Written by Karen Rile
Published: August 7, 2014 at 9:54 PM [UTC]
It was Parents Weekend at junior chamber music camp. My daughter, just out of eighth grade, had been attending this program since she was ten. As for me, I was looking forward to a reunion with all the kids, parents, and staff I'd known for the past five summers.
But when I arrived on campus and greeted the director outside the recital barn, she didn't smile back. "Your daughter is making my life difficult," she complained. "We caught her and a friend sneaking out of their cabins at night to hang out with their little boyfriends."
I looked at her in amazement. Boyfriend? That didn't sound like the mild-mannered, retainer-wearing, Harry Potter-reading, freckle-face girl I dropped off a week ago. I stammered out an apology.
"It's a terrible example for the younger kids," said director. She walked away, still angry.
My daughter, a middle child, had always been easy: diligent, good-humored, good with grown-ups. Although I understood that it's developmentally appropriate for teens push against boundaries, I was not quite ready to hear that she was behaving like, well, a teenager.
When I was able to talk with her privately, my daughter admitted that she'd been sneaking out of her cabin after lights-out. But she protested that "all the older kids snuck out at night" to stargaze together on the tennis courts; she insisted it was an innocent camp-wide tradition to which the administration usually turns a blind eye. They'd only gotten in trouble, she said, because her friend had sassed a counselor, who'd reported them.
While I was glad she was confiding in me, I didn't want to give her an impression that I supported her behavior or agreed that the counselor was in the wrong, a snitch. "It's not okay to break the curfew. It isn't fair to the counselors. It forces them into the position of having to discipline you."
"But they don't care. They know we're not doing anything bad. Sneaking out is traditional. We're practically expected to."
I changed my tactic. "The rules are in place to protect you. But rules also protect the camp. If a student got hurt while unsupervised, there could be a lawsuit, and that might put the entire program out of business. You wouldn't want that to happen, would you?"
"No! But everyone's over-reacting about this. Nothing terrible's going happen!"
I pulled out the big guns. "Besides, you've always said you want to work here when you're older. Do you think they'll hire you if you were a troublemaker when you were a camper?"
In retrospect I realized that my daughter was probably too old to return to her childhood music camp for one last summer. She would have been happier (and less of an outlaw) at the camp's senior session, where the curfew was a little later and the rules were relaxed. After that summer, she attended festivals where she fell into the middle age range, and stayed out of trouble—as far as I know. But throughout her high school years, and even during college, I heard tell of many of her peers expelled from their summer programs. You name a summer festival that accepts students under 21, and I'll bet a kid or two or more will be sent home for disciplinary reasons before the end of the season. The most common offenses are curfew violations and underage drinking. But some of the stories are hair-raising. Sneaking back through a window after a late night drinking, a girl steps right into her sleeping roommate's double bass, shattering the instrument. Another student is publicly excoriated, then dismissed for taking a friend's prescription beta blocker because he was feeling nervous before a high-stakes performance. The entire cello section (almost) is caught smoking pot in the woods.
Why is my kid doing this? During the school year young musicians are constantly on the radar of their parents, teachers, and coaches. With all the practicing, rehearsing, and homework, they don't have much leisure or privacy to stage small rebellions or work on differentiating themselves from their parents. Away from home for the summer, they can try out a new social persona in a relatively safe, self-contained environment. In general these experiments lead to healthy, intrapersonal growth. But they can also lead to trouble. It's important for parents to realize that the music camps and music festivals do not provide the same level of supervision that their teens receive at home.
If my kid gets caught acting out at music camp, is his professional life over? The classical music world is small and personal reputation is important. But youthful hijinks like curfew violations are forgivable (unlike showing up late for rehearsal or playing out-of-tune.) Maybe it's because teachers, conductors, and coaches were all once teenagers, too. Or maybe it's that they simply aren't concerned with what goes on after hours in the dorms, as long as performance standards are maintained. With a teacher's backing, many students are subsequently readmitted to the same program that disciplined or dismissed them. So while you may be right to worry about your kid's emotional and physical well-being, don't stay up nights bemoaning the loss of his career.
Why isn't the program doing a better job watching over my kid? Summer music programs provide a pedagogically beneficial environment for young musicians: lessons, coachings, and rehearsals. But the primary mission of a festival is the institution itself—performance aesthetics, audience development, and fundraising. They aren't (for the most part) schools. Festivals and summer programs do provide students with opportunities for educational, professional, and personal growth, but it may be too much to expect them to get involved with students' psychological health and development. That, parents, is your job.
What do I need to look out before I select a summer program? While it's flattering to think that your 13-year-old will be playing alongside college kids, do you really want her socializing with them? Or dating them? Find out what the dorm situation is and what the breakdown is among the ages. Are younger students sequestered? Are their curfew rules different? Will they have a space to socialize among themselves? If not, consider waiting for a few years before sending your child. The camp will still be there when she's older. Once you've settled on a camp, read the handbook, and have your student read it, too. Make sure he understands the consequences of breaking rules.
What do I say to my kid if I find out he's broken the rules? The most important thing you can do is keep the lines of communication open. Let him tell his side of the story without interrupting (as hard as that can be). Remember that this experience is one of many that will help him define for himself who he is and what kind of adult he is becoming. Adolescents are in a constant state of transition. The quiet nerd morphs into the cool druggy guy. The shy wallflower reinvents herself as the party girl. She is probably not very comfortable in her temporary new skin and doesn't want to get stuck there. Give her your love and support and the space she needs to keep evolving.
When my daughter's friend, a college student, was disciplined for underage drinking at a summer program, her punishment was to telephone her mother from the office of the program director and confess her indiscretion. The young woman was terribly anxious because her parents are conservative and their religion forbids consumption of alcohol. The mom's reaction was perfect, something we all can learn from. You little stinker! she said, in voice that was simultaneously affectionate, droll, and concerned. And that was that: her daughter had permission to let it go, move on and keep growing.
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