Summer camp fosters independence and imagination in children, says psychologist and school consultant Michael Thompson

Story highlights

Psychologist Michael Thompson speaks with CNN about childhood independence

Thompson wrote a book about summer camp as a place for childhood self-discovery

The school consultant recommends having minimal contact with your kids at camp

Thompson says kids are stressed and need whimsy in their lives

Editor’s note: It’s time for the summer edition of “You know you’re an extreme parent if …” featuring psychologist, school consultant and summer camp advocate Michael Thompson, Ph.D. in this CNN Radio Podcast. Michael Schulder is a CNN senior executive producer.

CNN  — 

The last time I checked in with psychologist and school consultant Michael Thompson, “Tiger Mom” was making headlines for how she drove her children to succeed. Thompson gave us memorable vignettes from the front lines, including: “You know you’re an extreme parent if you imagine that your child is going to play professional sports even though no coach has predicted this outcome.” And, “You know you’re an extreme parent if you have your child take 30 practice SAT exams before the actual test.”

Extreme parents don’t necessarily take a break over the summer. Neither does Thompson: “You know you’re an extreme parent,” he tells me, “if you send your child to camp for a month and then you go on the website every day to find a smiling picture of your child and you get frantic and call the camp if you can’t find one.”

There’s also the “call me” parent. “I had a camp director tell me he had a child who arrived with three cell phones,” says Thompson: “one to turn in, one to use illegally until it was confiscated, and then the backup phone.”

These true stories helped persuade Thompson to write his new book about the value of summer camp. It’s called: “Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help A Child Grow.”

Some of us parents have children who at this very moment may be homesick at sleep-away camp. Michael Thompson’s heart bleeds for them. But the bleeding stops when he thinks about the “developmental leaps” so many children make at summer camp, having challenged themselves in ways they don’t when their parents are around.

Thompson visited 20 camps and spoke to about 200 campers for “Homesick and Happy.” He is struck by how campers love to recount what he calls their “campfire horror stories” – of cold, miserable nights and mosquito bites all over their bodies.

“[T]hese girls are standing there with these brilliant smiles on their faces, talking about their discomfort,” says Thompson, “but they’re talking about their personal triumph over discomfort and the fact that they were braver than they thought they were going to be. They didn’t get immobilized. They didn’t cry. They ate their cold dinner, went to bed, their sleeping bag was a little wet, and they come back with a story of triumph.”

Thompson says he logs about 100,000 miles a year visiting schools and speaking to parents. Self-esteem is a dominant concern. “Parents say, ‘How do I give my child self-esteem?’ … And they’re always a little demoralized when I say, ‘You can’t give your child self-esteem.’ ”

So how is camp connected to self-esteem?

In Thompson’s view, camp is “the closest thing to Hogwarts that kids are likely to get. … All of children’s literature knows that the adventures only begin when you’re away from your parents. Every great children’s story is driven by the child being away from parents, experiencing things on their own.”

Thompson doesn’t wish Harry Potter’s family situation on anyone. But there’s a lesson in Potter for us all. “Your parent has to open the door and let you walk out and find independence, experience it and become comfortable with it,” says Thompson. “That is camp, for me.”

This is what Thompson sees when he consults with schools from September to June: “The constant pressure year after year makes kids incredibly anxious and they develop symptoms around anxiety and stress and they can’t sleep and they worry all the time and they never feel they’re done. And I think, gosh, you’re living a life of a middle aged executive and you’re only in 10th grade.”

Which is why this last insight is so critical, whether our children are at camp or at home this summer.

“Camp is just whimsical a lot of the time,” says Thompson. “And in this competitive economy, we’re not often whimsical with our children. And they absolutely love whimsy.”

Thompson’s discoveries have opened my eyes.

Starting now, I will be the most whimsical dad ever. I’m not letting you know how I define whimsy. Because I’m determined to turn my whimsy into a competitive advantage for my children. They will have the whimsy edge!

As for my child who is in camp right now, I’m not going to be one of those extreme parents. I’m not looking on the camp website for my child’s smiling face.

But I’m imagining it.

How are you creating independent children? Have you had trouble letting go? Share your experiences in the comments section below.