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?

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