Young people at overnight camp make many adjustments, but none as new as shifting how they keep in touch with their parents. Are you sitting down? The 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report on media use among 8-18-year-olds revealed that camper-age boys and girls send an average of 118 texts per day. That’s about 90 minutes of thumb punching on top of more than 30 minutes of (quaintly retro) talking. If that surprises you, check your cell phone bill. If you don’t like what you see, consider setting some limits. Only 14% of boys and girls say their parents limit texting. But I digress.
Add the two hours of cell time to the (ready for this?) average of 7½ hours of media exposure per day—much of it multitasking—and you’ll start to appreciate the magnitude of the relational paradigm shift you and your child are in for. What will it be like to not text or talk on the phone for two weeks? An even more powerful question: What will your son or daughter do with those 80+ hours of non-media time?
Don’t panic. Families have been keeping in touch during camp for nearly 150 years. You have some elegant historical traditions to take the place of texting. OK, you don’t need papyrus, octopus ink and a feather, but you should prepare an inexpensive stationery kit. Start with a zipped freezer bag and pack it with pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelopes and postcards, paper, and a few #2 pencils. The plastic bag will protect everything from the humidity, but if you want to splurge, buy self-sealing envelopes rather than the lick-and-stick kind. The easier you make it for your son or daughter to correspond with you, the more likely it is they will.
As a bonus, consider this: Writing whole paragraphs rather than truncated sentences will encourage the creation of narrative. And narrative has a special power to advance self-understanding. When your son or daughter writes stories to you about their camp experience, they’re promoting their own cognitive growth and emotional adjustment. Sure, you’ll keep some of the best letters to read aloud during a wedding toast, but the real beauty of old-fashioned letter writing is for the sender. And rest assured: Waiting for your newsy, upbeat reply forces a healthy delay of gratification, something which is increasingly difficult for a generation that grew up with high-speed wireless.
So about those 118 average texts per day. I’m willing to bet that you’re on the receiving end of about half of those. In other words, you’ve got an adjustment to make yourself. Temporarily severing the digital umbilical is healthy but challenging for parents as well as for children. My advice? Arrange some practice time away from home for your son or daughter. A long weekend at a friend’s house is a good start. And during those two or three days, take a complete break from cell phones. Commit to writing one substantive letter and have your son or daughter do the same. The challenge is worth the risk: You’ll both get more out of the upcoming camp experience.
Enjoy the summer!
Dr. Christopher Thurber