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My Kids Loved Summer Camp. This Is Why I Made Them Quit.

My kids could not have been happier as they splashed in the water, playing with their friends.


I felt like I was going to throw up.

I’d dropped them off at their first day of summer camp that morning, thrilled to have four hours to myself. When I’d enrolled them in the camp run by the gym where I work out and teach group fitness, I asked about the ratio of adults to kids in the pool. They told me it would be two adults with a maximum of 15 kids, plus a lifeguard.

“Isn’t that kind of a low ratio?” I’d asked. The camp was for kids ages two-and-a-half and up. The pool has an infinity edge that gradually extends to a depth of three feet. The camp director, a mom herself, assured me they’d always done it this way and it had been fine. She encouraged me to sit by the pool and watch if I wanted. Perhaps I was being overly protective, I thought. Obviously, the other parents didn’t seem to have a problem with it.

My kids are three and five years old and neither of them can swim well. Though I pride myself on being a pretty hands-off (read: lazy) parent, when it comes to water safety, I don’t take chances. On the first day of camp I sat poolside and watched during swim time. My initial feeling of, “I can’t see how this is going to work” progressed to, “Oh my god this is a total shit show” to, “I don’t know how much longer I can stand to watch this before I start hyperventilating.”

There were 13 campers, many of them under five years old, two adults, and zero lifeguards. Plus there were kids with their parents who were not attending camp swimming. I could hardly keep my eyes on my own two kids through the sea of people. At times, one camp staffer would take a kid to the restroom, leaving one adult in charge of 12 kids.

I waited for them to blow a whistle and have the kids buddy up like we used to do at summer camp when I was a kid. That never happened. I waited, my eyes darting wildly to keep track of my girls until finally, they took the kids out of the water. At that point, I gathered my things, went to the locker room, sequestered myself in a bathroom stall and exhaled. Tears of frustration and anxiety spilled out while I choked back a little sob.

Was I overreacting? I didn’t think so. But when I brought my concerns to one of the administrators of the gym, they were brushed off. I was offered only reassurance that the staff was extremely responsible. “I’m sure they are,” I countered. “I just don’t think there are enough of them for all of the kids to be safe in the pool.”

To meet the American Camping Association’s (ACA) standards, camps must adhere to minimum staff ratios, which pertain to overall supervision, but not specifically to aquatic supervision. While these ratios vary according to age, requirements change according to whether the children are on land or in the water is at each camp’s discretion. ACA-accredited day camps require a minimum ratio of 1-to-6 for children ages five and under, 1-to-8 for children ages six to eight, and 1-to-10 for children ages nine to 14. Ratios are slightly higher for overnight campers: 1-to-5 for children ages five and under, 1-to-6 for children six to eight, and 1-to-8 for children ages nine to 14. ACA accreditation is completely voluntary, however. If a camp has the credential, they have gone through a rigorous, costly accreditation process, and will typically display proof of certification on their website and/or in their office.

While the ACA accreditation is a valuable credential, it is no replacement for doing your homework. According to Becca Mack, the executive director of camping at Colorado’s Boulder Valley YMCA, ensuring that your child’s camp follows state licensing guidelines and provides adequate staff training is just as important as the ACA stamp of approval, if not more so. Whether or not they’re accredited by the ACA, camps must meet certain minimum standards set by their state. These requirements vary widely from state to state. While some states’ requirements are consistent throughout, in others they are specific to the city or county.

Meanwhile, there are a few states that have adopted the same standards as the ACA. An index of resources for each state compiled by the ACA can be found here. While some states’ websites are very transparent about their staffing ratios, including specific requirements for aquatics (Maine is a great example), others, like my home state of Colorado, are clear as mud.

Mack recommends parents talk directly to camp administrators to find out how they train their staff to manage swim time and make sure they know and adhere to their state’s licensing standards. For example, staff training at the Boulder Valley YMCA includes a water safety segment where they go over every aspect of swim time, including face checks, staff presence in the pool, and more. Says Mack, “[at the Boulder Valley YMCA] we do a mock pool time, so everyone learns what needs to be done.”

While the ACA standards dictate that camps must institute a system to quickly account for all campers involved in aquatic activities, it is at the camp’s discretion to decide which system to employ. While there is an app for nearly everything, they still haven’t come up with one to replace the Buddy System, a common water safety check that has not changed much, if at all, since my youth, whereby the lifeguard blows a whistle signaling campers to pair up with a pre-designated swim buddy. The Boulder Valley YMCA, which is not ACA-accredited, takes that requirement a step further, stipulating that every 15 minutes a staff member “must physically see each child. Instead of just a head count, they are specifically matching the child’s name on a list to their face.”

Some camps take the initiative to exceed state minimum staffing ratios. Boulder Valley’s YMCA Inspire Preschool is one such example. The state of Colorado requires a minimum staff ratio of 1-to-10 for preschoolers (ages three to four years old). According to Lisa Swainey, the preschool’s director, Inspire raises the bar by requiring not only a lifeguard dedicated exclusively to the preschoolers but also a minimum of two preschool staffers anytime the kids are swimming. Additionally, preschoolers are allowed only to splash within the confines of the baby pool, which reaches a maximum depth of one foot.

Beyond my casual questions about the swimming situation at my kids’ camp, it never occurred to me to explore my state’s licensing requirements until I witnessed the swim program firsthand. (I use the term “swim program” loosely.) I admit, my main camp selection criteria were convenience and price. After my poolside near-panic attack, though, my concern was safety. And rightly so, according to experts like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, senior medical correspondent at CNN Health. In an article posted there, he says toddlers are at a relatively huge risk of drowning, even in water as shallow as one inch, due to their top-heavy bodies: “Children 4 and under actually have the single highest drowning death rate according to the National Safety Council.” And according to Alan Steinman, MD, former director of health and safety at the U.S Coast Guard, drowning is a highly inconspicuous event. It happens quietly, without any arm flailing or cries for help.

Though I hated to break my kids’ little hearts, I felt I had no choice but to pull them out of camp. My kids got over it within a couple of weeks. I, on the other hand, would never have gotten over it had anything happened to them at that camp. I never would have forgiven myself for not trusting my instinct. As parents, we can research every topic, ask every question, and Google until our eyes burn, but at the end of the day, selecting the right camp is like the rest of parenting: Mostly we go on instinct.

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.

XO,

#TeamMotherly

PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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