Confessions of a Disciplinarian: How Managing Camper Behavior Can Save the Summer

By Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed.

Like many camp directors — and other educators for that matter — I am frequently thrust into the unenviable role of disciplinarian. And, frankly, I don't feel that I'm very good at it.

That is my confession.

Of course, I am not exactly sure of the requirements to be a "good" disciplinarian. Objective, fair, and consistent come to mind . . . all important for sure, but perhaps a little abstract to construct a nicely bound definition of a model disciplinarian. Maybe that's part of my problem.

Give me an upset parent, disgruntled counselor, or homesick kid (OK, they're kind of challenging, too . . . why don't they get it?) any day, but a messy, convoluted disciplinary situation — please look elsewhere. It's just not what I am trained to do.

I have, over the years, however, developed some thoughts on the subject and unearthed some strategies that help. I hope they'll help you because, like it or not, you, too, will be a disciplinarian this summer.

First, a little background: Discipline is often thought of as being synonymous with punishment. It is not (although punishment can be a part of discipline). Webster's defines discipline as training that perfects, molds, or corrects. Thus, it can be seen as a larger construct than punishment (penalty inflicted) and one that reflects a systematic approach to establishing policies, articulating rules, and enforcing consequences.

At camps, as in most institutions/organizations, policies and rules are meant to support (or protect) the common good as opposed to the whims or wishes of the individual.

Making the Rules

A sign that hangs in our camp office says that, in safe places, "There are rules . . . they are few and fair and made by the people who live there, including the children."

That is not an insignif icant point. There's an old management maxim that "People tend to support what they help to create." The same holds true for rules. Giving children a voice in the policies and procedures that affect them, even if they don't like them, makes it more likely they will go along to get along. Plus, as any seasoned disciplinarian will tell you, kids are often stricter with themselves than you would ever think of being. Ask for their help in setting rules for camp, cabins, activities, and free time. You might be surprised by what they come up with.

Of course, some rules are going to be rules no matter what. Anything involving health and safety, for example, should be non-negotiable. But, still, the dialogue will help.

In my book Reality Gap, I advise parents to create a chart dividing decision-making into three categories: Mine (parents), Yours (children), and Ours (parents and children), and I suggest that, over time, they should see a natural migration of assignments from Mine to Ours to Yours as children grow, mature, make good choices, and earn our trust. The same approach could be used at camp — again with the caveat that health and safety choices remain Ours. Here's what the sample chart in my book looks like.

Now, of course, the decisions in the first column need to be changed to accommodate the issues to be decided at your camp, but you get the idea.

Counseling Styles — Some More Lessons From Parenthood

We can learn a lot about how to be effective camp counselors by reviewing what we know about the effectiveness of various parenting styles.

There are essentially four "styles" that parents tend to adopt — indulgent, authoritarian, authoritative, and uninvolved. These groupings are based on the research of psychologist Diana Baumrind and her work on families. They differ in the extent to which they are "demanding" and "responsive." In other words, they address what standards for behavior are established and expected by parents ("demandingness") and how warm and supportive the parents are toward their children ("responsiveness").

What kind of "parent" will you be this summer? This is important to consider, because each "style" has been linked to the amount of problematic behavior children will display as they grow and develop.

As you might guess from the label, indulgent parents are responsive but establish few expectations for the behavior and responsibilities of their children. They're permissive and offer acceptance almost regardless of how their child acts. With few rules in place, their children are often prone to misbehavior.

Authoritarian parents, on the other hand, rate high on control and low on responsiveness. They tend to establish strict standards for conduct and may react harshly when those standards are not met. But they provide little supportive interaction. Children with authoritarian parents are often anxious, depressed, and socially unsuccessful. They also may have trouble learning to think through choices on their own, for they have been brought up simply being told what to do and what not to do with few, if any, explanations.

Authoritative parents tend to be both demanding and responsive, holding children accountable for age-appropriate behavior while engaging them in the process of understanding expectations instead of simply adopting a "my way or the highway" approach. Whereas an authoritarian parent might say, "If you leave your bicycle in the driveway, you will not be allowed to use it for a month," an authoritative parent may say, "When you leave your bicycle in the driveway, it means that I have to stop and get out of the car to move it out of the way. Even worse, I might not see it and might run over it and damage it. So, please, always leave it in the garage."

And, finally, uninvolved parents are neither demanding (as are authoritarian parents) nor responsive (as are indulgent parents), leaving kids feeling disconnected, unwanted, or unloved. They neither set expectations for their children nor pay them much attention or offer affection and support. In a sense, they're not really acting like parents at all.

Clearly, authoritative approaches will be most effective in eliciting the types of behaviors you want from your campers.

Knowing Your Campers

Knowing your campers makes all the sense in the world for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is because by knowing them and their personalities, traits, even habits, you can better understand any given child's motivation for certain behaviors and anticipate in which situations or under what circumstances he or she might be inclined to act in a way contrary to your wishes and expectations.

The actual motives that drive behavior vary immensely, but figuring out the codes behind those behaviors you find troubling can be enormously worthwhile in developing a disciplinary strategy. What are some of the common precursors of bad behavior? Desire for attention . . . anger . . . physical illness or exhaustion . . . homesickness . . . conflict with another (we'll talk about this more in depth later) or things going on in the child's life or family outside of camp of which we may have little, if any, knowledge.

Suffice it to say that the list of motivations is long but, again, the better you know your campers the more likely it is that you will be able to identify the root causes of their behavior and correct it. Where personal knowledge of each camper might fall short, oftentimes general knowledge about their age-related developmental characteristics can be helpful.

In his book Kick Me, "Freaks and Geeks" creator Paul Feig notes, "Childhood is built on bad decision-making. In fact, if it weren't for all the bad decisions we were constantly carrying out as kids, there's a good chance that none of us would have figured out all the things we weren't going to do when we became adults." While there may be some validity to Feig's appeal that experience is the best teacher, I suggest an antithetical approach: children learn best from people who truly understand how they think, learn, and grow and who then use that knowledge to help them make good decisions, fueling their individual development and ultimate success. So, learning something about the developmental characteristics of children at different ages will also assist you in understanding what they are trying to accomplish with their actions.

In the final analysis, it will be your relationship with your campers that most directly impacts their behavior — just as it is for year-round (not just summer) parents. In her book The Price of Privilege, psychologist Madeline Levine writes of discipline and control: "Most important, remember that discipline takes place within a parent-child relationship that has a particular ‘feel' to it. Warm connection forms the foundation and provides the ballast to help our children manage life's ups and downs. It also makes it much easier for us to be effective disciplinarians. We can learn all kinds of ‘techniques' for disciplining, but they are bound to fail unless, at heart, we have a loving relationship."

The degree to which you know your campers will also help you to anticipate when and why conflicts might occur — and a big part of being an effective disciplinarian is being able to successfully defuse conflicts.

Resolving Conflicts

Conflict is a part of all human relationships. It is not, by itself, an inherently negative thing. Conflict helps us to understand others' points of view and to ultimately collaborate for the benefit of all. Thus, it's not so much the conflict that is important but rather the steps we take to resolve it.

Conflict resolution is essential. Problems left unaddressed tend to grow rather than diminish or disappear. Whether conflicts are between counselors, between campers, or between campers and counselors, they are important to understand and resolve. Here are some important things to remember when trying to effectively resolve conflicts.

  • Resolving conflict is not about picking winners and losers. The resolution should contain something of benefit for each party.
  • It is generally counterproductive to bring into the conversation old, or other, conflicts between the parties. Stick with the current conflict.
  • Encourage campers to use "I statements" as opposed to "You statements" and model this approach. You statements are accusatory and often prompt defensiveness ("You took my iPod without asking"), whereas "I statements" are irrefutable because they reflect one's own feelings or thoughts ("I get upset when I can't find my things, especially valuable ones like my iPod"). Try to teach your campers to express how they feel in times of conflict instead of simply placing blame somewhere.
  • Inject humor if you need to lighten the mood. Appropriate levity can go a long way toward easing tensions and reminding the parties of the bond of friendship.
  • Take a break if no progress is being made. Sometimes the conflict can't be easily resolved or may even appear to be getting worse. Feel free to impose some chill-out time before resuming discussions.

Managing Behavior

As you know, maintaining proper discipline at camp is an important job of the counselor. Why? Because discipline helps to create and maintain an optimum environment for safety, fun, and learning, while at the same time protecting children from harassment, bullying, and violence.

There are basically two ways to handle a disciplinary situation: helpful and not helpful.

Helpful approaches to discipline correct the situation without making a child feel threatened, incapable, or overly embarrassed. Helpful approaches also assist children in recalibrating their behavior while learning about themselves and how their behavior impacts others.

What to Do When Campers Break the Rules

There will be times when even the best preparation will not prevent rule breaking by campers. As we have discussed, a camper may break rules you have put in place for many reasons, one of which might be just to see if you are paying attention (a quote on a camper's Facebook page contains the same sentiment: "Sometimes you have to run away just to see who runs after you").

Regardless, you will still have to decide how to react.

The best piece of advice I can offer is to remain calm. If you don't think you can manage that, put yourself in timeout and plan another approach that is more conducive to constructive dialogue. If you let your anger get the best of you, it is probable that your camper (or campers) will shut down and you may never have the chance to make up that lost ground. The second best piece of advice I can offer is to give the camper the opportunity to explain what he or she did (or didn't do) and why. Sometimes things are not as they seem.

And now to consequences, or punishment.

My experience has been that appropriate and effective punishments are usually those that have been decided ahead of time (i.e., in the event of that, this will happen) and have been determined to be reasonable (i.e., the punishment fits the crime) and safe (meaning no punishment should ever place a child or teen in physical or psychological jeopardy). Punishing children by hitting or humiliating them is way out of bounds. So, too, is denying them attention or love over the longterm because we are angry with them.

While all of us may be driven to distraction or distraught by a camper at one time or another, we are well advised to apply reasoned thought to our reactions, because otherwise we may precipitate an outcome that is far worse than the initial infraction.

The Truth about Lying

Most codes of conduct or ethics include a mention of honesty. Indeed, kids themselves readily identify honesty as a "value" they personally find important. A Penn State University study on the subject, as reported by Po Bronson in the New York Magazine article "Learning to Lie," found that 98 percent of children said that trust and honesty were essential in a personal relationship. Yet in the same study researchers found that the same number (of teens), 98 percent, lie to their parents.

This trend is consistent with something I myself uncovered in an unscientific poll of fourteen-year-old campers.

In my ninth grade discussion groups at summer camp, both boys and girls regularly raise issues of trust when talking about their relationships with their parents. "Why don't they just trust us?" is a common refrain. A couple of years ago, I started taking an informal straw poll when this question emerged. "How many of you would say it's important to you that your parents trust you about where you go, who you're with, and what you're doing?" I would ask. Almost all arms would instantaneously shoot skyward. Then the follow-up: "How many of you lie about where you go, who you're with, and what you're doing?" Almost two-thirds of the raised hands regularly remained in the up position. How to explain this disconnect? These fourteen-year-olds had some answers: "It's a game," said one. "They expect us to lie," stated another. "We're supposed to lie," offered a third.

Few of them sensed a contradiction.

Testing the phenomenon in a more rigorous way as part of a SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) Teens Today study, I sampled nearly a thousand young people across the country via an online questionnaire. The results were startlingly similar. For instance, among high school students almost all (89 percent) say it's important that they have their parents' trust. Yet significantly less than half (40 percent) say they tell them the whole truth.

But, as the Penn State study notes, lying doesn't begin in the teenage years. Bronson notes that by their fourth birthday, almost all kids will begin lying to avoid getting in trouble. That remains a primary motivation for lying throughout childhood and adolescence. Other reasons to lie include to get along better with others, to exert independence and gain control, or to get attention. In some cases, lying may be viewed in a developmental context and thus not necessarily as dysfunctional as one might presume. But lying may also be indicative of deeper psychological problems.

In any case, despite uniformity among children, teens, and adults about the importance of honesty, it often seems in short supply.

Interestingly, the Penn State study concluded that many kids learn to lie by observing their parents lie . . . or at least shave the truth. Some parents also encourage their children to tell "white lies" in order to be polite and/or avoid hurting someone's feelings.

How is lying relevant to a discussion about discipline? Precisely because honesty, accountability, and personal responsibility are at the core of disciplinary systems designed to manage the behavior of individuals and of groups. And holding children to a high standard for honesty, integrity, and respect is not a bad thing — even if it doesn't always elicit the truth.

For me — and probably for many who find themselves in disciplinary roles — dishonesty (not telling the truth, not telling the whole truth, or fabricating fantastic stories to avoid the truth) is one of the most frustrating and dispiriting aspects of being a disciplinarian. Especially within the context of a community that stresses values such as those previously discussed.

In The Price of Privilege, Levine points out that "Talking with our children about how community values can impact us for better or for worse helps them to begin thinking about these same issues."

Because of the many mixed messages kids get in other parts of their lives, it is especially important to engage them in dialogue about your community's value system and (presumably) how honesty is linked to the common good. While kids often understand that lying may ultimately mean harsher punishment, they often don't fully grasp its impact on the people they care about, including their fellow campers and their counselors. Remember that children see the value of truth telling in relational terms.

Dr. Paul Ekman, an expert on lying who acknowledges that there are circumstances in which lying is justified, also talks about the relationship component in lying: "Typically, the liar does not feel guilty about telling an authorized lie. The liar disrespects the target. Guilt arises only when lying to a respected target." Further, Ekman warns, "Once trust is betrayed, it may be difficult to reestablish. It is next to impossible to work with, live with, or love someone you don't trust."

Many children lie to avoid conflict — and many adults let the lies slide for the same reason. But not addressing dishonesty only encourages more dishonesty, which can quickly become self-defeating in the grand game of human development. As one camper told me, "I'm a really good liar, and I don't like who I'm becoming."

Given our earlier discussion about parenting styles, it's not surprising that Bronson reports, "Ironically, the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids. They've set a few rules over certain key spheres of influence, and they've explained why the rules are there. They expect the child to obey them. Over life's other spheres, they supported the child's autonomy, allowing them freedom to make their own decisions."

And that leads us back to our chart.

Remembering the 5 Cs of Discipline

While you may bemoan the "disciplinarian" part of your role at camp this summer, it comes with the turf. And it's important as you — in many ways — take over for the children's parents.

In summary, there are essentially five steps you and your co-counselors must take to have an effective disciplinary system in place.

1. Clarify what rules will be put in place — and why they are there.

Rules are important. They provide structure and continuity that help children feel safe in your environment.

The rules you and your co-counselors decide on should be limited in number, constantly reviewed for relevance, and clearly explained to the children. Enforcement of those rules needs to be uniform and consistent. When rules are randomly enforced, people don't take them seriously.

2. Communicate the rules to your campers.

Kids want to know where the boundaries are and, in general, want to earn our approval and trust. It is our duty to make sure that they understand what our expectations for them are.

3. Apply the rules consistently.

Rules applied inconsistently confuse campers and invite problems. It is critical that every counselor "buy in" and agree to a common approach to discipline. If a 10:00 p.m. curfew for one counselor means 10:00 p.m., but another applies a margin of error, say 10:05 p.m., problems — and conflict — will result.

4. Enforce consequences when the rules are broken.

It's a pretty simple conclusion that if campers believe the stated consequences won't be applied, it makes it more likely they will engage in misbehavior.

Finally, when (and if) it comes to punishment, it is important that the punishment, if possible, should be linked to some constructive action the camper can take to make up for the infraction and to restore trust with the counselors.

5. Stress that character does count.

It is critical that you and your cocounselors address discipline within the context of the values upon which your camp operates and the responsibility each member of your community has to one another. Lying erodes trust, and trust is a fundamental building block in a l l huma n relat ionships. Children and teens need help to connect the dots between values, honesty, integrity, and relationships. And, they need to hear loud and clear that character does count.

"The counselor should be the sort who enjoys rambling down a woodland path, lolling in the sun, or joining a group around a campfire," says a book on camp counseling from the 1950s. I think the job in 2010 is a bit more complex and certainly includes the title "disciplinarian." And being good at managing the behavior of your campers can save the summer . . . for you and for them! Regardless, the job remains what it has always been — an extraordinary opportunity to do extraordinary things and make an extraordinary difference in the lives of children.

References
American Camp Association. (26 Jan. 2010). www.ACAcamps.org

Anderson, S.A., & Sabatelli, R.M. (2002). Family Interaction: A Multigenerational Developmental Perspective. Boston: Pearson.

Bronson, P. (2008). Learning to Lie. New York Magazine, Feb. 10, 2008: http://nymag.com/ news/features/43893/ (26 Jan. 2010).

Eckman, P. (2009). Is Lying Ever Justifiable? Reading Between the Lies, February 2009, http://www.paulekman.com/wp-content/ uploads/2009/11/Newsletter_FEBRUARY091. pdf (26 Jan. 2010).

Feig, P. (2002). Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Levine, M. (2006). The Price of Privilege. New York: HarperCollins.

Search Institute. (2009). 40 Developmental Assets for Children Grades K-3, http://www.searchinstitute. org/system/files/40AssetsK-3.pdf (26 Jan. 2010).

Wallace, S. (2009). An Introduction to Camp Counseling. Boston: Summit.

Wallace, S. (2008). Reality Gap. New York: Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing.

© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2010 All Rights Reserved

Originally published in the 2010 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

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