February 22, 2007
Loud and clear reasons for a cell phone-free Summer
One of the hardest rules to enforce at camp is not no gum-chewing, no graffiti or even no late-night sneaking out. It's camper cell phone use.
Everyone is so used to being in constant contact that even our kids can't seem to hang up the phone for the few short weeks of summer camp.
Camp administrators confiscate all the phones we find and, as the session goes on, more appear. The latest trick is bringing two cell phones to camp: one to sheepishly turn in on the first day, and the other to hide under your bed.
Cell phones are an inherent part of our culture -- why fight that at camp?
In addition to being a place for fun, making friends and becoming more connected to Judaism, camp also has the potential to build self-esteem and encourage independence in a safe environment, but that potential is lost when a cell phone is introduced.
Let's look at an example, a conversation I had last summer:
Mom: The girls in Jessica's [not her real name] bunk are picking on her, and the counselors aren't doing anything. If something doesn't change, I'm coming to pick her up.
Me: I'll look into that right away! Today is the second day of camp. Did you already get a letter?
Mom: No ... she called me on her cell phone.
Me: We don't allow cell phones.
Mom: I know. I told her to call me if she had any problems. I told her I would come pick her up.
This is a loving mother who wants her daughter to enjoy camp. Unfortunately, this is also a parent who has made it impossible for her child to succeed at camp.
Becoming a Self Advocate
Jessica had fallen into the habit of how she would have handled this situation had it happened at school -- she told Mom. An opportunity for growth was missed, because Jessica was not forced out of her comfort zone. Learning to advocate for yourself is one way to practice independence.
Richard Mullendore, a former vice president of student affairs at the Universities of Mississippi and Georgia calls the cell phone "the world's longest umbilical chord."
We know that a parent's job is to teach children life skills, so why, according to Mullendore, are parents of college students calling Residence Life directors to mediate arguments between roommates? At camp, kids learn to get along with bunkmates, rather than waiting to learn this lesson with college roommates.
When Mom told Jessica to hide the cell phone in her bag, Mom wordlessly taught her daughter that it is permissible to break the rules. Why should Jessica abide by the rules if her mother does not? Author and psychologist Wendy Mogel teaches that even how you navigate a carpool line can teach your children something: "When you cheat in line, you signal that you don't care about rules or other people."
Citizenship -- being a positively contributing member of a community -- is another value that is powerfully taught at camp. Having a cell phone that your parent encouraged you to hide destroys that lesson.
Mom also taught Jessica to have anxiety about going to camp. Children pick up on their parents' anxiety, even if they do not know what it is about. The cell phone is a symptom, indicating that either the parent or the camper is not viewing camp as a trusted authority.
Once a camp is chosen, both the camper and the parent will reap more benefits from the camp experience if they can commit to the decision wholeheartedly. When a camper calls a parent from a hidden cell phone, the opportunity to address the problem and salvage the child's remaining time at camp is likely lost.
If there is something about the camp that is causing doubt, parents should not hesitate to contact the administration directly.
If Mom made sure that Jessica left the phone at home, she could have shown Jessica that she had confidence in her daughter's ability to survive at camp without her input. If Mom had not offered to pick her up from camp at the first sign of difficulty, she could have shown her daughter that she believed Jessica could work through the problem or endure it.
When do we allow our children to truly rehearse decision-making skills, become problem solvers, practice advocating for themselves and make safe mistakes from which they can learn valuable lessons? If children are trained to call Mom or Dad every time they hit a snag in life, they miss the opportunity to develop crucial skills. Camp is the perfect place to develop these skills within a safe, supervised, enclosed environment.
Every camp has multiple vehicles for keeping in touch, such as letters, one-way e-mail, calls to the parent liaison or the director and online photo galleries. Camp works when a partnership is formed among the camp, the parents and the camper. It is only when all three do their part that the camper can be successful. Camps strive to create a safe and wholesome environment, but they can only do this alongside their parent partners. So please, this summer, leave the cell phones at home.
Jordanna Flores is the director of Camp Alonim at the Brandeis Bardin Institute, www.thebbi.org.