After five summers as a camper at “Sleepaway Camp,” at the tender age of 14, I became the junior counselor of my own bunk. They told me it would be a rewarding experience, but I hated virtually every minute of it. The senior counselor was a lazy bum who slept most of the day, and I inadvertently found myself as the proud father of 10 8-year-olds.
The kids were undisciplined brats, and I spent hours a day cleaning up after them. One of them wet his bed every night, and that was my mess, too. But the misery of that and several subsequent summers in which I served as a counselor to young monsters taught me life’s most valuable lesson about parenting: namely, that the primarily role of the parent is to serve as a camp counselor to his or her children.
It is no secret that today’s kids are more unruly than ever before. In the United States, it is common for kids in their early teens to already have sex, experiment with drugs, rebel against their parents and prefer their friends’ company to their family’s. Many parents have ceased trying to discipline their kids and just capitulate in the face of their children’s insatiable appetite for TV, movies and material things.
How has this happened? I believe that the principal reason for the corruption of our children’s innocence is that parents, in an age of incessant business and frenzy, have not found a way to channel their children’s energies into useful and productive ends.
As a camp counselor, I kept my bunk out of trouble by keeping them occupied. I had to come up with wholesome activities so that the kids were never listless. The Talmud says that idleness breeds sinfulness; that when you have nothing to do, you do what you ought not to do. I quickly discovered that it was only when my campers were bored that they were itching to raid the bunk next door in the middle of the night. But if I told them great nighttime stories – and most of the time I scared the living daylights out of them as a form of sadistic payback – they lost all desire to fill the other campers’ hair with toothpaste.
During the day, I gave my campers sports and swimming, and at lunch and dinner they didn’t just eat, they competed against each other in trivia and history quizzes. Throughout, my goal was to provide a healthy and engaging outlet that could channel the children’s limitless energy.
Today, I bring the same approach to parenting. There are several models for the role of father or mother. Some argue for the parent-as-nurturer, responsible for giving love and confidence; others view a parent primarily as a disciplinarian, responsible for instilling values and restraint.
I now understand that all these roles are subsumed under the rubric of the parent-as-camp-counselor, responsible for curbing a child’s excesses through a respect for authority but offering incessant and engaging activity so as to channel the child toward productive and purposeful goals. I believe in being a tough disciplinarian, but I recognize that imposing restrictions without offering fun alternatives to errant behavior is unjust, as well as self-defeating, and is the key reason for child rebellion.
For example, while I believe that friendships are important for children, I am adamant that too great an emphasis on friends is ultimately detrimental to a child’s connection with siblings and parents. I have witnessed far too many examples of children’s frenzied attachment to friends leading to a decentralized and dysfunctional family.
Likewise, friendships open children to values and behavior that may be inimical to a parent’s standards. But I recognize that I cannot curb my children’s dependency on friendship without offering them a better alternative myself. I can only restrict them from hanging out with friends if I think that hanging out with me is going to be more exciting.
A friend of mine from Colorado told me recently about how his son had been picked up by the police at a friend’s mountain cabin for smoking pot. It was actually the friend’s mother who had reported them both (another trend I am witnessing in the United States where parents have to rely on the police to discipline their children). When we discussed what had gone wrong, how his son had gotten hooked on pot, it was clear that the primary influence on his son’s life was his friend rather than his father.
If only this boy’s father had seen his role as being a camp counselor rather than a piggy bank.
Being largely illiterate in the cultural arts, I have not bequeathed to my children a legacy of music or dance. Less so have I imparted to my children an appreciation for classical opera or ballet. Rather, in the realm of activity I have sought to hand down to them is an appreciation for three virtues which, if absorbed, would ensure that they are never bored.
The first is a love for reading. The second a love for history. And the third, amply suited for a column about summer, is a love for nature and the great outdoors.
I have taught my children that anything man can make, God can make more beautifully. Neither Rome with the marvels of the pantheon nor Athens with the grandeur of the Parthenon can equal the sheer awe-inspiring beauty of Niagara Falls or the Grand Tetons.
We are a camping family, who try to go on most summer weekends to campgrounds with an RV and tents. We take pride in being a Jewish redneck family, more comfortable in a trailer camp than in Manhattan with its ritzy apartments. Indeed, in order to have a synagogue service with the proper quorum of 10, I have even launched an experimental club – Wandering Jews – consisting of families who like to spend their Shabbats closer to God in nature than obstructed by concrete walls. And on Sundays I try to take my kids, every week, either hiking, swimming or bike riding, and in the winters skiing at a local New Jersey hill.
Once upon a time, children were filled with energy. Today they seem almost lifeless. Go to any home and look closely at the teenage kids when their parents introduce you. You’ll see that what they most want to do is be left alone to head back to their rooms so that they can watch TV, get online or listen to music.
Our children are divorced from nature, the source of life, and the artifice is snuffing all the life out of them. Almost everything about growing up these days, from video games to IPods to hanging out at the malls, is artificial and unnatural. Kids today have lost an appreciation for the serenity of a clear blue lake and the power of a flowing, whitewater river. They would rather go to a film than a mountain range, and would rather be in a mosh pit at a concert than a boat in an august sea.
The American idea of the great outdoors has been reduced to a manicured lawn and a gas-fired barbecue. It was the great French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who argued so convincingly that man is corrupted when he is separated from nature. Cement and concrete make us hard. But tall grass and flowing water dissolve pretense and manifest our authenticity.
Life may not be a summer camp. But that doesn’t mean that we need live it far from God’s good earth.