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Saturday, February 17 Opinion

Out of the Woods: Summer camp a stepping stone to self reliance

I spent my first summer away from home at the tender age of four at a rugged camp for boys in Nova Scotia, Canada. I can recall that it seemed a million miles away from home and the water was freezing, I was without any form of communication home except for pencil and paper or an occasional very expensive telephone call.

My parents raised me to be independent and, looking back, I guess this was "boot camp" for me, then a restless, athletic, extrovert who was always seeking new experiences and a way to spend some of the extra energy packed into my skinny little frame. I still have a black and white photo of me and some campmates freezing beneath our towels on a beach in Nova Scotia.

I did not miss home. I enjoyed the freedom of being on my own and, except for a few basic rules, the activities, as I recall, were pretty much left open to us. We had choices. We were free to experiment. Frankly, it was a relief from living at home, where both parents caringly and, with the best of intentions, monitored my daily activities -- as all good parents do. Summer camp is where I first learned that my choices had consequences.

Of course, I did not conform even to the few rules such as making my bed with "hospital corners," or not talking at night after taps were sounded, or not showing up on time for activities: tennis, horseback riding, archery, hiking, ceramics or afternoon naps. Conformity was just not my thing.

Never was. Still isn't. So I guess I can say that I learned to be self-reliant -- to a fault -- during that first summer away from home.

I think not having any of the electronic tools that kids have today was a tremendous advantage. As my fellow Westport News columnist, Mark Mathias, said in his "Living with Technology" column last Friday: "Going to summer camp means leaving devices at home. Interestingly," he added, "most camps -- especially the traditional camps (e.g. swimming, sports, hiking, etc.) discourage, if not outright ban, the use of technology. I applaud this. Having a break from the screens is a good thing -- and not just for children."

In my view, parents may suffer withdrawal symptoms from not constantly texting their kids, but it's time they let go.

I salute Mark, a friendly and brilliant computer consultant (full disclosure, he has helped me in my book projects) for suggesting that both parents and kids give technology a rest. So far, I am with him.

But I respectfully wonder about my learned friend's alternative solution -- such as parents entering the Internet and with a new device called www.bunkone.com, restricted to parents or guardians of children attending camps, to find out whether their kids are "fitting in."

And with the use of some other devices, to see if they are changing clothes, and if they are happy. I fully understand his constructive suggestions and his comment: "It's a great way to receive more information than just about any letter from our children would provide. And while our children are at camp, we're not on a technology blackout," he writes.

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However, I question the concept of gathering data about them without their knowledge. They should be an integral part of the process.

During the school year, I also question the frenetic back-and-forth texting and emailing by parents and kids virtually every day. It's convenient for parents. But I say give kids a chance to falter and pick themselves up -- better for the experience of learning from a setback. It may be more efficient to be constantly in touch, but I honestly believe it could possibly stunt their psychological growth as young adults.

In our zeal to put aside our own fears, as well as letting them know love them, let's not overprotect them!

I believe it is parents' responsibility to guide, take an interest in, and keep track of our children. But in the end, we must allow them the opportunity to cope with the growing pains through trial and error as they mature. There is no substitute for them leaning for themselves.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com.