quickly and (to me) dramatically, he oriented himself to his peers. Each day when he came home, he was wired up to the point of being completely out of hand. He was rowdy, rude, scattered and largely unresponsive to me and my attempts to get him to settle down. The problem is that he had spent all day getting positive feedback from the other kids for his antics. I actually heard a couple of kids telling their parents that Collin is really funny. Which he is. But he’s also quite over-excitable in a variety of ways. He will feed off the energy of those around him and rapidly become physically, imaginatively and emotionally over responsive. Once he gets going, not only is it hard for him to stop, but being in a state of over-excitement can be rather enjoyable so he doesn’t particularly want to stop. The simple fact is that he just doesn’t have the maturity to manage this aspect of his personality very well yet. And, unfortunately, because he receives positive feedback from his peers for this over-excitability, being with his peers all day only exacerbates this problem.

Now, if he were in a classroom with a decent teacher, he probably wouldn’t be quite as free to get himself wound up as he was in a fun summer camp setting. He would have to figure out how to toe the line (which for him would mean pushing just as far as he could while retaining a plausible claim of innocence for himself). However, simply figuring out when and where you can indulge in your favorite immature behavior isn’t the same thing as learning to actually manage yourself maturely. I’m pretty certain that he’d become one more kid who would say, “my family and teachers don’t know the real me. I’m one way around them, but when I’m with my friends, then I can be myself and I’m totally different.”

Real life is hard. In order to navigate it successfully, simply knowing how to act mature isn’t nearly enough. Our kids need to actually be mature in order to make good choices for themselves when they get out into the world. A young adult who’s “real” identity is peer oriented may know how to act maturely in certain settings, but will generally see their free-er, more irresponsible and immature selves as their true selves. Which in the real world usually means you need to get knocked around a lot before you start to actually become mature. Personally, I think we do much better by our kids to do whatever it takes to make sure that they go into the world already mature rather than letting potentially irreversible mistakes, tragedies and crisis teach them.

The other issue that came up with summer camp, which I found a bit disconcerting, was how quickly he developed a strong preference for his peers over his family. This summer camp included a night of camping out at the end of the week. I would hope, given the emphasis we have placed on family and the primacy of family relationships, that after spending a day and a half away from his family, that he would have some interest in reconnecting with them. Instead, he mentioned (twice) in an off-handed sort of way on the way home from his camping trip that he wished he were an only child. He also added that he wished his little sisters weren’t there so I could take him to the store on the way home. (Which is funny because it’s him and not the little girls who I don’t like taking into stores!) When we got home, before he had even said “hi” to his brother, he was begging to call a couple of the kids he had just left 1/2 an hour ago. For the rest of the day when I would suggest that he go to do something with one of his siblings, he would ask again to call one of his new friends or to invite them over. I guess that this makes some sense. You don’t usually have to sacrifice what you want to accommodate a peer’s nap schedule, temper tantrums or age differences. And when you are acting like a spaz, your peers will laugh or join in rather than telling you sharply to knock it off. Really, hanging out with his peers meant shedding the often uncomfortable bonds of self-sacrifice and self-restraint that living in a family imposes on you. However, that self-sacrifice and self-restraint are precisely the things he will need in order to reach his full potential in life. If he sees self-sacrifice and self-restraint not as natural and good parts of a normal, healthy life, but as impediments he can escape in order to seek his own happiness, he will be at a real disadvantage when it comes to achieving his best in life.

What is most amazing to me is that it is now 3 days since he got back from his summer camp. And he is still out of hand. I can’t even imagine what he’d be like if he were in school. I wonder how much problem behavior on the part of kids and immaturity in young adults is driven by the sort of peer socialization Collin experienced last week. We like to think that the structure of a school setting and the demands of teachers and parents are enough to counter-balance this peer socialization. However, from what I’ve seen of kids and young adults, this seems to be one of those things that would be a great idea – if only we could figure out how to get it to work.

Now mind you, I’m not saying at all that kids socializing with their peers is bad or unnecessary. However, having a kid (especially one as overly excitable as mine) spend most of his waking hours with kids who reward and re-enforce their most immature and selfish tendencies doesn’t seem like a particularly good thing to me. And that’s why, although (because?) my kid got along great with the other kids at summer camp, he’s going to have to be a lot more mature before I’d consider sending him off to school.

So what do y’all think? Am I over reacting? Off base? Right on?

6 thoughts on “Summer Camp and Peer Socialization

  1. Oh, honey, he’s like my Anna. The peer interaction is almost like a drug to these kids; they just cannot get enough of it. I know some children who go to school, enjoy it, but are also glad to come home and have some downtime. They express appreciation for their families and for the shelter home provides them from the rough and tumble of a school day. Your son and my Anna are not one of these children, however. Boy, could I relate to what you wrote! I allowed Anna to board this week at flute camp with 23 other kids. I am dreading reentry syndrome next week. It will be awful.

  2. Wow, I’m glad your kids had a good time, but sorry the homecoming has been so difficult.

    I especially liked this paragraph: Real life is hard. In order to navigate it successfully, simply knowing how to act mature isn’t nearly enough. Our kids need to actually be mature in order to make good choices for themselves when they get out into the world. A young adult who’s “real” identity is peer oriented may know how to act maturely in certain settings, but will generally see their free-er, more irresponsible and immature selves as their true selves. Which in the real world usually means you need to get knocked around a lot before you start to actually become mature.

    True, true.

    In a similar vein, I’m always surprised at how many people seem to think that the *earlier* a child encounters a difficulty (boring classes, bullying, teasing, racism, academic challenges, etc.), the better they will learn to deal with it. I think that in most cases, the opposite is true. One is much better able to cope with difficulty (especially difficult people) when one is more mature and more comfortable with one’s identity, strengths and weaknesses.

  3. It is so interesting to me (as a pre-schooling mama) to see articulated ideas that I’ve felt paranoid because I’ve imagined before.

    I appreciate you writing this all out unapologetically. This is the kind of socialization (especially the preferring of peers to siblings) that I dread, and I appreciate how you articulate the values learned in sibling relationships.

    What I really wonder is how you respond to his (new?) desire to be with peers. While I agree with all your points, I honestly can’t frame a simple (child-level) reason to say ‘no.’

    I’m the type of parent (maybe I’ll grow out of this?) who likes to be able to say something more than ‘my gut tells me this is bad, and experience shows the odds are in favor of my gut.’

    What do you say to Collin’s demands?

  4. You are right on. When my kids come home from spending time with other children, I need time to decompress! It is just so draining to see some of the silliness that is passed off as “normal.” The idea that children should learn to control themselves is largely absent in society I think.

  5. Amy Jane, I actually didn’t say much of anything to Collin about it. He had a fantastic time and if I start nagging him about the importance of family and how bad it is that he lets himself feed off of his friend’s re-enforcement of his worst behavior, he’ll just hear criticism and my poo-pooing his fun. For the most part I just let it go. I ignored his comments about being an only child (he’s just saying what he’s thinking and any argument will simply convince him that I don’t understand him, don’t care what he thinks, etc. Very few children can be reasoned out of their own selfishness and petty desires. I think that is something that they learn through living it out.) I just continued to make it clear that he needed to calm down. When he asked to call his friends, I just put him off, “we’ll do that. I have their numbers. But not for a little while.”

    It has taken a while, but now that he’s back in his usual setting, he is re-adjusting to home and willingly playing with his siblings again. Collin is very bright in a lot of ways, but he is not the most insightful when it comes to his own or anyone else’s motivations, so I doubt that it has occurred to him that he’s behaving differently or that his preference for his friends had anything at all to do with not being allowed to call them yet.

    I must admit that I do a fair amount of putting my kids off. First of all because sometimes there are no good child sized answers. I can explain all I want, but they don’t really care what my reasons are. All they are really interested in is getting what they want. So I usually don’t try to use those times when I am turning them down as “teaching moments” unless they express a genuine interest in knowing the reason why. The other problem I have found with trying to provide reasons is that it encourages kids to think that you must justify yourself to them for your decisions. If you must justify yourself to them, then at some point they will decide that you haven’t justified yourself adequately and therefor they are within their rights to reject what you have to say. I would actually recommend taking a look at a post I wrote a while ago about the issue of authority and the problem posed by each of us feeling that we must discover and explain the “why” behind what we do. The post is here:

    I will continue to teach Collin how to manage the excitable aspects of his personality and the importance of family relationships. However, that will happen mainly through action. When the subject comes up I will explain my thinking on the matter further. I may even use this experience as an illustration of what I am talking about. However, at this point I don’t think it would do any good to get into it further with him.

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