Healthy Doses of Challenge: How Summer Camp Develops Essential Lifelong Antibodies

Shawn Marler October 24, 2013

I must share with you that I have been exposed to a number of illnesses and diseases in my lifetime. Chickenpox, Diphtheria, Hepatitis, the Flu, Measles, and Mumps, to name some of the big ones. Then there’s Tetanus, over and over again. These have all been in my body. And they have very likely been in yours, too!

After all, that’s exactly what you receive in a vaccination. Your body is introduced to a very small dose of the disease-causing antigen. This is good because it is small enough for your immune system to develop antibodies to overcome that small dose and continue to develop more antibodies for the day that you might encounter a larger amount of antigens. This process builds your immune system.

If you are like me, receiving shots – no matter how good they are for you – is nowhere on my list of things that I enjoy. They do hurt, after all!

And yet, many parents find it worthwhile to vaccinate their children. They even take their babies back to the doctor for a variety of immunizations until the child is 6 years old. The infant or preschooler cries out as the shot is delivered, but the parent allows it. Many believe the vaccination is good for the child. Even more, they are convinced it is necessary.

Summer camp is also a type of vaccination, according to American Camp Association Board member Steve Baskin. Mr. Baskin explains that campers receive one developmental shot after another when they are at camp. This is good and necessary. Homesickness is the perfect example. When a camper wrestles with homesickness in the camp setting, our staff view this as an opportunity rather than some devastating condition. They move right toward the camper, not to eliminate the homesickness, but to help him learn to cope with the very real things that he is feeling. The camper is developing antibodies, so to speak.

When the young man goes off to his freshman year of college and anxiety hits the first night away, he will remember that he has been through something like this before and pushed through. He has the skills to cope and can draw upon them in that moment. The challenges and discomfort he experienced during his relatively brief separation from his parents at camp has prepared him to deal with the increasingly longer separation required by his movement into adulthood.

The camper experiences small doses of fear and challenge throughout his session at camp. The first night away from home, the first camp out, first ride down the zip line, and first attempt to roll his kayak are all challenges that may not be easy to face initially. But he learns a profound lesson as the boy is helped along by fellow campers and staff, namely, that he is capable of moving beyond disappointment and perceived failure and into new growth. When he encounters challenges later, whether that same session or the next summer, he is more ready than he had been the first time around. He is inching toward mastery.

Along the way, he will experience some failures. He might turn around at the last minute and choose not to go down the zip line. He might spend his whole session wet-exiting his kayak rather than perfecting the roll. This can be a heavy weight upon him. But summer camp is the perfect place to experience failure. Here, campers learn that they are not defined by failure. They come to realize that there’s another day to try to accomplish their challenge. They discover that they are still valued. This kind of development may not be easy to see on the surface, and the camper may not even be aware that it is happening, but he is building coping skills that will serve him well when failure comes later in life – in college, at his workplace, in the community, or even at home.

We do not rescue a camper in any of these situations by removing him from them. Rather, we walk alongside him, much like the mother or father who is there in the doctor’s room holding the child’s hand as the doctor administers the shot. We are not surprised by the camper’s reaction. He may protest verbally, quietly turn inward, or freeze up. We are not unfeeling in this moment. We can empathize because we have been there ourselves – perhaps in different circumstances – but we know what it is to come out on the other side and find that things are okay and that we are stronger.

In her book, The Price of Privilege (2008), psychologist Madeline Levine affirms that “by allowing them to get occasionally bruised in childhood we are helping to make certain that they don’t get broken in adolescence. And by allowing them their failures in adolescence, we are helping to lay the groundwork for success in adulthood.” We do not insulate our children from disease by locking them in a room. We give them a painful shot. In the same way, we must allow children to experience scrapes, bruises, challenge, fear, and anxiety now so that they can thrive later in life.

What better place for children to receive that developmental shot than at camp! Here they are presented with age-appropriate challenges in a supportive community where they are valued. Success and failure are not the words that define campers in this place. Those labels are too narrow. Rather, our task is to remind our campers that they are beloved children of God. Each camper is growing, and we are grateful to partner with our camp families in that process.

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