Helicopter Parents and Jewish Summer Camp

Jewish Summer Camp Battles Helicopter Parents
Rabbi Jason Miller

Some 10% of camp-aged Jewish children attended nonprofit Jewish camp in 2011 and a recent study by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen that was commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) shows that these campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults. Those findings have encouraged Jewish camp leaders and donors to try to increase the number of Jewish youth attending summer camp in the coming years.

Since its launch 13 years ago, FJC has raised approximately $90 million for the benefit of Jewish camping, which has become the hot trend in Jewish philanthropy. With its success as a recipient of mega-grants and endowments from major philanthropic foundations, coupled with the fundraising achievements of individual Jewish camps, more Jewish camps have been seeded in recent years to keep up with the demand. At its recent Leaders Assembly conference in New Brunswick, NJ, FJC presented two speakers who addressed what might be another benefit of the summer camp experience for Jewish children aside from instilling Jewish pride and providing experiential Jewish education.

Lenore Skenazy wasted no time when she took the stage at the opening of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent. Skenazy told the audience of 400 Jewish camping professionals and FJC donors why she is known as “America’s Worst Mom.” Her 2008 New York Times column described how she let her then 9-year-old son ride the subway home alone just to see if he could do it. Since that time, Skenazy has endured sharp criticism for her parenting philosophy, but has also fired back by waging war against the overzealous and anxiety-ridden helicopter parents who hover over their children.

Skenazy coined the phrase “free range kids” and encourages over-protective parents not to hover, but rather to give their children more freedom and the ability to make mistakes. Every camp director listening to her presentation immediately connected the dots. They recognized that summer camp is the ultimate weapon in the war on helicopter parents.

In an era in which parents drive their children down the street to the bus stop and then have them wait in the car for the bus, Skenazy explains, it’s a relief that so many parents are willing to ship them off to camp each summer. Indeed, there is a certain irony that the same parents who insist on protective padding before every bike ride and don’t allow their children to play a pickup game of baseball in the neighborhood still send their little ones off to sleep-away camp and on wilderness camping trips to be in the care of seventeen-year-olds, albeit responsible ones.

“Sending your kids to camp is a fantastic way to give kids back their freedom. Homesickness is a good thing. It shows they appreciate their home. So, thank God for camp,” Skenazy exclaimed.

Another speaker at the conference, Nancy Lublin, put forth a similar message. The 40-year-old founder of not-for-profits Dress for Success and DoSomething.org opened her presentation by expressing her appreciation for being a product of summer camp. She reminisced about s’mores, bug juice and horseback riding and even recalled her first kiss to a boy named Eric Weiss with whom, despite several Facebook search attempts, she has been unsuccessful at reconnecting.

Lublin enumerated the eleven (she’s a self-described “Spinal Tap” fan) ways in which today’s generation of kids are different. Despite their overdependence on technology, demand for choice in every aspect of their lives, and stressed-out temperaments, today’s kids, Lublin explained, still benefit from Jewish summer camp in the same way previous generations did. Like Skenazy, Lublin sees today’s kids as being coddled by their parents.

“Today’s young people are ‘little princes’ and are used to every kid getting a prize or an award,” Lublin said. “Their helicopter parents don’t give them enough space to grow and learn from mistakes.” She suggests that summer camp is the perfect place for learning independence (making their bed each morning), appreciating tradition and feeling Jewish pride.

Lublin is convinced that summer camp breaks the helicopter parenting. “Kids go to camp and gain independence. That’s why we need camp! It’s about the fun, tradition and independence. Go get dirty, get lice, sprain something!” Lublin yells. “Parents will see that they don’t come home with their nose pierced, purple hair or worshipping the devil. It’s okay.”

Michael Salamon,  a psychologist in New York, thinks Jewish parents who send their children to summer camp will still be overprotective while their children is away, but they’ll be doing it vicariously. “I met with parents in a recent session who were so overprotective of their child, that it was hindering the child’s ability to perform well in school,” Salamon explained. “They told me that they felt it was important to send their child to camp this summer to encourage independence, but really what I noticed is that they were looking for a vacation for themselves. They work so hard at parenting that they need a break.” Salamon freely admits that the stereotypical Jewish parent is more overprotective than other parents, but in reality “Helicopter Parents” is not based on any religion or race.

Riv Ellen Prell, a professor of American Jewish Studies at the University of Minnesota, is a leading authority on the history of Jewish summer camps. Prell agrees that summer camp has historically been the setting where Jewish children learn to be more independent, but she also notices that an increase in communication and the accessibility of information with parents has changed that dynamic. While overprotective and hovering parents were kept out of the loop of their children’s daily routine (save for the occasional postcard) in the last century, today’s parents are able to track their children’s activities with daily email updates, Website photos, and the rare call from their child via a cell phone (although these are rendered illegal at most overnight camps).

Jeremy J. Fingerman, the CEO of FJC, agrees that summer camp has the magic to give kids the freedom to grow and learn independence. “Camp gives kids the permission to be themselves. Parents trust that camp is a positive place for building self-esteem and self-confidence,” he says. “Jewish camp brings that and an even stronger sense of community.”

Just as there is something very Jewish about summer camp, there is an intrinsic Jewish characteristic to the helicopter parent. While the archetypal Jewish mother may continue to be overprotective and always hovering, she is still enthusiastic about sending her child to summer camp. And the statistics show there’s a very good chance that that summer camp is a Jewish one.

Back to Articles