Self-Determination at Summer Camp
ByHeidi Smith Luedtke, PhD
Parentsspend a lot of time trying to motivate kids. We use chore charts, checklists,reminders and rewards to get them to feed the dog, clean their rooms, andcomplete schoolwork. But these techniques don’t change behavior long-term. Realmotivation must come from within.
The Psychology of Summer Camp
Timeat camp may be all it takes to spark a little self-determination in your kid. Iknow it sounds too good to be true. Your school-age slacker – the one whoexpects you to find his homework and pack his lunch – might start doing somethings for himself. And your often-bored tween might come home with more pep inher step.
Psychologistsuse self-determination theory (SDT) to explain why some experiences make usfeel engaged and excited while others drain and deplete us. The premise issimple: when an activity meets our needs for autonomy, competence, andrelatedness, we are energized and empowered. Kids’ basic needs are no differentfrom adults’.
Kidswant to do things for themselves. They crave a sense of accomplishment androutinely seek feedback. (“Look what I made, Mom!”) And kids thrive onconnections with loved ones and peers. Feelings of belongingness boost theirself-worth. Summer camp offers loads of opportunities to meet all these needs.And that should make kids (and the parents who love them) very happy campersindeed.
Theneed for autonomy is satisfied when kids control their own lives. At camp, yourson will have endless opportunities care for himself. Staff won’t select hisclothes, organize the contents of locker, or remind him to put on deodorant. Noone will delay dessert until he eats his veggies. Independence is what camp isall about. Don’t worry. The world won’t stop if your son wears the same shirtthree days in a row. His peers will speak up if he gets super stinky.
Duringthe school year, many kids jump from one regularly scheduled activity to thenext with no unstructured time in between. Camp puts kids in charge of theirown activities. Maybe your daughter will take a hike. Maybe she’ll paintpottery. Maybe she’ll write you an email. It is up to her to decide how she’llspend her free time. One thing is certain: she won’t sit around whining abouthaving nothing to do. And if she does, you won’t be there to hear it.
Theneed for competence is satisfied when kids learn new things and get positivefeedback about their efforts. Your kid might choose a camp focused on art,science, sports, or music. Or he may opt for a good old-fashioned sleep-awayexperience, complete with row boats and weenie roasts. Some camp activities maybe outside your kid’s comfort zone. Stretching is good.
Yourchild may be unsure she can cross the slippery log over the creek. She maytremble with excitement about her role in the theater production. Peers andcounselors will coax her along and give constructive advice. By the end of camp,she’ll be the star of her own adventure stories.
If yourkid is an experienced camper, encourage him to share what he knows withnewbies. Being an ambassador or mentor affirms kids’ competence in a big way.Teaching a peer how to trim a sail or chip a golf ball out of the tall grasswill take your son’s skills to a higher level. His confidence will soar inresponse.
Yourbiggest concerns about summer camp may center on the social scene. Your childmay not know anyone on arrival. That’s okay. Camps create connections in manyways. Your kid will be instantly bonded with bunkmates because they share ahome base. Family-style dining and friendly competitions encourage interaction,too. The pursuit of shared goals – like building a robot or putting a frog inthe counselor’s sleeping bag – cements kids’ camaraderie.
Extrovertedkids may make lots of friends at camp. Less sociable souls may not. Whatmatters most is that kids have opportunities to talk, play and live with adiverse group of peers. They won’t all become fast friends. Learning tonavigate the choppy waters of friendship formation is a big part of the campexperience. Your kid’s social skillset will expand – even if she doesn’t find anew BFF.
Nomatter what your kid takes to camp, he’ll come home with a suitcase full ofmemories and a renewed sense of self-determination. You’ll see it as soon as hewakes from his long post-camp nap.