My guest this week is Audrey Monke, owner and director of Gold Arrow Camp in Lakeshore, California, and one of the nation’s most well-respected experts on the topics of summer camp and friendship skills. With over three decades of experience as camp director, Audrey Monke has devoted her life to helping raise happy, healthy, independent, responsible kids through the power of camping experiences. Audrey shares her wisdom and experience with parents and educators through her podcast, coaching, speaking engagements, workshops, and in her book, Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults.
In this episode, Audrey and I discuss how parents can create transformational camp culture benefits for kids at home during a pandemic. Audrey encourages parents with children of all abilities and challenges to never cross camp off their list of possibilities for their child. With research-based strategies and real-life stories, Audrey shows how beneficial and transformational camp culture can be for children of all ages to learn independence and flourish into responsible young adults. To learn more about Audrey Monke click here.
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Camp Culture At Home
- Make a point to seek support. It is okay to ask for help!
- Call on relatives and friends that can help be mentors for your children
- Have a meeting with your kids
- Be open and honest
- Find simple strategies to grow responsibility, independence, and different character traits at home
- Let them guide you with ideas and provide some of your own as well
- When it comes to practice, parents are always the best model
- Don’t over-complicate the idea of needing to connect with your kids
- Make simple changes and intentional acts
- Change up family dinner to be like a campfire outside
- Check-in with them as a person, not always a parent who is quick to reprimand.
- Make simple changes and intentional acts
Where to learn more about Audrey Monke…
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Audrey’s Story … 00:03:00
Camp Is For Everyone … 00:09:45
Dealing With Distance … 00:16:00
Camp Culture At Home … 00:22:17
Episode Wrap Up … 00:41:15
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, we’re talking about how to create more connection, growth, positivity, and resilience at home with our kids. Specifically, we’re going to talk about how experiences like camp and other opportunities like that outside the home can lead to important growth for our kids, and how we as parents can support that same growth daily in our own homes. This is really important right now, as many children and teens are not able to get out and participate in their usual activities due to the pandemic that’s going on. So as parents, we are in even more of a position to benefit from being equipped with ways that we can improve problem-solving, resiliency, positive attitude — all of those things in our kids.
With us today to talk about this is Audrey Monke, author of the book Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults. She’s the owner and director of Gold Arrow Camp in Lakeshore, California. She’s among the nation’s most well-respected experts on the topics of summer camp and friendship skills. For more than 30 years, Audrey has researched and improved practices at her camp to promote belonging, friendships and character growth. Her parenting website and podcast, Sunshine Parenting have a loyal following of like-minded parents wanting to raise kids who become thriving adults. She’s also the mother of 5 kids, has me beat by 1, ages 16-26 and lives in Clovis, California. Audrey, welcome to the show.
I am so happy to be here, thanks for having me, Nicole.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
This is just an exciting topic for me. We haven’t covered something like this on the show before, but I am such a big believer in camp experiences for kids, neurotypical kids, as well as kids who have challenges. I grew up as a camper myself, going to sleep away camp for years as a kid and then working as a counselor in my teen and young adult years, so I’m a big believer in this for kids, and I’m really excited to have you share your insights and experiences around why this is so beneficial. I’d love to start — because you have a really interesting story I read in your book about how camp came to be such an important part of your life, because you didn’t set out to say “Well, I’m going to own a camp and this is what my life is going to focus on.” So how did this come about for you?
Oh, that’s fun to think about that again. So I always liked being with kids and working with kids, and I always thought I’d be a teacher. So when I was in college, I wanted to get some more experience working with kids, and I decided to try working at a summer camp, and wow. The rest was history. Since my first summer working at my camp in 1986, I have been there every year since. So what happened for me is, I think I was growing up — I know we say now kids are under a lot of pressure and oh my gosh, everyone’s worried about college and all of that. I felt that way as a kid. I actually loved school and academics, and I was a good student and I went to Stanford University, so I got into a school that people think, “Oh wow, that’s great.” But really, I had not had adults who had really helped me really figure out what makes me tick, where I thrive best.
And that first summer working at camp, I had this huge change of heart about community and belonging and the kind of places where I felt at my best. And really camp was one of those places. I liked the simplicity of it, I loved sitting around the campfire with the kids, just chatting with them about life. So I think I said in my book, the thing I liked best was being kind of a life coach for kids before that was a thing, an actual thing that people do professionally. But that is kind of what I love. I love coaching people informally and camp was just the perfect setting for that. The vehicle, that was my first year, I was a water skiing instructor, and it’s funny, it’s still a big part of my life. I love water skiing and teaching kids, I still get to do that. But that experience really taught me a lot about what we all need, which is a place where we belonged, where we’re accepted for who we are, where it doesn’t matter what our grades are or what our accomplishments are, where we can just relax and be ourselves.
And so that has been my mission at my camp, it’s just to make sure that we’re providing this place for kids that is just a life-changing, life-improving opportunity for them where they get to be their best selves and be accepted and just feel the sense of belonging that for many of them, they haven’t felt elsewhere. So that’s been my main thing, I think a lot of people think about camps. If they’re not familiar with traditional camps, they think about it as a place where you go to learn basketball, like a sports camp. Or learn some kind of digital skill. There are all these kinds of specialty camps. Everybody calls themselves a camp, it can be whatever you do. To me and what my camp and many other camps like mine, it’s not even about the activities, even though we do these great activities: We teach kids to sail, water-ski and backpack and all of this stuff, but the kids never say that’s why they come back to camp.
It’s always about the friendships, the happiness, the feeling they get. So that is something that I’ve really tried to kind of bottle, to figure out. Okay, what is it? What are the specific things that we’re doing at camp that are creating that feeling? Because people will say, “Oh I made my best friends at camp!” But, why? How? What is the mechanism behind that? So that’s kind of been my lifelong — the last 30 years has been looking at “What is it that’s happening at camp that’s creating these changes, and what does that mean for me as a parent, for other people? How can we bottle that up and take some of it home?”
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I love that, and especially when you said camp is a place where kids are away from academics. It’s not about what grades you got or what reading level you’re at. I think school can be such a pressure-filled, intense place for so many kids for a lot of reasons, especially when we’re talking about kids who may have learning challenges, some emotional or behavioral challenges. Those things can make school, which is the primary way that you meet peers and connect with people, adults and kids can make that really stressful and really unsuccessful for a lot of kids where I’ve seen them just thrive in the camp setting because it lets them, as you said, be who they are and it lets them shine a light on their strengths, as opposed to always having the light shining on their challenges, and it can just be such a beautiful experience for them.
Yeah, I always tell people, because a lot of times, parents are hesitant to send their kids to camp because they haven’t been successful at school or in other settings, and I always say to people that the kids who do fine at school and everywhere else do fine at camp. But the ones for whom it is life-changing are the kids who struggle in other settings, honestly. Those are the kids who have the biggest breakthroughs at camp, because it’s such a different setting for them to be able to share their best selves. I love how a lot of what we teach our counselors is: If you have a camper who is maybe not integrating as much, finding what it is that they like to do. And if they like to draw, have them draw the other kids’ pictures. If they have really funny jokes, have them share a joke a day. There are all these ways that you can incorporate kids and bring out their strengths. We’re super strength-focused.
In fact, we’re doing an online program this summer because our camp can’t meet in person, which is heartbreaking. It’s my first time not at camp in 35 years, but we’re doing the online group program where there are two counselors and a group of 10 kids, and they’re all the same age and they’re talking about all these really good, important topics. And the high school group, I met with them to talk about strengths and how to think about — you sometimes again, focus on things that other people have that you wish you were like, but instead, when you think about the things that really, you’re kind of natural, you were born with a sense of humor or an ability to really empathize well with other people or listen well. Embrace those, think about those, talk about those. This Thursday, I get to go listen to them, giving their elevator pitch about themselves and what makes them so awesome. So these are the kinds of conversations we have at camp, whereas at home and at school, so much is always about “Oh my gosh, how are you going to get your grade up? What’s the test coming up?” At camp, we’re sitting around saying “What is the thing you like best about yourself?”
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I love it. I love it. Such a shift, and so important. I want to touch — because you said something that I have found a lot in my work with families: A lot of parents of kids who have some challenges at home or in the school setting, and they think “Camp is not for my kid. I could never send my kid away, it will be unsuccessful.” Talk to those parents for a minute about how that can be successful, because I think it really is surprising to some parents that most camps are well-prepared to handle the needs of kids who have some needs, some differences. So talk about what your experiences have been with that.
Well, I think that like everything else, I think parents who are raising kids who are differently wired or have different things going on do need to do good research. I’m not going to say a blanket thing that every camp is going to be a great fit for every kid. It’s kind of like schools, I would say the same thing. You need to find a place where the philosophy and the training resonate and is going to be a good fit for your child. There are camps that are really specifically geared towards kids with a specific need. There are some medical ones and different things. Sometimes those can be really great because they could have staff specifically trained, but also, a lot of mainstream camps do have really well-trained leadership staff, teachers, school counselors on staff, different people who really can help with specific issues. I do think the most important thing is being really honest with the camp and having really good communication with them and saying “Hey, my child has struggled with making friends, what are some things you can do to help them out? What’s the structure of your camp? Is it going to help with that?”
My camp is a little bit unique in that we are very group-focused, which is funny because now, because of the pandemic, all of the day camps that everyone has had to become group-focused, the pod idea — we’ve always been that way, because to us, the most important thing is not how many times a kid goes sailing. It’s how good of friends have they made? So we have our kids go as a group to activities with their own counselor. So they have consistent leadership who is looking at the dynamics between the kids and the group. So I would say that’s especially important if you have a child with any kind of social skills deficits or things like that, that you want to make sure that they have somebody there who is their mentor/guide throughout the thing, they’re not just going to be signing up for archery and going by themselves there and then signing up for this — because that’s a whole different kind of experience. It’s almost like with school, you think about the difference between elementary school and junior high and high school, where in elementary school you’re in one class with one teacher, and hopefully that teacher is helping with everything, like the social dynamics and the academic stuff.
So I think that’s a big part. I think as a parent, I would just recommend you look at both the kinds of activities they do, and if they are things that interest your child, and the structure. Then ask them, “What are you going to do for my kid who has ADHD? What are the accommodations/how do you fit that in?” A lot of things resolve naturally at camp, things that are problems at school. So I think that’s one thing to look at, but there are some things that do not that are still going to be a problem there and I know when parents try to hide things because they don’t want their child to be labeled, that actually can be a big problem because as at camp, we can make sure that we can put experienced counselors who know this kind — a lot of our counselors are 19/20-year-old college students that don’t have extra training, but we have some who are more experienced. So I think as a parent, just communicate with the camp and make sure you feel really good that you trust that they know what they’re doing, that they know your child, that they’re going to take the time to make sure that they’re successful.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I have found, too, that that communication upfront is so important, finding that fit and just being open. Like you said, sometimes parents think, “I don’t want there to be stigma, I don’t want them to be treated differently”, but that communication is really key to setting the child up for success and setting the camp up for success and setting the camp up for success, right? I have had several camps that have not necessarily had experience with a camper with a specific diagnosis or issue before, but with good collaboration and good communication have been more than willing to take that on and partner with that to make that work, but that requires, like you said, that being honest and saying, “Look, here is what the needs are, how can we work together?”
I do think too, and this is something, I think for all parents to know, is that it’s beneficial to all kids to have kids with different things going on. Last summer, we had this wonderful boy. His younger sister had come before. He’s on the spectrum, on the autism spectrum, and his parents were so impressed with their daughter’s experience, they wanted him to come. He was older, like 14. His dad, who happens to be a psychologist came and sat down with the kids in his group ahead of time and explained what was going on with him, how he sometimes does things — it wasn’t like they had to know that much, he was a really nice kid, he never said anything mean or anything like that but he had some unusual behaviors.
Watching these 14-year-old boys be such great mentors to him, I know that it enriched their experience at camp, being in a group with him. So I think that’s another that I would say, for parents of kids who maybe don’t have any diagnosis or specific things: Know that your child will benefit from being with these other kids because they will, first of all, learn about someone who is different, but also be able to access that empathy, which we know is kind of lacking right now in kids, and when they have the opportunity to help someone else have a good experience, that makes them feel so, so good. It brings out their best self.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Absolutely, for sure. I want to get into some specific strategies and things, but I want to have you speak to another issue that I do see with parents, on a fairly regular basis, which is, “I could never let my child be away from me for that long. I don’t know, I would need to be there.” Sort of these — we refer to them as “helicopter parents”, or those kinds of issues of “I need to be there, I need to be aware of what’s going on,” this idea of their child going and having this really — this experience, independent from them as the parent can be much harder on the parents, I find, than on the kids. Do you see that as well, and can you speak to that?
In my 30 years, so many of my conversations with people, especially people who don’t send their kids to camp have been, “Oh, I could never do that. I remember one parent telling me that, oh these years are too precious. I could not have my child away from me for even one moment.” What I would say to that is it is really hard to see your kids spread their wings and fly away from you. I feel the same way when my kids go off and do things. I kind of have this, “Why did I help them become so independent?” It’s so much nicer when everyone’s just home with me. It’ s so much nicer! So I think that as parents, we really need to grapple with a weird thing about our relationship with our kids, in that the goal of it is for them to not need to be with us all the time. We want to have a really close relationship with them, but we want that relationship to evolve, where we go from being — I can’t remember, I have so many different people in my podcast that I talk to, but they talk about going from being their manager when they’re really little, you know, you’re getting them their food, to coaching, to becoming more of like an advisor.
So it’s like this trajectory of how you do that. It’s very hard for our kids to start doing things on their own with us right there. So a lot of times, more growth occurs when our kids are away from us than when they are with us. And I think that’s something that parents just need to understand. It’s just a natural thing. Our kids, when we are next to them, will often not do things that they will do at camp, because they look at us, and if we are a little nervous, or if it’s something that they always said that they wouldn’t ever try, we’re kind of a reminder of that. When you let your kid go somewhere where there are these other people believing in them, cheering them on, they try things they wouldn’t try with you there. I think that is a hard thing that maybe your child will do some things better without you, but it’s just reality. I think we all remember that from our own childhoods, that when you have a mentor or someone you look up to who is encouraging you to do something, it’s different from your parents encouraging you to do that.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, and I think we get locked into certain patterns or assumptions with our kids too. I know that’s happened for me and my kids are teenagers and young adults now, but I can remember when they were young, and even now: We just have our patterns, we make assumptions in our minds, “Oh, they don’t do that or they can’t do that,” when that may be solely our perception of it. And the reason they may not be doing it is because we have a story in our heads of “Oh, they don’t do that/they can’t do that.” I’ve had so many parents have that experience with their kids, whether it’s maybe something that happens with a new adult who comes into the school environment or going to camp or coming to therapy. They’re like, “Wait, he did that?” It’s like, well yeah, he totally can do that, but you get locked into these patterns and these dynamics, and that really, that gets removed when the kid is at camp or somewhere else and they show us what they really can do, right?
I have a whole chapter about that, just about all the things that kids do at camp that parents say they would never do. Even from keeping their stuff organized and being proud of their cabin being clean when they won’t clean their room at home. The other thing, little things, funny things that happen at camp: We’ve had so many kids come home and like salad, which is something that they had refused to eat. Even trying new foods is something that we encourage at camp. We’ll have parents say, “Oh my gosh, a picky eater, but now he’s eating a salad!” It’s because you’re not living in that belief of what your parents are saying about you. I think we can’t help it. We all do that. We have these thoughts about our kids.
The other thing, Nicole is — I don’t know about you, but I got my 16-year-old, my youngest child. He’s always going to be my baby. He’s my baby, even though he’s 6 feet tall. I think that’s just natural, that’s how we’re wired as parents, is to kind of always remember them being so small, and sometimes that remembering makes us hold them back. But when you put your 16-year-old in a setting with other 16-year-olds, with adults who know what 16-year-olds can do, they live up to that standard. So I think that’s the other part of what happens at camp. Your 10-year-old goes to camp and they are in a setting where there are people who are trained to know what 10-year-olds can do, and they’re going to ask them to do it. That is really a magical part of it, because then the kid comes home, and parents will always say, “They just seem so much mature/they look like they’ve grown up/they’re so much more confident!” And it’s because they’ve gotten more competent. They’ve been allowed to do things. So now, you see it on the outside that they’re more grown-up, because they have done more things.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Absolutely, and I’ve had that experience with my own children, particularly my youngest as well. Who the professional who does this for a living in me knew the best thing for her was to go away for a couple of weeks and do this, but then the parent side of me was like “But, but she still isn’t’ managing this”, and I just had to say, “No, this is the right thing for her”, and of course she stepped up and did well and came back and was more mature. But it’s interesting, even when we do this for a living, we still get into that way of thinking with our kids. I think this is a good jumping off point, then, for talking about how as parents we can take some of that and apply that to our lives. We’re talking about one of these benefits of going away is expectations are different, kids are stepping up, there’s an opportunity for them to develop more resilience, to have to do some new things. So what are some tips or some ways that you recommend for parents to incorporate that piece even into our own lives with kids?
Definitely at this point, with the pandemic, especially that we’re all being asked now, the teachers, the camp counselors by the parents — we are it. And I think that’s kind of daunting for people because it is nice to be able to have some things that other people do. One thing I would say is: If you have relatives or friends, when you can think about that, like an aunt or an uncle, or a college student who is local — utilize those people, even if it’s just a part of your little social bubble or online. You can really access some of the people in your life who maybe can pour into your child and be another mentor, because that can sometimes be helpful to give your break from just your voice and your thing.
So that’s one thing, to ask for help. Because I think a lot of times we think that we’re supposed to do everything alone, and that is not how life works, and I’m sure you know this. We need to feel comfortable seeking help if we’re struggling with our relationship with our chill, or they’re not learning certain things, then it’s time to maybe seek some support for them or for us in that area. A lot of what I write about in my book is really very simple activities and strategies to help grow these character traits and things that we want in our child. So something like that responsibility or independence. For me, I always just suggest to parents, if you need to just kind of say okay, we’re in the middle of summer or school is starting or whatever time of year it is, we’re going to have a little meeting, we’re going to talk about what’s going on: Here’s what happening. “I, the parent, am feeling overwhelmed. I have my job and the housework and you guys are home during school. This is all really hard. I’m going to need some more help. So here are all the household things that we have going on. What things are you ready to learn right now? Here are some ideas.”
I think sometimes you need to have a meeting with your kids, and I give a script in my book of things you can say like, “Hey, I’ve been doing too much for you for too long. It’s time for us to shift things around because this isn’t working.” So part of it is just your own mindset shift. You have to first decide that this is something that’s important to you and I think just prioritize. What is it? If you look at the coming 3 months or 6 months, what do you want your kids to learn or how do you want them to grow? If you’re wanting them to learn more grit, what are some things as a whole family that you can do? Could you all come up with one goal or one thing you’re going to work on getting better at or trying? I think if you model for your kids and show them that you’re doing it too, there’s a lot more chance that they’re going to participate. So in family, it’s like if we’re going to do a gratitude practice, we’re all doing it. We’re not just saying “Oh you kids need to be more grateful.” We’re like, “Okay, let’s all share three things that we’re all grateful for.” I hate to say it like this, but I think, Nicole, that it comes down to parents modeling thriving.
I know that I don’t want to burden parents more because I know that everyone is feeling stressed out, but the reality is that our kids will be fine if we’re fine. And fine meaning not perfect. We’re going to have this — not doing great every day, but generally figuring out ways to cope, figuring out ways to connect with our friends, doing these things that show our kids what a thriving adult looks like. Because you can’t raise them if they don’t know what that looks like. I think that, to me, the first chapter of my book and what it really comes down to, if you’re only going to do one thing, it’s just focus on your relationship with them and that connection. Are you, at some points, in every day just having a quick connection with your child, whether they are a teenager or whatever — are you just seeing how they are as a person? I’m not talking about homework, but just what’s going on with them, having a laugh, just connection and relationship, I think if that’s the one thing that we can all get out of this — we have more time together. Make your family dinner a little more fun, more like a campfire at camp. Do some sharing. Make it just be more intentional, I would say. I think when you’re kind of on autopilot and your kids are doing so many things, you almost can neglect that connection. Now we can’t anymore.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Well, and I think that’s been one of the real silver linings out of all of this, and in fact, kids are reporting that — because this has been. When we look at now, because it has been several months, when we look at data that is coming out about what kids and teens are reporting from this, they’re noticing that families have slowed down, that they are more connected to their parents. Teens are reporting, whether they are showing it or talking to their parents or not, they’re reporting that they are feeling more cohesive as a family, more connected. They’re reporting that they have had more conversations about things with their mom or their dad or their family members than they have before. So that is a real silver lining from this because that connection piece and taking even a brief moment each day to check in with them, to connect with them — not about a “Have to”, not about homework or “Did you practice your instrument?” Or “Why didn’t you do this?”, but just a true heart-to-heart connection, that really paves the way for all the rest of this, right?
Well, it’s funny, when you talk about teenagers, I think a lot of parents balk at the idea of trying to have a family sharing with teenagers because of the way the kids respond, but I think they need to know, just like you’ve heard, the same thing that I hear at camp. I have kids tell me, first of all, at camp that they’re so happy not to have their phones for two weeks, that it’s a relief for them. Even in my family, and they’re used to me being the camp director with “Here’s the new discussion topic tonight”, a few of them might roll their eyes. You just keep going, I’m telling you because they like it even when they pretend like they don’t. That’s why I think sometimes parents back off because they expect this reciprocal thing. Like they’re going to come up with this great discussion and everyone’s going to be all excited. That’s not how it works!
You’re going to come up with this discussion, some people will be excited, some people won’t. But you stick with it because over time, they actually will start depending on that moment where they get to share, people get to hear from them. At camp, we have the benefit of it being a fresh start with counselors. But our counselors read aloud to 15-year-olds at night. People think, “What? Oh my gosh!” The kids love it! They talk about it all the time. They love still being read aloud to. So it’s a thing that’s a tradition at camp. So it’s easier for us because we say, “Hey! That’s what we do here!” and the kids are all used to it. You can start those same kinds of things at home. Your kids might do some eye rolls, but I would just say stay with it because they will remember those things, those little connection points, even if they’re kind of funny or humorous, those are the things that they will remember from their childhood, you know?
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Totally, and I say to parents: It’s their job at that age to respond that way. What self-respecting teenager is going to go, “Oh, hey, great idea! Can’t wait to share!”, right? It’s their job to roll their eyes and go, “Ugh, I can’t believe we’re doing this.” And in the modeling of it, even if they don’t participate in it, and I want to extend this line of thinking to those of you who are listening who have kids who maybe are younger than teens but have a pretty resistive — you say the “sky is blue, I say it’s orange”, kind of mentality, don’t expect that the first time or even several times you institute these kinds of routines or connections or things, that they’re going to respond at all, but there is magic in you doing it anyway and modeling it around the dinner table, sitting on the edge of their bed at night, whatever, even if they are not participating. It’s a success for you putting it out there and you doing that and they will join in at some point when you’re not making them feel pressured about it, when you’re like, “Oh yeah, I know like you feel like this is hokey.” They will so keep at it.
Yeah, my family, we do — our typical one is High, Low, Hero. So a high of the day, a low of the day, and a hero. It’s funny because whenever anybody has a friend over, regardless of who they are, it could be a 24-year-old college friend of a friend, we always do it. And they really like it. And then people who are repeat visitors are like, “Oh yes, I’ve been preparing for this!” And it’s very sweet!
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Waiting for the time to share!
Yes! But you have to have the confidence as a parent though, like you said, to just forge ahead. I would say stick with — if you’ve never done anything like this, just pick one thing and stick with it for quite a long time. They’ll get used to it and they will start learning it better and they’ll participate more. But like you said, don’t judge what they say. Oftentimes, what they say they’re grateful for are really superficial things. So you can’t make it a thing that’s another thing you’re getting graded on. You just have to be accepting and like, “Oh my gosh, thanks for sharing!” Whatever it is. But model it. You go first. I always say you go first. If you want your family to be more kind, practice yourself first. Do something kind, show your kids that you’re doing it first and that’s the best way to get them on board too.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Absolutely. I think that us going first is key, whether it’s trying to have our kids eat more vegetables, whether it’s having them engage in a gratitude practice, whether it’s them putting their devices down more often, it’s a “we need to go first” situation. I love that. You mentioned kids come to camp and they put their phones away for two weeks. I want to come back to that because when I was growing up and going to camp, we didn’t have these devices. When I was a camp counselor, these didn’t exist. That’s really the generation of kids right now. So I am really interested because I do a lot of teaching about screen time and all of that, but I’m really interested to hear your perspective on that as the director of a camp, as someone who is working with kids in that environment, what you’ve observed over the years about kids and devices and the benefits that happen for them at a camp environment of getting off the screens.
I think there are a lot of benefits. It’s funny, because when I was doing my research for my masters, I wanted it to be about being unplugged at camp, but you really can’t pull out just that one variable because they’re outdoors, they’re in a group, they’re active — there are so many positive things going on that it’s hard to just pull out one particular thing. I do think we hear from staff who are also unplugged at camp. We are a really strict camp on that. Staff can only use their phones in our staff lounge when they are on time off. So they go many days without their phones too. It’s not in their pocket, it’s not in their backpack, it’s not accessible. They have little lockers even in our staff lounge. We do not have phones at camp. I don’t have a phone. Nobody has a phone. One of the things that I have to say to parents is you can’t do that at home. You can’t be completely unplugged. The reason it works at camp is because we’re all doing it. It’s like your friends that you’re with, everybody. So they’re not feeling like they’re being left out. They don’t worry about what’s happening on Snapchat because they’re living this great in the moment social life.
So one thing is I don’t think it’s realistic to try and think that you’re going to be able to do that same degree of unplugging when you are not in a setting like camp where everyone else is doing it too. I do think, and I’m sure you know this, I think there are just certain things you’ve got to figure out. What are the times that you are all going to do it? And same with parents. It’s like a broken record. We all know, not in the bedrooms, habits, not at the table at meals. Meals are no go. In my family, it’s like in restaurants, you’re never going to see a phone. At home, at dinner, never going to see your phone. I will say, my kids are older now, they’re in college and they live in dorm rooms and now they do have their devices in their room because they have to self-manage. By the time they are at the end of high school, you want your kid to be at that point where they know how to manage themselves. You know motivational interviewing? That style?
So I talk about that in my book when I’m talking about the screen conversation. I think the best route, especially if your kids are older, is to really have a candid conversation with them about your own experiences with screens, what you’re enjoying most about using your screens, what you’re finding is not helpful, and having them start learning about themselves too, so that they can self monitor. It’s hard because adults aren’t very good at monitoring their screen use, and I think we keep talking about this as being a kiddish you, but adults are all on their screens so much, so I think again, people act like it’s a teenage problem. It’s not a teenage problem. It’s all of us. We’re all — it might be addiction, it might just be habit. But we’re all using our devices too much. So for me, I just give myself rules like putting my phone to bed in my office and plugging it in and having it be far away from me. I have some things that I do in the morning before I open my phone.
So I think just coming up with things that work for you, and again, modeling that. I think also now it is really hard because it is the way we talk to our friends now. So I think what you’re doing on the phone, and that can be a conversation with your kids too. What are the things that make you feel good afterwards? And what are the things that are leaving you feeling kind of “Ekh…” afterwards? And if zooming with your friends — that’s great, even my boys, when they do gaming but they’re talking to your friends, I see that as totally different than just gaming by yourself. So I think it’s just kind of all that stuff, but it’s just hard and I don’t want to burden parents with more things, but I think that just having a few things that are just — there are sometimes that you are all unplugged, it’s really important.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, I would agree, and I think that’s one of the benefits. At some point, we’re going to get back to more normal. I have faith in that we will be able to have normal camp experiences and things like that. And I think that is such a helpful container, that camp environment, whether it’s a day camp or an overnight camp of, like you said, being all there together and not feeling that constant pressure of “What am I missing? What is going on? What are people saying about me?” So it’s a safe space to put that away. It’s interesting, there was a study that was not that long ago, looking at how consistent device use for kids can have a negative impact on their ability to pick up on and respond to nonverbal communication. And then they did a study in a camp environment. I think this is the silver lining for parents to realize: If you’re concerned, especially right now in the pandemic, like “Ugh, my kid’s on screens all the time!” It doesn’t have to take a tremendous amount of time to help them bounce back from that.” In this one study, it was one week of putting kids in a camp environment, off of devices, and they measured their nonverbal communication skills again a week later, and they had significantly improved. So it shows that even those periods of time, whether it’s at camp or detoxing at home or whatever, kids can bounce back from that pretty quickly.
So I think it’s finding that balance, but that’s an additional area that I think in today’s world, that camp provides an additional benefit for, especially for parents who feel like they are constantly in a power struggle with their kids over that. I have had many kids, especially older elementary through the teen years, who will come back from a camp experience really having reset their thinking and their relationship with devices and that is a powerful shift, then, in the family environment when kids are motivated to initiate that and make some changes.
I was just wanting to say too about the social skills thing: One of the things, I think a lot of the parents are really worried about their kids losing social skills — again, that’s a thing that parents just need to make sure that at home, the dinner table conversation or your conversation at bedtime, if you’re asking questions, answering questions, having your child give compliments — there are all these different things that you can practice at home that will translate later when they’re able to be with live people or on Zoom, to better social skills. So there’s not going to be a loss if we’re still communicating and practicing at home. Your first relationships are with your parents and your siblings anyway. So that’s another thing that’s just to reassure parents. I think parents are worried about so many things right now, and it’s understandable. But I think focusing on the present and knowing that we don’t know what the future is bringing — focusing on the present and what we can do at home with our kids this summer, today, is a better way to move forward than spending all of our time worrying about what they’re missing or what’s lost. The one thing is that nobody should have FOMO right now, because nobody is doing anything.
There are no sports, all this stuff — in a way, it’s kind of crazy, it’s awful. I mean it’s terrible for me and my family and our business and everything, and like you said — let’s not squander this opportunity for a reset, so that when we re-engage, we don’t lose the things that we’ve done that have been positive, like putting our phones down and having dinner or whatever it may be. I’m really feeling a lot like this is our time to really think through what we really want to put back in while we can.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, and being intentional about it. Such a great reframe, and I’m really glad that you touched on that. I think you and I can probably spend hours talking. I have so many other things, but we are running out of time and I want to make sure that our listeners know where they can find you online, where they can learn more about what you’re doing, where they can get your amazing book that I highly recommend Happy Campers. Tell us about all that. Where can they find you?
Well, the book is available wherever books are sold, so Amazon, book stores, independent bookstores, whatever. My website is sunshine-parenting.com and probably the thing that I am most consistent on is my podcast. I have a weekly podcast and it’s mostly to encourage people. I really try to always come from the positive. I think parents are all doing the very best we can, so I try to just share little ideas and activities and things that can just move the needle, and I get great feedback from people, “Oh, I tried this!”, you know. That’s kind of how I roll. And then I do a lot of writing in the camp world, so about summer camp and friendship skills. So basically on my website, everything kind of leads you to all my other things that I’m doing, but that’s pretty much where I am.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I’ve checked out your website, so many great resources. I highly recommend that all of you listening check that out, and as always, we will have the links to all of those things in the show notes and you can easily click on those to access them. Audrey, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today. What a wonderful conversation! I really appreciate you being here.
Thanks for having me! I feel uplifted after talking to you, so thanks for the social time!
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Awesome! I know, we both needed it for sure. And thank you to all of you for being here with us and for listening, we will catch you back here next week for our next episode of The Better Behavior Show.