A Manifesto for Strength

Steve BaskinTaking a risk can build strength Source: Steve Baskin

In recent years, we have read a great deal about grit and resilience.

We have also seen studies about emotional fragility in our young people. Even beyond the studies, I have personally seen a rise in young people (often first-time campers) who struggle with overcoming adversity and bouncing back from failure.

But we know that life will have its challenges. Our children will experience failures. They will experience loss and potentially even tragedy.

I can think of no greater task as a parent or an educator than to help prepare our children to overcome these future struggles.

But in order to do so, we must face an important realization: Doing so will be hard for us.

As parents, we want to protect our children from dangers and hardships. Our desire to protect them from real threats can also lead us to going too far. In our love, we can find ourselves striving to protect them from discomfort, embarrassment, sadness, or boredom. Their pain or discomfort becomes ours and we often do everything we can to eliminate it.

Avoid food fights. A healthy child instinctively knows how much to eat. If he refuses to finish whatever food is on his plate, just let it go. He won't starve.

But this does not serve them. Our children need to learn how to cope with disappointment, heartache, sadness, and failure. They need to learn how to deal with an awkward social situation and social break-ups. We should not be absent: We should be there to let them know that we have experienced similar challenges and that we are available to help them.

Steve BaskinTriumph after a 45 foot climb Source: Steve Baskin

But we need to let them have these experiences themselves now. Learning to cope with challenge is like developing resistance to diseases. You become better at it through exposure to the challenges. Children are “anti-fragile," which is to say that they become more capable through challenge.

I share this because it deeply influences how camp benefits your child.

We want camp to be full of friendships, laughter, fun, and activities. But we also know it is a powerful place to build internal strength. I use “strength” rather than “resilience” for a reason. “Resilience” simply means that you are no worse after a challenge. If we are indeed anti-fragile, we should emerge from a challenging situation stronger. With that in mind, I hope some of the following happens to every camper:

  • They are homesick and overcome it so that they will know they can thrive outside of their parents’ shadows. This will be critical when they go to college.
  • They have a heated dispute with a friend, are upset, and eventually find a resolution.
  • They try something new and fail. And fail a few more times—and then succeed through perseverance.
  • They try something and fail without an eventual triumph. We will not always win or succeed. Children should know that they can survive those situations, too.

Katie Holmes (mom to daughter Suri): “I’ve never met a 2-year-old who is terrible. I’m so cool with every stage my daughter goes through. I just think she’s amazing. I hope she’s not looking at me thinking, Mom, are the terrible 30s coming on with you?”

I want counselors to be there to support our campers after these challenges, but not to prevent them from ever happening.

One of the odd gifts of camp is that it is fun and joyful enough to allow these growth moments to happen and still feel like a positive experience.

Steve BaskinA boy initiated into his camp tribe. Source: Steve Baskin

I once thought that the challenge—homesickness, cabin squabbles, struggles to learn a new skill—were the price you paid for the joys. As the cliché says, “No pain, no gain," and, "Into every life, some rain must fall.”

But now I know that the pain IS the gain. These challenges and struggles are building capabilities and capacities in your child that will bear fruit later in life. When other 18-year-olds are suffering from homesickness as college freshmen, your child will be there to comfort them. When a friend gets fired from a job or suffers from a break-up, your child will understand the disappointment and provide empathy. And when your child has his or her own troubles, they will know they have overcome issues in the past.

"We spend the first 12 months of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk, and the next 12 years telling them to sit down and shut up."- Phyllis Diller

Here’s to strong children!