Calming The Mama Bear Instinct

Calming The Mama Bear Instinct, by Jolly Corley

As many of you know I am passionate about camp as the leading community with the ability to grow resilient, thoughtful and independent children. As we prepare for visiting day the campers are excited to see their parents and receive goodies. Staff are nervous and excited to host their specific activities and shine. I am the most excited to share with parents some ‘moments’ of resilience, thoughtfulness and independence displayed by their children.

I can’t wait to meet and share moments with parents about their children’s growth; to celebrate with them both successes and failures. Most of you will recognize and welcome the stories of success. Those success stories are easy to hear. As a parent I glow when a teacher or counselor shares stories about my children that make me proud. We all love to hear how fantastic and wonderful our children are. The harder moments to hear are the failures. Why do we cringe when we hear these moments instead of working on strategies and understanding that the failures are part of their growth? I will be the first to admit that when I hear about failures my children have experienced the ‘mama bear’, as I call it, starts to appear. That is the part of me that wants to protect and harbor them from anything unpleasant. It takes effort for me to quiet the ‘mama bear.’ Fortunately my professional life often comes to my parental rescue and helps counter balance my instinct to protect. Articles like the one below confirm what my head knows and what my heart often doesn’t want to hear.

I am including an excerpt from Psychology Today (December 31, 2011) from Steve Baskin who is a camp director and involved in the American Camping Association, because I think it so clearly addresses the issue of failure that we as parents struggle with. Another reason I wanted to include this article is that on more than one occasion I have heard, “…how can you send Ronan (my son) to camp for 7 weeks?”  This sometimes becomes more difficult to remember why we do around visiting day when saying a tearful goodbye. Baskin’s article made me realize that as a parent I am sometimes unable to provide my children with opportunities to try their wings without me. Societal pressures do not allow me to feel comfortable letting them have the freedom they might need to try something and fail. I feel the same pressure to prepare everything so they can succeed.

As I consider my own challenges a parent, I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of the camping industry which can rescue my children from my ‘mama bear’ instincts.  Baskin’s article validates what I know about our CR parents: they have incredible dedication to the growth of their children.

We hope you enjoy visiting day, knowing that we here at CR are dedicated to the growth of our campers as a whole:  their successes and their failures.

Talking with the parents of our summer campers, I often talk about the many ways that children grow at camp; discovering themselves while away from their parents’ shadows. I love the chance for campers to challenge themselves and feel the excitement of triumph. I also love watching them learn to cope with disappointment and even failure, because this will teach them to deal with adversity later in life.

During one such conversation with one of my favorite camp moms, she shared this story.

Her son had decided to clean his room (a shock in and of itself) and he had come to his trophies and ribbons. His mom arrived to see that he had created two piles: one large and one small.

“What are the different piles?”

Pointing to the small pile, he said, “those are the awards from the tournaments and meets that I won.” He then dismissively pointed at the larger pile, “those are the ones I got just for showing up. I am throwing them away.”

When she shared this with me, I pictured all the well-meaning organizers and coaches who had arranged unearned awards for his entire life in an effort to give him greater self-esteem. Clearly, it did not fool him.

We spend too much time protecting our children from any pain or adversity. We hate to see them struggle and we suffer when they suffer. But the same loving envelope that protects them from pain also protects them from growth.

In her book Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Dr. Wendy Mogel suggests that children insulated from unpleasant situations or challenges become less capable to deal with adversity. She notes that college deans are seeing a growth in incoming “teacups”: students so overprotected by their parents that there are effectively incapable of functioning in the new (and parentless) world of higher education. They encounter adversity and “chip like a teacup”.

Harvard Psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kindlon writes in Too Much of a Good Thing that parents often focus on making sure their children avoid pain and disappointment. As a result, they often fight their children’s battles for them and insulate them from difficult experiences. In his private practice, he observes that these children feel less capable and are more likely to struggle in relationships and with challenges. They also can feel guilty when they are not feeling happy.

By protecting our children, we do them a double disservice. First, we insulate them from experiences that can facilitate growth and resilience. Second, by actively protecting them, we send them the message that they are not capable of coping on their own.

I think much of this problem comes from the having the wrong goal of parenting. If we see ourselves primarily as protectors and facilitators, we see challenges as potential sources of discomfort.

Instead, we should see ourselves as preparing our children to be independent, confident and capable. We should protect less and instead seek out experiences that will develop their resilience and optimism. Here, I define optimism as the belief that an individual’s actions can affect his or her circumstances and that difficult situations are temporary.

We must prepare our children for a world that is often unpredictable and even inhospitable – that is the gift of resilience.

We must also provide them with a philosophical framework that enables them to understand that even if everything is not ideal, life is still worth embracing with joy and excitement – that is the gift of optimism.

In order to do this, we need to allow them to struggle and strive without us. We must also allow them to occasionally fail. It is not fun, but it could be the greatest gift we provide them.

To quote Dr Mogel one final time, it is our job to prepare our children for the road, not prepare the road for our children.