Camp Codependence

A response to last week’s NYT story on summer camps by Judy Warner.

I’m sure we all read, with equal parts disgust and delectation, The Times’ story last week on affluent parents who just can’t let go when their children abandon them for sleep-away camp.
In case you missed it, the article presented fathers and mothers so used to instant service that they call camp directors at all hours of the day and night to sound the alarm if they suspect Junior isn’t using sunscreen. It showcased “high-end” sleep-away camps that employ full-time “parent liaisons” just to handle such phone calls and e-mail traffic, “almost like a hotel concierge listening to a client’s needs,” as a camp consultant put it.

One parent liaison explained that all her careful hand-holding can, when successful, make camp a learning experience for parents, too. The hope, she said, is that by the end, “They’ve learned how to separate a little bit better.”
The most enlightening part of the article for me was the most prominently featured camp’s reported cost: $10,000. Reading the price, I finally understood why, whenever I make mention of the fact that my elder daughter attends sleep-away camp, a few responders always comment upon how wealthy I must be.
For the record: my daughter’s sleep-away camp costs $550 a week.
Which, I now realize, is a good thing for reasons far beyond the family budget.
The $10,000-camp universe appears to be rife with what mental health professionals are now calling “affluenza,” a social pathology that, they say, is rampant at a time when getting and spending — a lot — have become our nation’s most cherished activities, and when purchasing power has become, to an unprecedented extent, almost the sole source of many people’s status and identity.
In our society, you don’t have to be wealthy to suffer from affluenza. Its symptoms — “debt, overwork, waste, and harm to the environment, leading to psychological disorders, alienation, and distress,” in adults; “lack of motivation … apathy, laziness, or failure to commit to and achieve goals … overindulgence and attitudes of entitlement” in children, according to the New York University Child Study Center, are pervasive — and no one is immune.
For affluenza is not just a constellation of symptoms. It is an ethic, a play-the-system, lie-and-cheat-your-way-to-what-you-want, don’t-let-the-peons-stand-in-your-way ethic of amorality. You rock, kid, parents teach. And you — alone — rule.
This ethic drives behavior — like the behavior of the wealthy parents profiled in The Times who, flouting camp bans on cellphone use, sent their kids off with two phones, so that, if one was confiscated, there’d still be a spare for secret calls home. And it also permeates social attitudes and policy.
Yet if affluenza, in greater or lesser form, has infected wide swaths of the population at large, one group — the children of the rich — appears to be particularly susceptible to its ravages.
Many studies have shown positive trends among American teenagers in recent decades regarding problems like teen suicide, pregnancy, substance use and violence. Yet upper middle class kids appear to be floundering, outpacing their peers in rates of cigarette smoking, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, anxiety, rule-breaking, and psychosomatic disorders like headaches and stomach problems, writes Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist in California’s wealthy Marin County, in her 2006 book, “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.”
Sociologist Annette Lareau, who studied the childrearing habits of middle-, upper-middle- and working-class families in depth for her 2003 book, “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life,” has found that working class children, who have fewer scheduled activities, more unstructured time and less fussing-over generally by adults, are more spontaneous and creative in their play than are middle- and upper-middle-class kids, enjoy their leisure activities more, and show greater autonomy and self-reliance.
“Indulged children are often less able to cope with stress,” writes Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon in his book, “Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age,” “because their parents have created an atmosphere where their whims are indulged, where they were always assured … that they’re entitled and that life should be a bed of roses.”
In the case of the rich children at the sorts of fancy camps featured in the paper last weekend, it’s easy to point fingers at signs of incipient pathology. All that parental micromanaging is sure to suppress problem-solving, one could say. Unconstrained parental meddling is bound to kill off kids’ resilience.
“If your child doesn’t get the bunk they want or you’re worried that he didn’t get the right camp counselor, if you convey that kind of response — ‘Oh my God, that’s awful, let me call them, it’s so unfair’ — that’s the worst possible response a parent could have,” Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist who consults with camps, told The Times’ Tina Kelley.
I wonder what that psychologist would make of a camp I heard tell of this summer, which permits campers to regularly make phone calls home and scripts parents on what to say, and which requests that parents ship their children’s belongings weeks in advance, so that staffers can unpack them, make the campers’ beds, and have things sufficiently home-like before the children arrive.
It’s easy to imagine that all this pampering will lead to irreversible mental damage. But, the problem is: I don’t quite buy it. The vast majority of these wealthy and pampered kids, so long as they’re bolstered by hardy genes and have parents whose foibles don’t run to extremes, will ultimately be just fine. They’ll thrive, in fact, in the society of their parents’ making.
(In Lareau’s research, middle- and upper-middle-class kids — however dependent, demanding, lacking in initiative and quick to get bored — were much more successful in school than were the working-class children in part because their privileged upbringings gave them a sense of entitlement that allowed them to navigate adult institutions with ease and aplomb.)
My worry is for the rest of us. For the parents who try to teach our children to play by the rules (obey your counselors; make your bed). And for our children, who are likely to come out the losers in a society dominated by sharks.
I actually have some sympathy for the parents whose strivings and fears have built the culture I find so dangerous and distasteful. I know that their actions, at root, spring from love and that their behaviors — however obnoxious — often arise from ill-considered attempts to save their children from pain.
I feel much greater resentment toward the institutions — like the camps that permit way too much parental presence and schools that encourage way too much parental involvement — which enable the worst parent behaviors, comfort their worst tendencies and cater to their basest fears, all, very often, in the interest of making an extra buck.
The buck has to stop somewhere. It’s clearly not going to be stopped by this generation of befuddled parents. It’s time that the professionals we entrust with our children stopped catering to their “clients” and started treating them like grown-ups.