Michael Thompson’s statement stuck with me long after I attended his session on the social lives of millennial children at a recent American Camp Association conference. I would go even further and say that friendship is not just the gold of childhood, but also of life. And, unfortunately, our culture is not currently supporting the development of healthy, solid friendships between kids. Friendship is more important than any academic subject or athletic skill, and yet the way our kids spend their time does not reflect this importance. For many kids, there simply isn’t time in their lives for developing strong, close friendships.
What are our kids learning about friendship in this Instagram, Snapchat era of “friends?” Many boast hundreds, even thousands of “followers” or “friends,” yet some of those same kids don’t have one single person in their life who meets the criteria of a true and trusted friend. Face-to-face social skills, such as being able to read non-verbal cues, are learned through practice. If communication is primarily through media, then those skills are not being honed. And, unfortunately, kids will text or post something hurtful that they would never say face-to-face. Yet the hurt feelings on the other end are real.
Another cultural factor that is counter-productive to the development of solid friendships is the constant, high-stakes competition our children are constantly in with their peers. Who’s ranked higher at school? Who made the “A” team? Who’s more popular? Often, instead of being truly supportive and encouraging to each other, kids want their peers to fail. How sad.
“Friends are those rare people who ask how you are and then wait for an answer.”
Making friends, and being a good friend, doesn’t come naturally to all people. And, coupled with the crazy culture we’re in, it’s no surprise that many kids are struggling to form strong friendships.
“Friends are everything. They are always there if you have a problem or
if you get hurt, they can always help you up.”
-Patricio, Camper, Age 8
Friends are the reason campers and counselors return to camp year after year. At camp, there is time for friendship. Precious, relaxing time to get to know each other, spend time making memories, and communicating face-to-face. Our whole camp community is built around inclusion, respect, and kindness. There is no competition at camp, no “A” team or “popular” group. Just kids having fun together and learning to live and play with each other, work out disagreements, and become better friends to each other.
“A friend is someone you’re not afraid to be yourself with.”
-Hannah, Camper, Age 14
Counselors are trained to help kids connect from the moment they get on the bus until the last good bye. Long talks at meals, around the campfire, and under the stars in sleeping bags are uninterrupted by cell phones and other technological distractions. Campers can’t “tune out” by putting earphones in. They stay engaged with each other and learn to connect. Counselors gently coach campers who need to develop social skills in areas such as listening skills, initiating conversations, and understanding non-verbal cues.
“Friends are awesome, because they stand up for you, and they care for you.”
-Joey, Camper, age 11
At our final campfire one session last summer, the Randy Newman song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” came on during the slide show. A group of four twelve-year-old boys sitting on the bench in front of me spontaneously put their arms around each other and started swaying back and forth, singing along to the song. I will never forget that vivid picture of the power of camp friendships.
Resources: Best Friends, Worst Enemies, by Michael Thompson; Michael Thompson‘s February, 2011, session at the American Camp Association Conference about Community, Friendship, Social Power and Bullying in Childhood and Adolescence; Separation Anxiety, article in Stanford Magazine’s January/February issue.