A phrase keeps coming up at camp: ‘I get to be my best self here.’ This is certainly a gift for a camp director, division head, counselor, and camp mom to hear. It’s one of the reasons we work ten months for two.
As a parent, though, it’s a bittersweet idea.
Yes, I’m thrilled my boys get to be their best selves at summer camp. To lower the walls, to walk around not caring one little bit about what another may think or say, to be in a completely kid-focused community rather than one concerned about becoming an adult….
I’m happy I can give those few moments to them. However, when they come back home to ‘real world’, the masks await.
Wearing a Mask
The need to become someone else seems to be a pervasive part of growing up. Whether at school, on the team, in the art room, at church or synagogue, around their friends or those with whom they wish to be friendly, the constant drum beat of ‘what if’ pounds.
What if I act like this? What if she doesn’t like what I’m wearing. What if I get the answer wrong in front of everyone?
So, I’ll be the clown. I’ll wear what I saw on instagram even though it doesn’t really fit. I’ll play the quiet one.
Walking around deciding which mask to don is hard. The masks I wear, though fewer than in the past, still hang from me from time to time.
Three C’s to Your Best Self
What does it take to become our best selves? This is a question I’ve asked often of myself and of others. Watching kids and staff at camp has provided more potential answers than anything else I’ve done.
First, it takes courage. You’ve got to take a risk. As Maya Angelou said, courage is the mother of all other virtues. If you don’t practice courage, you can’t practice anything else that’s worthy. You have to courage to either a) start acting like yourself around everyone you normally know or b) have the courage to go someplace completely new.
Secondly, it take community. To truly come into yourself. being a place that accepts and, even better, celebrates your true self. Be it your home, class, school, camp, or gang, you’ve got to find a group that gets, likes, and supports you.
Finally, it takes confidence. Once you know it, own it. (And remember, you can’t be someone else. Everybody else is already taken!)
Something Bigger Than Myself
There has to be a connection, something that you share with your friendship. Jamie Higgins and I shared families who loved each other. Kathleen McIntyre and I shared a best friend, our church, and loving music. Bobby Wickham and I shared a room, too many laughs to remember, and the love of family.
At camp, kids (and staff) share their love for the experience that is created when we are all pulling together in one direction, celebrating the same traditions, and practicing the same values. It doesn’t matter if your camp has Color War, College Days, or neither. You’ve got something that draws everyone together to be a part of something bigger than each individual.
CS Lewis describes hell as a place in which individuals, nursing some perceived slight, remove themselves further and further from everyone else. These denizens of hell become truly alone with their need to be their own person robbing them of interaction, community, and joy. They become giants in their own minds but so small in reality to hardly exist.
In order to live a large life, we must connect to something larger than ourselves.
True friendship, that which can span both time and space, is rare and wonderful. I watched as Kate and her friend Maggie got together in LA last year. They’d not seen each other for years and jumped right back in as if they’d had dinner the night before. Their history is so deep, so intertwined at different spots, that little could drive them apart.
The same goes for our boys when they reconnect with ‘their guys’ on the first day of camp. There is celebration, joy, and then the same wonderful, self-reinforcing routines of play, laughter, talk, and connection. It’s a pattern we’ve seen more and more as they’ve grown up at camp.
In both cases, as in all others I believe, the friends have permission to be their true selves and connect to others who feel similarly about something larger than each of them.
So, how do we construct this for our children? It’s a trick question: we don’t. All we can do is set up an environment that allows them to explore openly ‘who they are’ and support them on their paths forward.
Secondly, like any good gardener, we need to support the ‘good’ by finding friends, mentors, teachers and communities that continue to draw out the best in our children. And, we have to remove that which can hurt our growing plants - poor influences, bad habits, negative communities.
Finally, we must allow them to make mistakes and help them learn from them. We want our young people to leave home, our classroom, our team and our camp able to build great friendships on their own. We do that, we’ve set them on the path of a rich and connected life.