A month ago I attended a weekend reunion of the summer camp I went to for six years, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the camp. The women there ranged in age from around 80 down to 19. As we spoke of our years at camp, I was struck by a common theme: the development of self-confidence and empowerment that comes from overcoming real challenges and contributing to a vital community. Through summer camp, these women had learned as children and adolescents that they could be successful in ways they never imagined – whether through camping in a rainstorm, swimming the circumference of a Vermont lake, or building a cabin from scratch. They took that confidence with them through their lives at school, at work, in their families, and in their communities.
When I evaluate children with learning, behavioral, or emotional challenges (and when I parent my own children), I wonder how they will gain a sense of empowerment and success that can carry them through hard times. I often find that children who learn differently come to the worst possible conclusions about themselves: that they are not capable, that their peers are smarter or better than they are, or that they will never succeed in life. It is critical for these kids that they be given opportunities to feel competent, so that they can gain self-confidence.
While a summer roughing it at camp is wonderful, not every child can have that experience. But there are many ways parents can give their children opportunities to feel competent and valuable. In the family, kids can help with younger siblings, with household chores, or with pets. In school, they can assist the teacher with classroom tasks or work with younger children. The key to empowerment is to find tasks which are truly useful, not just make-work, and give children the opportunity to succeed at them.
It is also important to prioritize activities in which children excel. Parents easily can become overwhelmed by their children’s needs – for therapies, tutoring, and even down-time. But kids also need to spend time pursuing their interests, passions, or just having fun. Success on the soccer field, in scouts, or in music can give them the crucial confidence that keeps them going when things are hard.
I still remember my first overnight hike at camp. It rained, and rained, and rained. But when we got back to camp we were singing!