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Self-determination at summer camp

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Parents spend a lot of time trying to motivate kids. We use chore charts, checklists, reminders, and rewards to get them to feed the dog, clean their rooms, and complete schoolwork. But these techniques don’t change behavior long-term. Real motivation must come from within. And time at camp may be all it takes to spark a little self-determination in your kid.

I know it sounds too good to be true. Your school-age slacker — the one who expects you to find his homework and pack his lunch — might start doing some things for himself. And your often-bored tween might come home with more pep in her step.

Psychologists use self-determination theory to explain why some experiences make us feel engaged and excited while others drain and deplete us.

The premise is simple: when an activity meets our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, we are energized and empowered. Kids’ basic needs are no different from adults’.

Kids want to do things for themselves. They crave a sense of accomplishment and routinely seek feedback. (“Look what I made, Mom!”) And kids thrive on connections with loved ones and peers. Feelings of belongingness boost their self-worth. Summer camp offers loads of opportunities to meet all these needs. And that should make kids (and the parents who love them) very happy campers indeed.


The need for autonomy is satisfied when kids control their own lives.

At camp, your son will have endless opportunities to care for himself. Staff won’t select his clothes, organize the contents of his locker, or remind him to put on deodorant. No one will delay dessert until he eats his veggies. Independence is what camp is all about. Don’t worry. The world won’t stop if your son wears the same shirt three days in a row. His peers will speak up if he gets super stinky.

During the school year, many kids jump from one regularly scheduled activity to the next with no unstructured time in between.

Camp puts kids in charge of their own activities. Maybe your daughter will take a hike. Maybe she’ll paint pottery. Maybe she’ll write you an email. It is up to her to decide how she’ll spend her free time. One thing is certain: she won’t sit around whining about having nothing to do. And if she does, you won’t be there to hear it.


The need for competence is satisfied when kids learn new things and get positive feedback about their efforts. Your kid might choose a camp focused on art, science, sports, or music. Or, he may opt for a good, old-fashioned sleep-away experience, complete with row boats and weenie roasts. Some camp activities may be outside your kid’s comfort zone. Stretching is good.

Your child may be unsure she can cross the slippery log over the creek. She may tremble with excitement about her role in the theater production. Peers and counselors will coax her along and give constructive advice. By the end of camp, she’ll be the star of her own adventure stories.

If your kid is an experienced camper, encourage him to share what he knows with newbies. Being an ambassador or mentor affirms kids’ competence in a big way. Teaching a peer how to trim a sail or chip a golf ball out of the tall grass will take your son’s skills to a higher level. His confidence will soar in response.


Your biggest concerns about summer camp may center on the social scene. Your child may not know anyone on arrival. That’s okay. Camps create connections in many ways. Your kid will be instantly bonded with bunkmates because they share a home base. Family-style dining and friendly competitions encourage interaction, too. The pursuit of shared goals — like building a robot or putting a frog in the counselor’s sleeping bag — cements kids’ camaraderie.

Extroverted kids may make lots of friends at camp. Less-sociable souls may not. What matters most is that kids have opportunities to talk, play, and live with a diverse group of peers. They won’t all become fast friends.

Learning to navigate the choppy waters of friendship formation is a big part of the camp experience. Your kid’s social skill set will expand — even if she doesn’t find a new BFF.

No matter what your kid takes to camp, he’ll come home with a suitcase full of memories and a renewed sense of self-determination. You’ll see it as soon as he wakes from his long post-camp nap.

Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist and mom of two adventurous kids. She is the author of “Detachment Parenting.” Learn more at HeidiLuedtke.com.

Updated 4:55 pm, July 9, 2018
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