I was at the American Camp Association's national conference in Albuquerque last week, and was moved by a keynote lecture by Shimi Kang, an award-winning, Harvard-trained doctor, researcher, media expert, and author of "The Dolphin Way: A Parent's Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids." She says that stress, defined as "the experience of being under pressure", is the health epidemic of our time - her diagnosis for humanity.
According to Kang, "we humans are in trouble." We're in a state of bizarre paradox. We've made sleep deprivation and being too busy a symbol of importance/ambition, and we've made rest a symbol of laziness. Never before in human history have we had such conveniences and such knowledge, yet never before have our lives been so stressed and unhealthy.
And the stress epidemic isn't just affecting adults - in the last 10 years, we've seen a shift towards stress in kids. Today's kids have more stress responses than we ever had when we were growing up. During a stress response, cortisol floods the body and shuts off the thinking brain. Effects of stress on kids include rising rates of depression, anxiety and addiction. Narcissism is going up in boys, while more girls are suffering from perfectionism.
Why All This Stress?
One word: "success."
Kids today are scared of perceived misfortunes as benign as getting a "b" on a test or messing up at the recital. But we know that status, wealth, and other success symbols valued by society don't make us happier. It's the idea we need to be more successful that always makes us unhappy.
And yet we still notice those people among us who are living with passion, purpose, meaning, and joy. Dr. Kang believes these people are thriving because they've mastered a 21st Century skill that the super stressed have not - adaptability (or "resilience").
To drive home this point, she referenced the Harvard Grant Study, which measured everything from looks to IQ to finances in participants for 70 years. The study found that individuals who feel the most successful are not the people who achieve the status or wealth they want...the most successful people are the ones who make successful adaptations throughout their lives, usually by changing their perception (i.e. they "make lemonade out of lemons").
So, What's The Recipe for Success at Dance Camp (& in life)?
Two words: "adaptability lemonade."
Some girls arrive at dance camp frozen, anxious, robotic, ready to leave, and with bad coping skills. Many are terrified of change or a "perceived lack of control," two of the main ingredients of camp. I'd love to be able to say that a week or more away from home with all new people and experiences always erases the negative patterns, conditioning and barriers to love girls bring with them to check-in. But, unfortunately, I can't.
Difficult situations WILL arise at camp - girls who have a positive experience at dance camp are the ones who develop adaptability skills AND learn the value of these skills. These are skills they'll inevitably need in life.
Dr. Kang calls these 21st Century adaptability skills the "Consciousness Quotient" ("CQ"): creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. At dance camp, the most successful girls learn resilience (an antidote to stress) and new ways to solve problems, which changes lives in a way that learning a particular dance skill never will. The most successful girls make successful adaptations.
But, How Do We Adapt?
Three words: "Be A Dolphin."
According to Dr. Kang, survival of the fittest no longer pertains to the fastest, the strongest or the best, because in the 21st Century, those that survive (and thrive) will need to make successful adaptations. Take Netflix. They used to mail videos, but adapted to online streaming. Blockbuster refused to adapt and are now fighting extinction while Netlix is flourishing.
In order to make successful adaptations, we have to be in our most balanced state, and we get to our most balanced state by not compromising our basic needs. Dr. Kang likes a dolphin comparison, but you can choose another animal that resonates with you. Kang says there are 3 things dolphins do that we need to do to be ready for successful adaptations (easy to remember with the acronym, "POD").
- Play. Dolphins play every day. Kang defines play as “simple, unstructured, imaginative, no rules, and limitless in what you can create.” This is how play used to be when we were kids. Legos are a great example. Kang brilliantly argues that the Legos of today are like today’s childhood: constricted, complicated, full of rules, and we know the final product. This makes kids fragile - we get rigid, stuck and anxious when we don’t play freely. Free play activates that very human frontal part of our brain, and it stimulates all kinds of pathways for abstract thinking, emotional regulation, problem solving, and strategy. Play makes us comfortable with uncertainty – it makes us take risks and learn from trial and error. Play is how we adapt.
- Others. Dolphins are exquisitely connected to their families and their communities, while Kang believes humans are forgetting that meaningful social connection is a basic of life. When we are socially isolated, it corrodes our bodies, and we get sick. Being lonely is as much of a risk factor for death as smoking, and tumors spread faster in cancer patients who are lonely. In fact, the worst form of human punishment – a torture that has been proven to lead to complete breakdown - is solitary confinement. Meaningful social bonding (not socializing superficially) lights up our brains…it feels great. And we are rewarded. Others are why we adapt.
- Downtime. Dolphins know how to relax, while Kang believes humans have forgotten that rest is a basic need in life. When we are stressed, we release stress hormones – this wreaks havoc on our bodies and minds. When we honor our bodies and rest when we need it, we are rewarded. Research on mindfulness (slowing down and paying attention) is outstanding. Mindfulness improves focus, memory, concentration, relationships, and life satisfaction. The most progressive companies in the world are bringing in yoga classes and meditation rooms and beds because they know that breaks are the moments of break-through…that looking inward gives us innovation and inspiration. Downtime is when we adapt.
Yep, for all us stressed out humans, Dr. Kang is prescribing a daily dose of play, others & downtime. "POD" is how we adapt, and adapt is how we thrive. When we play, we find our passion. When we connect, we find our purpose. When we rest, we find our balance. And when we adapt, we start to do amazing things in the world - things we didn't think we had the time or energy to do.
So I invite you to consider this new idea of "success" for your daughter - even if you can't picture what a successful adaptation might look like right now. Our world may promote more and more competition, and we may think that winning will make us happy, but true success at dance camp may be simply stepping away from every day pressures to allow time for play, others and downtime. True success may be deciding to make the most of a difficult situation with a roommate, or choosing to work really hard and shine in a lower-level dance group even though we wanted to be in a higher group. True success may be making it to the Friday Night Show after being homesick at the beginning of the week. Successful adaptations like these will likely be remembered long after winning a plaque or American Dance Idol.