An essential challenge in parenthood: Teaching our kids to leave us

John Dickerson on parenthood challenge

Around 15 million kids attend camp each year in the United States, and for many parents, it's a rite of passage every summer. In this Reporter's Notebook, "CBS This Morning" co-host John Dickerson, whose children just returned from camp, explores the defining experiences and lessons for both children and their parents when kids go to camp. 

For most of the summer, my interaction with my children has been with pictures of them on my phone. They're away at summer camp – that proving ground of children and parents.

Child psychologist Michael Thompson in his book on kids and camps cites a survey where adults were asked: What is your happiest childhood memory? More than 80 percent said it was a time when they were not with their parents. That was certainly true of me at camp – and I'm happy I survived most of those experiences.

When parents aren't around, kids fully experience things. Mom and dad aren't looking over their shoulder and there are no dumb questions. This encourages risk-taking and discovery, and that's the stuff of identity. We see glimpses of this genuine identity when we watch our kids and they don't know we're watching. Or when we eavesdrop and hear them making claims and testing theories.

And that's what we want as parents for our kids: that they create identities that can survive in the world.

But then this creates a problem for the parents who show up at the end of the summer with thousands of questions about that experience they saw their kids doing when they sleuthed out their picture on the camp's website. Our natural desire to interrogate our children risks ruining the purity of those experiences they've had without us.

This is about more than summer escapades. This is the essential challenge of parenthood. If we want our kids to be independent, we have to teach them to leave us. It gets harder when they get older. When they're younger we can take our hand off the back of the bicycle, but when they get older, to really help them on their journey, though we may want to ride with them, we have to let them ride alone.

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