The Value of Camp Experiences Today: An Interview with Madeline Levine

Best-selling author and psychologist Madeline Levine will speak on Tuesday, February 12, at the 2013 ACA National Conference. With nearly thirty years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator, Levine has shared insights on youth development and success on the national stage; she has appeared on television shows such as The Early Show and The Today Show as well as on local and national radio stations, including NPR’s The Diane Rhem Show and Forum. She is a former camper and the mother of three sons who all attended camp. Recently, Levine spoke with ACA about how camps can work with families, train staff, and build environments to support the success of all children.

In Teach Your Children Well, you write about the seven essential coping skills (resourcefulness, enthusiasm, creativity, a good work ethic, self-control, self-esteem, and self-efficacy). Which of those do you think a child gains the most from a camp experience?

Actually, I think camps help children master all the critical coping skills. This is another way of saying it fosters resilience, which allows us to deal with life’s inevitable changes and losses. We all develop coping skills by being in situations that push us out of our comfort zones. That’s what camp does for kids: Every day, it presents them with a whole new set of challenges, some of which are easily accomplished, others which take persistence, grit, and learning new skills.

Resourcefulness probably comes to mind first. You’re in a new situation, you’re meeting new people, you’re trying activities you’ve never tried before. Mom’s not there with you, and there’s nowhere to hide. You have to figure out how to meet social challenges, how to solve problems, how to pack your backpack or saddle your own horse. In the process, you stretch and grow in meaningful ways.

Enthusiasm gets bolstered as well. Camp is a place where, often, kids with specific interests that are not always rewarded during the academic year get a lot of recognition. At camp, for example, kids who are great with their hands may get to tie knots or build a cool fort. Instead of feeling bored or frustrated, they get to be excited and engaged. This may be a new feeling for many of them.

Camp supports self-esteem. There’s a constant line of new tasks to learn, which are fun and usually doable. I like to remind parents that self-esteem is not bestowed, it’s earned. Camp gives kids the opportunity to earn competence in something new — whether it’s in archery or lanyards or swimming — and that leads to confidence. It is competence and confidence that promote self-esteem in kids, not ribbons and tro¬phies for incidentals or just showing up.

Oh, and one more skill: self-control. You’ve got to follow the safety rules at camp or you get in trouble and have to sit out while the other kids swim. You can’t cry constantly over being homesick or you’ll be labeled a crybaby. You can’t leave your shoes and clothes all over the bunkhouse because you’re sharing a space with other kids.

In general, camp provides a great opportunity for kids to test themselves outside the home and see that they are capable, they can connect with other kids, they can solve problems and collaborate.

How can camps best partner with families to help their campers develop social and emotional skills?

That’s an interesting question. And I’m going to give an answer that may surprise you: The best way to help campers develop social and emotional skills is to tackle problems at the source. By that I mean their parents. We’re all aware that parents can be overly involved in their children’s lives. We think of this as happening mostly at school, but it also happens at camp. That’s why I think camps might benefit from setting aside some educational time with parents to explain, for example, why sewing a cell phone into the back of a teddy bear to get around the no-cell-phone rules at camp is a really bad idea!

By the way, I don’t think you do that kind of thing because you’re a terrible parent. You’re worried because you’ve never been out of touch with your children. It’s a scary feeling. So in a sense, camp is just as much of a growth experience for parents as it is for kids. Parents need to understand that they will have some anxiety to manage. When they get anxious, they’ll need the same coping skills that hopefully they’re teaching their kids: take deep breaths, take a walk, talk to their counselor.

No matter what, there will always be the occasional parent who interferes and gets in the way of a kid who is having a problem with a bunkmate, for example. Still, from the beginning, let all parents know why it’s so much more beneficial for their children to figure out how to deal with that bunkmate. Educate them in a gentle yet firm way and you might trigger a “light-bulb moment” that impacts their parenting style — not just during camp but also in the future.

At camp, kids learn the value of relying on adults other than their parents. My three boys each had a “go-to” person out in the world when they were growing up. Those three people were incredibly important in their lives, and I was grateful to have them. But a lot of parents worry that no one else will do as good of a job with their kids, or else they feel threatened in some vague way. They don’t realize that reliance on other capable adults is a positive thing. Imagine how much better off a child who is comfortable with other role models will be when she is at college. She will feel comfortable talking to a counselor or resident advisor instead of handling problems in a more destructive way.

Why did you send your sons to camp instead of having them take extra classes, go to summer school, or one of the other many options available today for a child’s summer?

It never crossed my mind to do summer school instead! Kids deserve a break, just like adults do. And I don’t mean that in a trivial sense. School is great for some things, but it can’t teach everything. Kids need the space and the downtime to learn critical skill sets that will serve them well in the future. I live near Silicon Valley, and I hear all the time that collaboration, creativity, outside-the-box thinking, and other socioemotional skills are in demand now and surely will be in the future.

Camp is about learning to get along with people from diverse backgrounds, to resolve conflict, and to just have fun and play, which kids don’t have nearly enough time for during the school year. It’s also a time for reflection. This is something else kids miss out on, and it also happens to be one of my big areas of interest. When every minute is scheduled with high-pressure classes and activities, how do you develop a sense of self, figure out who you are, and not be completely derailed by life’s inevitable challenges? You don’t. You can’t.

There’s no better place for crafting those skills than camp — for many reasons — but mainly because you’re in a safe, low-pressure environment. Camp is where I learned to swim, and I eventually became a lifeguard and made some money that way. At camp, I had the pleasure of learning something new — not with a test hanging over my head or with constant criticism directed at my performance, but just for the pleasure of it. And to this day, I still swim.

Learning for pleasure is really how we’d like our kids to acquire skills and knowledge. Engagement with learning is the best predictor of academic success. You want kids who care, who are interested, who have fun, and who look forward to learning. I think camp is the ideal environment for allowing that engagement to unfold.

Are there any strategies for camp professionals that would differ in working with children who are from under-resourced communities and those who aren’t?

Overall, kids need the same stuff. They need to feel cared about; they need to know somebody’s got their back. They need to be able to manage themselves within a circle that is safe for them yet that doesn’t have someone constantly interfering with them. They need to know what the limits are. They need support. Every kid needs all of these things and camp professionals can certainly provide them.

But yes, there are some ways in which your approach might differ. When you’re dealing with kids for whom expectations are very high all the time — for whom all the fun is drained out of learning — teach them how to learn without all that pressure. And for kids who have never had much in the way of expectations, provide a great deal of inspiration and support and also spell out what you expect.

What’s the best way counselors can teach campers empathy?

Research shows that kids and youth learn empathy by watching people around them. Again, camp offers such an opportunity. Is empathy taught in school? Not really. There may be a banner in the gym saying “be kind” or “don’t bully,” but we don’t learn values from banners. Camp is a place where kids can learn it in real time, where it is meaningful.

Let’s say a kid in the group is being bullied. That’s the opportunity for the counselor to call a meeting, talk about what’s going on, and be really clear about the values of kindness, empathy, and integrity. Over the course of a camp day there are probably a dozen opportunities for counselors to point out the benefits of being collaborative and kind. Kids will be watching. And because the counselors don’t identify with the child like a parent does, they can afford to model their values in a way that’s not demanding to the child. I think this is an easy way to pick up values. You watch people you admire.

Another factor is competence. There’s a really interesting study on what makes a child feel cared for in the classroom. We know that what we call a “climate of care” is one of the most important factors in academic achievement. Most of the studies say, basically, “A caring teacher is super important.” But a recent study, which is being looked at very carefully but so far seems to be a very good, says, “Yes, that’s true — as long as the teacher is competent, as well.” So it’s not enough to just be a warm counselor. You have to be a good counselor, too.

Do you have “Dos” and “Don’ts” for camp counselors in dealing with teenage campers?

A good counselor for teenagers is one who listens. People assume that a good camp counselor will teach kids all kinds of stuff and tell them what to do — how to be a good person, what to do and what not to do, how to be a good swimmer or archer or whatever. But teenagers get enough “teaching” and “telling” already. What they don’t get is a lot of listening. Adults don’t listen to teenagers anywhere near enough. Camp is the perfect place for kids to get away from all the pressure and talk to someone who will just listen.

I’ve been a psychologist for twenty-five years, and the predictability of teenagers saying, “I wish my parents would just listen to me,” is mind-boggling. I don’t think I’ve ever had a teenager who didn’t say that! Teenagers feel talked to — not with — all the time. So that’s my advice for camp counselors: Be a good listener.

Obviously, if counselors hear something that’s really worrisome or that threatens someone’s safety, they must spring into action. I don’t think I really have to spell out this disclaimer. But the therapists, parents, and teachers who do best with teens — and I don’t see how it’d be any different with counselors — are those who ask thoughtful questions and really are willing to listen to the answers.

Good counselors leave space for teenage campers to craft their sense of self. The kind of question I think is optimal is not: “Where are you going to college?” It’s more along the lines of: “Do you prefer the city or the country? Do you want a big school or a small school?” Questions like these invite teens to think about who they are and what they want out of life.

Allow teenagers to craft a sense of self rather than being told who they are. During the school year kids are told things like: “You’re a great student and athlete” or “You’re a slacker. You’re never going to amount to anything . . .” Positive or negative, it’s all judgment! I think a good counselor avoids judging and carves out opportunities for exploration and guidance.

How do you feel about a tech-free environment at camp?

It depends. I think it can make for a great camp experience. But do I think it’s neces¬sary? No. That is, I don’t view technology as an evil. What I think about is: “What’s technology replacing in a child’s life?” If it’s replacing relationships and hobbies and family and stuff like that, then it’s harmful. If it has become a crutch, it’s harmful. But if it’s an hour of downtime a day, I couldn’t care less. Or if a kid spends three hours on the computer every once in a while because they love filmmaking and editing and photography or anything like that, that’s okay, too.

Technology is just a tool — like the saw in the garage. I think it depends on the kid and how he’s using it, and on the expectation. At camp, if you really want the kid outdoors running around, learning how to get along with other kids in front of him — and not on Facebook — then I think a tech-free environment is probably best. Remove the temptation and the kid will have to focus on all the wonderful things camp has to offer. And he’ll probably find it to be a richer, more rewarding experience.

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