How do you define independence?
Think of the first two letters of the word independence. “Independence means dependence from inside you,” says Jocelyn Palm. She’s the Executive Director and owner of Glen Bernard Camp, an all-girls camp in Sundridge, Ontario. “It means freedom from control by other people so you aren’t influenced by your peers.” Independence consists of asking yourself, “what are my principles? Those are the values that will take you into adulthood, so if you learn them as a young person, it’s a good advantage,” she says.
Others, like Jennifer Jupp, offer variant definitions. She believes, “it's about being able to support yourself in a whole bunch of ways without the influence, control and authority of someone else.” She watches kids grow independent in weeklong sessions at the overnight camp where she’s Senior Director. It arises naturally out of their making a dozen daily decisions without parents present.
Similarly, Emilia Antunes sees her son Erick growing in his ability to trust his own judgement. She’s noticed this improvement in him, especially after camp. “For me,” she says, “independence [consists of] Erick being able to make his own decisions and being able to accomplish tasks all by himself ... I see that in COOKSMART camp because he’s getting more independent with each class.”
How to develop independence
You can accelerate your children’s development of independence in settings that mix freedom with responsibility like overnight camp. As Senior Director of Camp Wenonah in Bracebridge, Jupp knows deeply how camp nurtures personal growth. With its variety of daily interactions and activities, Wenonah gives children space “to solve their own problems and really care for themselves.” In other words, kids there become more independent daily.
Jocelyn Palm shares a few examples from her experience at Glen Bernard Camp to illustrate how she’s seen independence demonstrated by campers.
“[When] I’m at the high ropes course or a different event and I say they were fantastic today ... and they don’t say anything back, they just smile at you.” Encouraging children to continue doing an activity that they love and choose to do will encourage them to make more independent decisions in the future.
Glen Bernard's fixed day-to-day format ensures that younger campers are involved in all activities. “You can’t say that you’re not going sailing because you’re afraid. Everyone is going sailing, so you go, and then you become less afraid and you become independent.” However, “as campers grow older, they have more choices about what they’re going to do each day.
"Older campers do a ‘solo’, which is an opportunity for them to spend time with themselves for 24 hours. There are sites that we have, right close to the camp, where they can be there alone. They’re not allowed to take any books or any of that. It’s interesting when they come back and we ask them what they did." Some campers talk about what they’ve seen and heard, whereas other campers will use whatever resources are there to be creative and resourceful. "One camper told us that she made a deck of cards [out of a pencil and piece of paper]."
For each Glen Bernard camper, the solo experience is unique. "We try and make many occasions during their time at camp where they learn to make decisions," says Palm.
What is an example of independence?
At Camp Wenonah, campers are given the opportunity to choose specific activities to dedicate their time to, while at camp. "I particularly like it when kids choose an activity that’s different than what their parents really thought they would choose. It’s them in a big way, being themselves, making the choice for themselves," Jupp explains.
She also sees independence in children through their ability to choose activities that differ from their friends. “[Imagine] a 16-year old choosing something different from what the majority of what their closest peers choose ... I think that’s huge in the area of independence and they take that with them after camp ... There aren’t social repercussions for them if they choose something different from what their peer group chooses.”
What are the benefits of independence?
Jocelyn Palm believes that independence is a very important trait for children to develop, especially in today’s society. “The world is coming at all of us and especially the young people at a fast and furious pace. There are messages from all different sources, more than just other people or more than the daily paper, radio or TV … In order to keep your sanity, you really have to know, who am I? What am I going to do? ... I have to make a decision now, for me, and do I have the ability to make it?” Independence helps you stand your ground, develop who you are as an individual and stick to your morals.
It also helps with a person’s ability to cope in situations and get along well with others. At Glen Bernard, Palm and her staff try to help campers to get along with everyone, of course, but this "doesn’t [necessarily] mean that they’re your best friend,” she explains. “Getting along means that you know how to deal with people who may not be your friends, but you still have to learn to cope."
Similarly, Xavier, a camper at Academie Duello's Knight Camp, believes it's important to know how “to stand on your own and ... ask for help. You won’t always have people to turn to so it’s good to be able to turn to yourself and really just be able to explore the world around you. [You can do this by] using independence [while] not being afraid of what people will think of you.”
Overall, there are myriad reasons that highlight the importance of independence in children. Here are just some of the gifts kids gain from independence:
- Courage and confidence to take care of themselves
- Enhanced decision-making skills
- Self-motivation and willingness to take initiative
- A feeling of inclusion
- Freedom to explore beyond a comfort zone
- Improved self-esteem
- Real-world experience that better prepares them for adulthood
“The sooner [children] get independence," says Emilia Antunes, "the better they will be able to deal with different environments and situations without parents around.” This helps Erick in other areas beyond cooking lessons. “It fosters self-reliance because it empowers them to achieve their own goals,” she says.
She notices that Erick is more comfortable taking risks than he was before he attended the camp. He feels more confident in his ability to trust his own instincts rather than ask for help. He makes his own recipes. However, “it’s not only about cooking,” she explains, “it’s about getting more confident, taking risks and doing things for [him]self.”
How will independence help children as they get older?
“Life’s road is bumpy and we’re going to fall down a lot as kids, youth and adults,” says Jupp. “I think that the earlier we can foster independence in ourselves, the better we’re going to be able to support ourselves through the bumpy road of life.”
Knowing how to navigate on their own gives kids' other qualities vital to a healthy adulthood. These include self-esteem, decision-making skills, self-reliance, cooperation, personal discipline, and more. Not only are these qualities strongly recommended for academic success, they’re extremely important tools to help kids navigate hardships in their future.
“I think independence is a key part of self-reliance,” Jupp continues. “It gives us the confidence to know how to pick ourselves up ... For a kid to know that, especially if they feel that their world outside of themselves with their parents, family, school, sports team, [etc] feels like it’s falling apart, to have that deep feeling of independence and security within yourself and to have that at a young age…I really think it’s a superpower for kids to have.”
Want your child to improve their independence?
Any environment where children have some distance from parents will enhance and develop their independence. At camp, kids act on their own, meet other people, learn self-reliance and other skills. “Children and youth will learn really quickly that they can do things and really make decisions for themselves without the influence of their parents or guardians,” says Jupp. For her, camp is a concentrated social environment where kids and staff learn from each other. “Other kids affect them in a whole bunch of ways, positively and negatively. Having to navigate those social interactions in such a concentrated way [at camp] creates hundreds of opportunities to develop independence.”
From a Camp Director perspective, Palm believes that a camp environment fosters independence because campers attend without their parents or guardians and must learn how to work with other people and adapt on their own.
“Some [people] may have different views and now, they’ve got to learn to cope with these other people. They’re not at home, there’s no asking mom or brother what to do. Here I am, on my own. I think that’s a great opportunity at camp,” she explains.