The Kurse of Kumbayah: Five Camp Stereotypes that Derail New Staff

by Jon C. Malinowski, Ph.D.

In the 1993 hit comedy, Addams Family Values, young Wednesday and Pugsley are sent to Camp Chippewa, a white, upper-class camp where the owners, Becky and Gary Granger, saturate the campers with sappy, over-the-top happiness. When the Addams children don’t conform, they’re sent to the “Harmony Hut,” a small, gingerbread-like cabin full of mawkish posters and decorations designed to transform a problem child into the typical Camp Chippewa camper. When they escape from the hut and try to scale a fence, the children are confronted by Becky, Gary, and a group of brainwashed campers. Convinced that the children can be converted to Pollyanna-ish drones like all the other campers, the owners launch into a cornball rendition of “Kumbayah.” The Addams children are not enthused.

This scene sums up what I call the “kurse” of Kumbayah — a view of summer camps that does not reflect what most good camp professionals aim to create. To be blunt, the camp community is plagued by a series of stereotypes, including that camps and camp staff are either excessively or falsely happy, of poor quality, focused on partying and debauchery, scary, or overly strict. These clichés are perpetuated by the American entertainment establishment and sometimes encouraged by our peers.

More importantly, these attitudes affect the way that new staff approach their summers — often hindering our noble efforts to turn them into role models for our campers. While there are books and short stories about camping, movies and television are more important transmitters of popular culture for a discussion about where stereotypes about camp are perpetuated and what we can do to reduce their hold on new staff.

As a disclaimer, please do not interpret any negative comments as a complete panning of a particular movie or work. On the contrary, as pieces of entertainment they are thoroughly enjoyable. However, it is important to recognize that the very entertainment that we enjoy also complicates our jobs as camp professionals. If you are not familiar with the works discussed, I encourage you to rent or buy them as professional development. Be warned, however, that many contain adult material and are not suitable for children or the camp library.

Camp Perpetual Happiness

Camp Perpetual Happiness is a place where the staff is unnaturally enthusiastic and attempts to handle all problems by forcing the campers to be cheerful. Here, camp staff often refuse to recognize or accept that a camper may be unhappy, or if they do, think that all problems can be solved with a smile, a song, or a game.

The finest example of this is the Addams Family Values scene previously mentioned, but there are others. In the “Fat Camp” episode of the popular cartoon South Park, Eric is sent against his will to a weight loss camp (Hopeful Hills) by his parents. When he arrives, visibly upset, a counselor greets him with, “Hello, camper, my name is Rick. How are you doing?” to which Eric responds, “Well, I’m ******* off Rick, how are you?” Rick’s thoughtful, caring response to a distressed camper is, “I’m doing great!” thereby ignoring the camper’s problem and inserting an overly positive statement to mask the unhappiness of the moment.

From the 1979 movie Meatballs to 2001’s Happy Campers, counselors are often portrayed as sappy, perma-happy robots who fail to realize the true nature of their situation. Why this stereotype is dangerous lies in the failure of the counselor to react appropriately to a camper in need. A homesick camper may sometimes need an enthusiastic, goofy counselor to cheer her up, but at other times that same child may need a quiet listener, a sympathizing friend, or a stern parent figure. While we obviously want happy counselors who have a lot of enthusiasm, our staff have to realize that there are times when emotions other than happiness might be appropriate. In fact, staff who are always in high spirits can ignore serious issues because they’re trying to make their campers happy at any cost — even if that means breaking camp rules, such as sneaking in candy or violating taps.

To be honest, we often perpetuate this stereotype at camp conventions by dedicating long sessions to games and icebreakers that are supposed to pass as staff training. Icebreakers should be just that — short exercises to get people interested in the training. Directors or staff trainers should not have to dedicate long portions of staff training time to games designed only to “build teamwork” or “promote camp spirit.” An experienced staff of seasoned veterans might be able to spend hours on building teamwork, but sadly most camps have large numbers of inexperienced staff every summer. These young men and women need practical skills that prepare them to manage camper behavior and run the camp safely. You need to do more than simply tell them what time breakfast is and how to get to the archery range. Properly skilled counselors are usually happy counselors — but happiness alone does not solve all camp problems.

Break the kurse
To break the hold of this curse on your staff, consider the following strategies:

  • Make sure that your training teaches multiple ways of dealing with common problems. Role-play a fight between campers where the counselor must break it up using an upbeat demeanor or humor. Then redo it but require that the leader be stern or disappointed. This allows your staff to see that common situations can be dealt with in a variety of ways.
  • Emphasize that different age groups might require different leadership techniques. Goofiness might work with pre-adolescents more often than it does for teenagers. In fact, teenagers will often react better to a counselor who is more realistic in his or her personality. The fifth rainy day in a row can still be fun, but let’s not try to convince a child that it’s the best thing that’s ever happened.
  • Make sure that you express a range of emotions with your staff. Show the happy, goofy side of your personality that makes camp fun, but also talk about the emotional importance of camp in your life or how it helped you get through a tough time. This shows new staff that the camp environment in which they’re working is one in which a range of emotions can be expressed.

Camp Crappy

Camp Crappy is another stereotype of the industry. This camp is run-down and operated by an uncaring, often absent staff. The finest example of this may be the “Kamp Krusty” episode from The Simpsons. In this episode, Bart and Lisa go to a corporate-run camp that is advertised as heaven-on-earth. When they arrive, the place is falling apart, the staff ignore their pleas for help, and they are fed gruel in the mess hall.

Variations on this theme show up repeatedly. In some movies or shows, the camp is bad because the staff is apathetic or absent. In the 2001 movie, Wet Hot American Summer, a camper drowns after a counselor ignores his pleas for help. Granted, this movie is meant as a comedic parody, but it still reinforces the stereotype. In Friday the 13th, Part 2, a staff trainer actually says to a counselor on the first day of training, “We worked a few seasons together, right?” Talk about apathetic — a senior staff member who barely remembers that he worked “a few seasons” with another staff member shouldn’t be senior staff.

At other times, a camp’s physical plant is woefully lacking. For example, in Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), graffiti and sub-standard plumbing are clearly evident, and a group of new campers is moved into a cabin that would not pass a safety inspection anywhere in the country. The song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” by Allan Sherman, which no camping expert can escape when on television or the radio, also reinforces the bad camp stereotype. Even if the end of the song makes things look okay, few people remember those verses.

This curse is dangerous for three reasons. One, it may reduce the number of children that come to camp. Second, it creates an attitude among the staff that run-down buildings and grounds are normal at camp, thus promoting a careless attitude with equipment and infrastructure. Third, it trivializes safety issues that often topple excellent camps through lawsuits and bad press.

Break the kurse

  • Make sure that your grounds are not like those portrayed in these movies. Many of you will likely be insulted by this statement, but the truth is that there are camps that allow broken windows and screens to remain unfixed, hornets nests in bunk areas, and garbage to be strewn everywhere. These are not exaggerations — I have witnessed each of these problems.
  • Include in your staff training an appreciation for caring for equipment and infrastructure. Tell your staff how much money is spent on painting or repairing windows. Share an electricity bill with them or the invoice for new sports equipment. Or better yet, talk to your staff about liability insurance. Read newspaper accounts of unfortunate cases where campers were injured because of staff negligence. Several of the insurance firms that serve the camp industry will send representatives to your camp to address these issues and emphasize the consequences of carelessness.
  • Create a culture that doesn’t allow your camp to be dirty or run-down. This can include, for example, an organized system to report problems to the maintenance staff. At the camp at which I work, senior staff report routine maintenance problems to the property manager every day before lunch. More serious problems are dealt with immediately. In addition, make it clear to the staff that certain issues — like mistreatment of equipment or garbage on the ground—are important to you.

Camp Party-All-Night-Long

To look at many camp movies and television shows, camp is the most decadent place on earth. In Meatballs, Bill Murray’s character brings alcohol on an overnight camping trip with a group of CITs. Sex follows. In Friday the 13th, the first night of staff training involves sex, strip poker, and smoking marijuana. In Happy Campers, staff spend the entire summer discussing sex with their campers, allowing them to see pornography, and teaching them how to pick up the opposite sex. Little Darlings (1980), Oddballs (1984), Camp Nowhere (1994), and Wet Hot American Summer (2001) all portray camp life as little more than sex, pranks, and/or substance abuse.

The problem with this stereotype should be obvious. New staff may show up expecting a summer of sex and partying only to find that they have to tend for sick campers, clean the stables, and figure out what to do when fifty-five kids show up at archery. Being a counselor, as we know, is a tough job that has great, but sometimes sporadic rewards.

Break the kurse

  • Prepare your staff for the realities of their job — first and foremost. This can start even before camp begins by suggesting books on child behavior or preparing a precamp staff manual that addresses common responsibilities or problems. Why not prepare a document that outlines a whole week in a counselor’s life to highlight the times a new staff member will be on duty or free?
  • Don’t sell them a bill of goods you cannot deliver. If you promise them that camp will be non-stop fun, you’re setting yourself up for trouble. Be honest about the joys and pains of working with children, and counselors will be better prepared mentally to start the summer.
  • Make sure you don’t promote this stereotype through policies that are dangerous or overly liberal. For years, some camps had party houses on camp grounds where staff members were allowed to drink and socialize. The argument was that this is safer than having counselors leave camp, but we all know that some staff will still drink and party when they leave camp, as well. Other camps offer three or more nights out-of-camp nights-off a week, which often encourages staff to leave grounds and party instead of learning to enjoy downtime at camp. Some camps even give a whole day-off during a five-day staff training week. While a night off may be okay, and even beneficial, if you don’t have enough topics to cover during a staff training week (whose length is mandated by the ACA), you’re either the best camp in the country or woefully neglectful.

Camp Blood n’ Gore

There are times when an inexperienced staff member gets off to a bad start by telling an inappropriately gory or scary story on the first night of camp. Camps are often dark and wooded, which research has shown can scare many children. Popular culture has reinforced this stereotype. Many camp movies, such as Addams Family Values and Meatballs, contain scenes in which a staff member tells a scary story around a campfire. More damaging is the whole genre of horror movies set in camp environments. The most well-known movies might be Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th Part 2. In each of these, counselors are slaughtered in revenge for a child drowning years before because neglectful counselors were having sex instead of life guarding. In an odd way, these movies support the theme that sex and partying in camp have negative consequences. Unfortunately, these “Hollywood” consequences are often violent.

Many directors might not be aware of other movies in the genre, most notably the Sleepaway Camp series, a trilogy released in 1983 and 1988, and recently packaged as a deluxe DVD box-set. The movies have a wide cult following. The plot line of the first movie revolves around a gender-confused camper who kills incompetent staff and campers. In later movies, the homicidal camper secretly becomes a staff member and continues hacking, burning, and mutilating campers and counselors.

Break the kurse
How these movies affect staff is hard to determine. You can bet that some of your new staff have seen at least one camp horror movie. Some will use this cultural stereotype to scare campers (and sometimes other staff).

  • Decide what level of scariness your camp population can handle.
  • Set a policy about what kinds of stories can be told to certain age groups and in certain settings. This can be incorporated into discussions about the appropriateness of a wide range of popular culture in the camp setting. Explicit music in lyrics, inappropriate logos or slogans on T-shirts, and overly revealing personal discussions can be discussed at the same time in the context of age-appropriate leadership. Scary stories are an important camp tradition, discretion remains important.

Camp Young Fascists

The final curse is the stereotype that camp counselors are authoritarian jerks who only bark orders at campers. In Heavyweights, Happy Campers, The Simpsons, Ernest Goes to Camp, and Meatballs 2, counselors or directors are portrayed like fascist dictators. Campers are inconvenient problems who must be tolerated, ordered around, and punished.

How this affects staff is clear. Every summer, there are a few people who cross the line and try to discipline through fear and intimidation. This leadership style is, frankly, easy for an inexperienced staff member. As stresses mount and new staff realize they are unprepared for some of the situations they face, some will resort to yelling and screaming in situations where an experienced staffer might use humor or simply a stern voice.

Break the kurse
Just like dealing with perpetually happy staff, you must train counselors to use a variety of tools in dealing with camper behavior.

  • Role-play situations using experienced staff with different personalities or leadership styles.
  • Talk through common camper issues and solicit suggestions from your staff. Allow as many divergent opinions to be expressed as possible and explain the range of rewards and punishments that are allowed in your system. The more strategies and options a counselor has, the less likely he or she will choose rage as a solution.
  • Make sure that staff have ways of dealing with stress. Free time during the day, counselor athletic tournaments, a staff psychologist, and variations in duties can provide outlets for stress.

In a Different Light

In an ideal world, every depiction of a summer camp would feature positive counselors obeying camp rules and nurturing their campers. Sadly, Hollywood and Madison Avenue often choose to depict camps in a much different light. While no camp is free from the curse of these stereotypes, camps with high turnover rates among the staff or with staff who have not experienced camp life before are most vulnerable because there are few positive role models for them to emulate. Sure, there are positive camping movies, from Henry Aldrich: Boy Scout in the 1940s to Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown to the sweet Indian Summer. But I’d be willing to bet that these movies are much less influential then South Park, the Simpsons, and camp horror movies. That is the reality of our society and we, as staff trainers and supervisors, must address it in our training.

Jon C. Malinowski, Ph.D., is a college professor, staff trainer, and co-author of the Summer Camp Handbook with Christopher A. Thurber, Ph.D. He can be contacted at jon@campspirit.com.

Originally published in the 2003 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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