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San Diego Summer Campers Take A Giant Step Toward Independence

July 31, 2012 12:59 p.m.


Michael Thompson, Phd., author of "Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Home Can Help A Child Grow."

Tom Madeyski, executive director of YMCA overnight camps in San Diego.

Related Story: San Diego Summer Campers Take A Giant Step Toward Independence


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Parents often think that kids need their help to learn and discover new things about the world. But there are children in San Diego this summer who are learning and discovering without their parents. Those kids are in overnight camp, the old fashioned summer camp. It's a concept that makes many parents nervous but my guests say the experience of independent accomplishment at camp can make a big difference in a child's development. My guests, doctor Michael Thompson is a psychologist and author of homesick and happy. How time away from parents can help a child grow. Welcome to Midday Edition.

THOMPSON: I'm delighted to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: And Tom Madeyski director of overnight camps in San Diego. Welcome to the show.

MADEYSKI: Thanks, Maureen. Let's go to summer camp!

CAVANAUGH: You have a standard question you ask people about their best memories from child hood. Tell us what that is.

THOMPSON: I started ten years ago, just asking people what's the sweetest moment of your childhood? How many of you were your parents present? And about 20% of the hands go up. And the 20%, you know, it's Christmas, it's a saider, it's an important family time. Just what as parents we -- the memories we hope we're creating for their children. 80% of people say the sweetest moment is when they're far away from their parent, with their friend, doing something challenging and a little risky, and they they felt they owned the experience entirely.

CAVANAUGH: What is so important about being aware from parents?

THOMPSON: The crucial issue for me is psychological ownership. When your mom or dad is standing at the sidelines of a game watching you play soccer, you don't completely own the experience. Kids say the thing they hate most about sports is the ride home with their parents. Where dad debriefs the game, you know?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, indeed!

THOMPSON: Terrible. I've been one of those dads. Terrible! My daughter hated it. When your parents are present, you're always having to see your life through their eyes, see your friend through their eyes, but when you're away, when you're at summer camp, the friend you make is your own. Your mom doesn't even know her, right?

CAVANAUGH: Right. You have your own identity.

THOMPSON: She's yours. Now, you went to camp, right?


THOMPSON: You know what I'm talking about!

CAVANAUGH: I do know what you're talking about.


CAVANAUGH: Tom, the YMCA runs three different overnight camps in San Diego. How long are the campers actually away from home?

MADEYSKI: Typically one week. Most of our sessions start on Sundays, end on Fridays. We have some two-week programs for older teenagers, but we see a number of campers that will stay multiple weeks.

CAVANAUGH: How many kids attend these camps?

MADEYSKI: At camp Marston in Julian, there's about 200-240 campers every week. We have a horse riding camp, 80 campers every week. And in imperial beach, about 200 campers there overnight.

CAVANAUGH: And what ages are we talking about?

MADEYSKI: Starting at age 7 at Marston, age 8 at camp surf, and 9 years old all the way through 15, 16, and even 17 years old.

CAVANAUGH: I wanted to invite our audience if anyone has any stories about camp. I think that we have a collective idea about summer camp, swimming, learning, crafts, cookouts. Are these the kinds of camps the YMCA runs?

MADEYSKI: Oh, certainly. Traditional camps. And all those great activities that are hands-on, active, learning new skills. That's what we do, and we've been doing that for 90 years here in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: What do you think about camps that specialize in certain skills and future careers? Like computer camp and things of that nature?

THOMPSON: I had a camp director read my book, and he said to me you never even mentioned program! As if I were going to write a book comparing the different kinds of programs. I'm interested in camp as a psychological experience. Do you become part of a community? Does it affect your character? And I find a lot of these one-week skill camps are trying -- are more like short-term tutoring. And they're not really pulling kids into a community. They're doing something the kids like, and I don't want to disparage them in any way, but I have a preference for a camp that brings you into a community where you learn to live in a cabin, where you learn the rules of the community. I wrote about two YMCA camps in western Massachusetts in my book. And I had 80% of those counselors say that in many, many ways, their feelings about the camp community were the most powerful, sacred feelings they had in their lives, even more than their church or their Temple or whatever religious community they went to. It was that camp community which affected their character.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Michael, one of the reasons you wrote your book is because of a resistance that you found if some parents about allowing kids to go away to camp, to leave home for a week, two weeks, and live in camp. Why do you think there is that resistance?

THOMPSON: I saw it in schools. I saw people didn't want to let their fifth graders go away on the overnight camp trip. I had a teacher say to me just last week that her students say that that's the most important week in the year for them. That's the most memorable week in the school year, when they go away, and they have it on their own. But this generation of parents is the most loving, conscientious and anxious that we've ever had. And they think their presence always adds value. And the truth is it doesn't.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Tom, the YMCA camps in San Diego have developed a way around worrieded parents by the pictures you post online.

MADEYSKI: Every day, all three of the camps a photographer will run around and take 400 pohotos sometimes, post them online that only parents can see. So a parent can see, there's my child! And they're smiling and having fun! And I can't tell you how many times I've had parents say you'll never know how reassuring that was to me to see that picture of my son or daughter.

CAVANAUGH: What about affordability? How affordable are the camps for kids?

MADEYSKI: Well, in the YMCA, we're committed to serving all children and won't turn anyone away due to a lack of ability to pay. So the camp fee for a week of overnight camp is $560. But we have lots of financial aid available. And we'll work with families.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about the title of your book, Michael, homesick but happy.

THOMPSON: And happy!


CAVANAUGH: And happy. Homesickness can really hurt though. Can homesickness damage a child at camp?

THOMPSON: Homesickness means you have a home you love and parents you miss. And when you -- you have to say to kids, almost everybody feels homesick. About 97% of kids experience some homesickness at camp. The vamajority of them, get over it in two or three days. And they're very proud of themselves. About 19% of kids have significant distress, and they really have a battle. And it's sometimes painful. And when they beat it, they are very, very proud of themselves. I had a woman who said to me, my first year at camp was terrible! I was so homesick. I said what happened? She said I went back a second year. I knew I had to beat it. We often don't give kids credit for wanting to surmount their psychological pain, but they do, and they want the victory that comes with that. Now, there's a tiny minority of kids who may be very anxiety kids, kids who have preexisting depressive problems, and they get completely overwhelmed at camp. And sometimes you have to shorten the session and send them home. And then you tell them it was a victory, we hope to see you next year, you'll be stronger. But there are some kids where the novelty of camp and being away from home makes their anxiety spike so high that they really are overwhelmed. But that's a tiny fraction. You don't send many kids home in a summer, do you?

MADEYSKI: No, very, very few. And I couldn't agree more, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Why do children sometimes have to go home though, Tom?

MADEYSKI: Well, actually in talking to some of my program directors, if a child is showing symptoms of pretty severe homesickness, our partnership with parents is really important, and we'll call them and work with them, let's them know what's going on. I think we've sent seven children home this summer, that's what Michael is talking about. Four of those were parent decisions that said this is not working, and I'd like to shorten the stay.

THOMPSON: But it's very often parental child sickness rather than the child's homesickness.

MADEYSKI: Exactly.

THOMPSON: Really the parents -- sometimes the parents just can't manage it.

CAVANAUGH: Barbara from Vista gave us a call. She couldn't stay. One week of camp cured her separation anxiety. She's a 76-year-old woman now but she still remembers that one week of camp. Michael, how should parents choose a summer camp?

THOMPSON: I believe you choose a summer camp because you're -- one of your children's friends loved the camp you went to, and the parents whom you know and trust liked it. I don't believe in this choosing camps because they're, you know, Lutheran tennis camp with a drama component and a -- and paintball, do you know what I mean?


THOMPSON: I think you have to trust the camp director, and I think you have to know another child who had a wonderful experience there. My daughter went to her first camp, a YMCA camp, because the girl down the street who was three years older loved it! And she wanted to go where our neighbor, Tanya, had gone. And that was a guarantee of possible success.

CAVANAUGH: Michael told us the premise for his book, being that children can own their experience at camp. Tom, my last question is to you. Have you seen campers use the experience away from home at maybe sort of a fresh start to establish their identities?

MADEYSKI: That's what is so wonderful about summer camp. Here they are coming to this whole new place. And in a way, they're establishing their own identity. They're starting anew. All kids are equal at camp. Then you're mixing in this high ratio of camp counselors who are young adults. And what I hear over and over again is, there's no place where I feel quite like this. Accepted for who I am, emotionally safe. There's a lot of pressure in schools, but at camp, they can be kids and really succeed and have a wonderful experience.

CAVANAUGH: In a way they can't anywhere else.


CAVANAUGH: I have to end it there.