This morning I stumbled across an article in the variety section of the Star Tribune titled “Gearing Up for Camp.” In two neat columns of text, the dynamics of the quintessential days of spent swimming and outstretched in the sun were covered from a different angle–a perspective of parenting in an era of cell phones, texting, constant connection, and the general state of being “plugged in.” As the slots for weeks of “freedom” begin to fill at camps across Minnesota, and children between the ages of 7 and 17 dream of the days when snow no longer rests in piles at the ends of their driveways, nervous parents already question camp managers about electronics policies. Apparently, it isn’t rare for anxious parents to find ways to break “no electronics” rules–stowing away multiple “back up” cell phones in duffel bags behind swimming suits and rolled towels. In the coming summer months, they will send care packages and daily letters, most of which will not be returned with any word from the kids who are having too much fun away from home to take the time to sit down and scrawl a few lines on loose leaf paper.
This is a time when “child-sickness” has replaced the traditional camp ailment of “home-sickness.” Parents are terrified of losing touch. They have invested thousands upon thousands of dollars and years of their lives in these little muscle balls of energy, and their every action must be accounted for and deemed worthwhile. As the article points out, summer camp has become a way to eliminate the 7.5 average hours a day American children spend in front of screens–usually alone. Mirroring the observations of Meredith Small, this is an aspect of American child rearing that is familiar–the way that we foster independence by leaving our children alone for extended periods of time, even as infants. However, the addiction to constantly being in contact with our children (albeit electronically) there is a certain push and pull with parenting that comes with the technological generation. We claim to value independence, but we completely fear separation. We make incredible efforts to form strong relationships with our children, knowing that eventually they will have to be broken when they leave us and successfully enter the “real world.”
Sending kids to summer camp is a sort of test run for sending them off to college. Parents have to learn how much contact is too much, and, as is true in college, helicopter parents learn the hard way that over-involvement eventually leads to conflict. It is interesting to look at the microcosm of American (or even merely Minnesotan) parents of summer campers in relation to the Kabre people of Remotely Global. The Kabre work to teach their children the value of relationships when it comes to the creation of identity, while Americans assert independence. Their children understand gift exchange in a very overt sense–expected to literally hand over the food on the way to their mouths at a moment’s notice. Yet, American children, though they are taught independence overtly (when they are sent to summer camp for example) are also taught dependence. Parents keep their children closer these days. They text them at all hours of the day, and expect their kids to stay in touch. I can still remember the nights in my senior year of high school when I didn’t respond to my mother’s anxious text messages reminding me to be home by my appointed curfew. I was punished for my lack of reply. In this sense, we see an exchange relationship. Parents invest time, money, and love in their children, and they expect that their children will stay in constant contact. With skype, texting, calling, an snail mail, this is a lifetime expectation. We have an obligation to our parents–one that cannot be breached, even by the independence-enhancing no electronics rules of summer camp.
The environment of a summer camp encourages American values of both dependence and independence. It offers an opportunity to make friends that will “last a lifetime,” and to separate physically from parents while continuing to demonstrate the value of the parent-child relationship by writing home/making occasional contact. Sure, the stowing of cell phones is extreme and somewhat alarming, but it does demonstrate the exchanges our culture emphasizes. Perhaps we are more like the Kabre than we like to believe.