As a pediatrician and specialist in adolescent behavior and emotional development, I want to encourage parents to send their kids to Jewish summer camps. I can’t rave enough about the invaluable meaning, depth of connection, and enduring worth that immersion in a Jewish summer camp experience offers.
Not only is camp a great place to form lifelong friendships, I believe that it is an inoculation against teenage angst and deleterious risk taking and a remedy for teen disillusion. Twenty-first century teens need a place where they can learn to tolerate inactivity and distress safely, and to experience social life as real human interactions, not screen facsimiles. Camp is that place.
My office is in the San Fernando Valley. Beyond earthquake fault lines, there is much more trouble rumbling through my community. In the past few months there have been three teen suicides, one heroin death, three alcohol poisoning deaths, and many lucky survivors of extreme party nights. Why? Some were related to grades and perfectionism, others to intolerance of breakups and emotional despair, and some were just experimentation gone wrong. Many of the victims were Jewish. While parents who read about Wendy Mogel’s blessings of wounded knees and bad grades and Amy Chua’s battle hymn of tiger moms who are worried about how their kids will get into the right colleges, too many teenagers are looking to check out in some way.
According to Monitoring the Future, a yearly survey of teens across the country, 6.6 percent of high school seniors – that’s 1 in 15 – use marijuana daily. How can we prevent that? Jewish summer camp. According to adolescent specialist Ken Ginsberg, M.D., social growth and connections provide the attributes that will help kids develop the resilience they need as they become teenagers. Those resilience attributes are competence through experience, confidence rooted in competence, fostering close connections, building character, feeling a significant contribution to a community, and learning both coping and control. If we can help kids find social success and forestall the more distressing benchmarks of teen risk taking, they will gain more experience at establishing their personalities in the larger world.
Kids do risky things for many reasons. One is that somehow it makes them feel good despite all the harm it creates. Kids can quote you line and verse about the negative consequences of substance abuse. But they still use alcohol and drugs and cut themselves. They are depressed, and they commit suicide. We need to create places and opportunities where kids can benefit from positive experiences.
If we empower young people and still allow them to take risks, they will grow strong in their concept of themselves. The risk taking built into summer camp includes leaving the safety and comfort of home and interacting socially with more kids. Summer camp experiences are designed to create resilient adolescents. Camp helps develop self-confidence and social competence by growing interpersonal and core mindfulness skills, as well as some mastery in regulating emotion and tolerating distress.
I won’t say that it’s something only Jewish summer camp does. The Jewish community offers it in kehilla and community affiliations, USY and Kadima, and schools that instill values of tzedakah and community service. Parents should be invested in connecting their kids to these communities. Kids are taught morality and the difference between right and wrong in environments that are centered in Jewish values. Camp does this through educational programs, music, sports, drama, daily routines, arts, and food. Parents also should model these behaviors.
At camp, everyone is understood to be created betzelem elohim, in God’s image. Still, the same painful parts of puberty are packed into campers’ duffle bags – girl stuff, boy struggles, fitting in, and body image struggles. At camp, though, campers learn to meet distress and to cope.
Yay Jewish summer camp! That is why I am a camp doctor and my kids have been raised in camps and have become great mensches. That is why I train the counselors in adolescent behavior and how to include different kids, recognizing behavior as issues of self-expression. I love and support the Jewish camping movement.