Lawnmower Parents and Summer Camp

My father would never let us touch the riding lawnmower. For the longest time, I thought you had to have a license to drive one. Then, one day driving ‘down-home’ to see our grandmother, I saw a boy of 11 or 12 years old cutting perfect lines in his family’s yard… on a riding lawnmower.

When I pushed my father on this point, he said matter of factly, ‘You aren’t ready.’

Well… of course not. You never taught me and never let me try. (And, no, this was not out loud. The only verbal response was a slightly sullen ‘yes sir.’)

 Looking back on it, I’m sure that Dad was the one not ready for me to drive that 14-horsepower behemoth. There was brick everywhere and a pond… I could have hurt the mower.

Lawnmower Parents

Today, the term ‘lawnmower’ is used in a different way. Heard in the summer camp circles, it’s used to describe parents who clear every obstacle out of the way of their child.

Playdates are scheduled to within an inch of their chaotic lives. Teachers are called to manage grades. Team decisions require consultations. wrote a great article about this a few months back. From the article, lawnmower parents ‘go to whatever lengths necessary to prevent their child from having to face adversity, struggle, or failure.’

It’s an important read and a timely reminder.

This idea takes me back to an experience I remember from elementary school. Watching a baby bird start to peck through its shell, I reached out to help.  Before I could get there, the scoutmaster stopped me and said, “No, that bird has to get out itself. Otherwise, he won’t grow.”

I don’t know if that’s true or not but it made sense. It still does today, four decades later. Like that baby bird, our kids have to struggle in order to know how to overcome. They have to be tested and figure out how to develop, in Dr. Carol Dweck’s word, grit.

The Summer Camp Solution

Thankfully, there is a solution – summer camp.

It doesn’t matter if you are talking day camp or overnight camp. By separating well-meaning and over-protective parents from their kids, children have a chance to learn and grow in ways they may not back home.

 I’ve heard parents gush about pictures they’ve seen with their child waterskiing, or getting up on stage, or surrounded by a bunch of strangers smiling and laughing. “They are so reserved at home” or “They would never try this back here” are often accompanying statements. These are ‘aha’ moments for the parents and the kids.

 What the parents don’t see are all the falls and fails. They aren’t there to watch the patient instruction from engaged mentors, the anxious looks from the campers, and the unhappy moments of learning through failure.

Parents have realized that there is a lot of struggle at camp. Some of it is internal – building the courage to make a new friend, try a new activity, be vulnerable. Some of the struggle is external for all to see – muffing a line on stage, dropping the baton in the relay race.

And, without this struggle, the outcomes of independence, courage, empathy, and leadership would never come to pass.

 Here’s the thing about great summer camps: they help kids learn rather than lose. They help them grow in spite of their groans. They instill the ‘try and try again’ approach. When the child makes it through the other side, they build their competence and their confidence. A child begins to think, ‘I can do this’, even though they are initially out of their comfort zone.

As my friend Roz Buck reminds me, this is actually where life begins - at the edge of our comfort zone. That’s true regardless of your age. The sooner we realize struggle and safe risks are necessary for our children, the sooner we’ll start growing resilient, healthy kids.

Campfire Conversation Podcast

Jed and Roz Buck have a lot to say on this subject. I hope you’ll sit around the campfire with me and enjoy this week’s Campfire Conversation, ‘Raising Kids the Summer Camp Way.’ You can listen to it on our website or through iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

PS - Let’s leave the lawnmowers for the grass.