Camp And Commitment

Each year, as part of the introductory psychology course I teach, I show my students Adrian Lyne’s (1987) film “Fatal Attraction.” In it, Michael Douglas’ character, Dan, has a torrid affair with Glenn Close’s character, Alex.

Can camp keep kids from forming "fatal attractions"?

In a dramatic example of psychopathology, Alex becomes a stalker and a killer, completely obsessed with spending the rest of her life with Dan, a married man.

The class discussion about personality disorders and sociopathy that follows is always fascinating, but even more interesting are my students’ feelings about fidelity. In the modern teen world of “friends with benefits,” they are struck by this adult example of interpersonal disloyalty. Odd, since many of them enjoy casual hook-ups.

The truth about casual hook-ups is that emotions cannot be excised from the equation, as much as that idea might appeal to some young people.

As a clinical psychologist, I see an equal number of adolescent boys and girls in my office who lament the complex feelings that inevitably precede, accompany and follow physical intimacy.

In contrast to their public bravado or cool demeanors, most teens privately crave emotional intimacy much more than they crave physical intimacy.

We adults have a misguided notion that “raging hormones” fuel promiscuity. In fact, those hormones fuel desire for interpersonal closeness.

Paradoxically, few teens would brag about developing a trusting relationship or listening carefully to a peer. Can you imagine any locker-room dialogue starting with, “Hey, you’ll never guess the level of trust I’ve developed”? Instead, they chat online and in person about how far they got physically.

Fortunately, there is camp. (I find myself writing that sentence more and more lately.)

At camp, interpersonal closeness is highly valued. Staff are taught to form trusting relationships and to listen carefully, and their example trickles down quickly to the campers.

Physical intimacy is necessarily forbidden between staff and campers and closely curtailed between campers and their peers. All of which makes camp a wonderful place to nurture children’s emotional intelligence.

So, while camp may not be the panacea for the pandemic of casual sex that exists outside of camp, adolescents who have enjoyed multiple summers of camp as children do understand notions such as loyalty, respect and generosity.

All of which helps them develop into adults who look nothing like the characters in Fatal Attraction.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at SummerCampHandbook.com. He is the co-creator of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at chris@campspirit.com.

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