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Autonomy, Mastery, and Connection: True Gifts of a Quality Camp Experience
Maddie, a seven-year-old camper, sits on her bed looking frustrated. Her counselor hovers over her trying to get her to finish tying her shoes so she can join the rest of her cabin as they head for their first morning activity. Maddie can’t seem to get her laces quite right, and she is worried the rest of the girls will leave her behind. Julie, her counselor, has the urge to finish the job for Maddie, but something tells her to hold back. She calls over to her co-counselor, Jackie, and says, “You take the rest of the girls on ahead, and Maddie and I will finish here and catch up with you.”
Julie then calms Maddie down, reassuring her that not only can she tie her shoes herself, but that they’ll have some fun catching up with the group by taking a short cut and getting there first! Maddie loves the idea of beating her friends to the tennis courts and her mood quickly changes. Julie kneels down to be on Maddie’s level, keeps her voice level and calm, and continues to cheer Maddie on. After a little prompting, Maddie finally gets it right. Julie gives her a big hug and says, “I knew you could do it! That’s great! Now, let’s go surprise the other girls!”
What seems like a typical scene in the life of a counselor with her camper is really an example of the three things that children can get from camp that helps them flourish. What counselor Julie did in her interaction with Maddie, who could just as easily have been a camper at a day camp changing after being in the pool, is support Maddie’s autonomy, encourage her sense of mastery, and further cultivate her feeling of being connected to a caring and well-meaning adult. It turns out that these three psychological needs — autonomy, mastery/competence, and connection/ relationship — are the three critical, universal psychological needs that a quality, intentional camp experience can foster in young people.
Three Psychological Needs
A basic physical need is something that is essential for a living entity to grow and thrive, like air, water, and food. When any living thing is deprived of an essential need, that organism will show signs of distress, stagnation, degradation, or harm. Once the need is satisfied, the living entity thrives once again.
A psychological need is similar in that emotional health and well-being depend on the satisfaction of these needs. All human beings have these same three psychological needs. The need for autonomy, mastery, and connection is natural and universal rather than ethnically, racially, or culturally specific. Ironically, the three essential psychological needs that have been repeatedly shown to be essential and universal are not necessarily consciously valued or pursued. Humans don’t come with an owner’s manual that tells us what our most basic psychological needs are. We need to figure that out on our own along with how to satisfy them as reliably as possible.
While many researchers around the world have investigated and tested these fundamental psychological needs, Richard Ryan, PhD, at the University of Rochester, has done more to validate not only their importance but their impact than just about anyone else (Ryan, 2013).
Ryan has shown that when children are supported in their quest for autonomy, encouraged in their desire for competence or mastery, and have strong, positive relationships, they not only thrive, they are more likely to be motivated from within (more on that later). At camp, for example, campers are more likely to clean up, follow the rules, and be respectful of one another and the adults around them when their counselors support their autonomy, reinforce their mastery, and cultivate close, caring, positive relationships with them.
That is exactly what Julie was doing when she stayed back with Maddie. By encouraging Maddie to tie her own shoes, Julie was actually supporting her autonomy — her sense of herself as her own person — while also fostering her sense of mastery. Sure, Julie could have saved time and tied Maddie’s shoes for her. But she would have missed an opportunity to help Maddie see that she can not only do it herself, she can rely on herself in the future. Julie did all this in the context of a caring relationship: She knelt down to be on Maddie’s level; she spoke in a calm and supportive tone of voice; she reassured her when she felt frustrated and afraid of being left behind by the other girls; and she praised her when she overcame her doubts and was successful. In fact, by helping Maddie get past her frustration and worry, we could say that Julie helped her master her feelings — not just her shoe laces!
Parents, although well-intentioned, often make the mistake of doing things for their children that their children can do for themselves, thus depriving them of developing a greater sense of autonomy. At camp, however, we prefer to “teach a child to fish” rather than “catch a fish for them” just so they feel happy about the outcome. An example might be at the climbing tower where you pull a camper up the last leg of the tower by his belay line so he can experience a sense of achievement by “getting to the top!” The problem is that, in his heart of hearts, that child knows his “achievement” is false. Rather than cave into what seems to be a trend in our culture, which is to give every child an award or “winning experience,” allowing them to struggle and earn that success on their own helps develop their emerging sense of autonomy.
Sure, we can prompt, encourage, support, guide, and demonstrate good technique. Once we hand campers an unearned “victory,” however, we steal from them the opportunity to develop greater autonomy — self-reliance and resilience, or knowing they can do it themselves. No wonder so many children become jaded. They have less of a sense of one of the most basic psychological needs for well-being — autonomy.
Another way autonomy and mastery come up at camp is during competition with counselors. Counselors have asked me if they should “let the campers win” or “be real and play as hard as we normally do and probably beat them.” My answer is neither! Your job as a counselor, if you want to support autonomy and encourage true mastery, is to help the campers get better at taking you on! Coach them about strategy, guide them about your weaknesses and their strengths, and support them in their efforts to engage you more successfully without “letting” them win or pummeling them. After all, everyone likes a challenge, but only if it is accompanied by an equally strong possibility of mastering that challenge (Ryan, 2013)!
Let’s look at another example of how camper behavior can be guided toward autonomy, mastery, and relationship. A group of eleven-year-old boys at a resident camp in Pennsylvania loved to pick up stones and throw them, in spite of their counselors’ repeated requests not to do so for the sake of safety.
In recognizing that the boys’ interest in throwing stones was to “practice” mastery — it takes good timing, a strong arm, and a keen eye, after all — I suggested the counselors form a stone-throwers club. We cleared the idea with the directors first because it involved a careful easing of a camp rule, which is that it is forbidden to throw stones in the lake. After getting their approval, the stone-throwers club was announced, and the boys were ecstatic! If you were a member in good standing of the stone-throwers club, you could join the club on their occasional outings1 to the lake during rest hour. In a very specifically designated area of the lakeshore, you could pick up and throw stones into the water and receive excellent instruction in just how to skip a stone across the lake surface! This new hobby suddenly carried with it not only fun, but also a greater sense of skill and mastery. The boys discovered that you could skip a stone for distance or throw it for the highest number of skips per throw. This was all very exciting and new territory for the boys. Club membership came with one important condition, however. In order to keep the status of a member in good standing, the boys could not pick up or throw a stone unless the stone-throwers club was in session, which of course was only during rest hour as designated by a counselor. That meant that if you caved into your impulses and picked up a stone on your way from the cabin to an activity, you lost your membership for two days!2
Stone-throwers club exemplifies both mastery and autonomy. The boys’ sense of mastery is most obviously fostered with the throwing of the stones themselves — how far you can throw, how big a stone you can throw, how oddly shaped a stone you could skip, and how many times you could skip it. Any time you as a counselor can offer an opportunity for a camper to attain a greater sense of mastery, the more interest — and cooperation — you will generate in them! What is less obvious is the mastery of the boys’ impulse control. The boys have to exercise mastery over their impulse to pick up a stone any old time. When a boy refrains from picking up a stone, he does so of his own volition. The counselors were advised to let the boys figure things out and not admonish them about picking up stones outside of the club meetings. This was done purposely because I wanted the locus of control to be within the boys, not with their counselors. After all, the true definition of autonomy is to do something of your own volition.
The kind of motivation we see in the previous situation is what we call “intrinsic motivation.” That is, motivation that comes from within. Children are internally motivated when they do something that either has meaning for them (for example, maintaining membership in the desirable stone-throwers club) or because of the pure satisfaction of it (like playing). Intrinsic or internal motivation is contrasted with extrinsic or external motivation, where rewards or punishments are used to motivate the child from outside.
An example of extrinsic motivation is when a parent pays his or her child to do homework. What a child realizes when this happens is that homework must be of little value if you have to get paid to do it! In fact, what Ryan has demonstrated in his research is that when teachers, for example, use rewards and punishments in a classroom setting, kids actually “play it safe” and shy away from more challenging tasks. In fact, when rewards and punishments are introduced, children tend to feel more coerced or manipulated rather than more autonomous (Bronson and Merryman, 2009). (It is interesting to note that when adults reward children for playing, they play less!)
As a counselor, you might want to rethink rewarding and punishing your campers.3 When I was assistant director at a boys’ sailing camp on Cape Cod many years ago, I remember watching a counselor give treats and candy to his campers that he had gotten from town as a way of rewarding them for doing what they were expected to do anyway, like making their beds and hanging their wet towels and bathing suits on the lines outside the cabin. At one point I remember saying to that staff member something like, “Maybe one day you’ll trust yourself more.” He looked at me quizzically and asked me what I meant. “I mean maybe one day you won’t need to use candy and treats to get the kids to like you or listen to you. You will come to believe that you are enough.”
Rewards can backfire with campers. As I already mentioned, once we reward campers for things they are expected to do anyway, they often feel manipulated. When this happens, many campers cut corners or even cheat just to get the reward. As adults, we also tend to praise or reward outcomes rather than what it took to achieve those outcomes. For example, in cabin cleanup we give a “grade” or numerical assessment of how clean the cabin is rather than praising campers for helping one another, volunteering, or supporting one another. When it comes to effective praise, the devil is in the details — like how well someone swept in the corners; or how someone else helped a friend collect his equipment and get it into a cubby; or how someone else commented on what a good job a cabin/group mate did in cleaning up the area outside their cabin or group meeting space. Rewards that do work (most especially praise, recognition, or extra privileges) are ones that are for how someone did something — rewards that are unexpected. Surprising your campers with a late-night popcorn party for the way they have been sharing and supporting one another and giving specific examples of the ways they have been doing this can be an effective way for boosting or maintaining good will among campers (Frederickson, 2013).
A lot more can be said about autonomy, mastery, and connection, but in closing, let me just make one more point. A midway form of motivation is what is known as “internalization” or “identity.” This is when a camper does something for the approval of an admired or respected adult or friend. The motivation is from both the outside (the approval of another) and the inside (the desire to win that approval). Being a role model means cultivating a positive, supportive, interested relationship with your campers. Perhaps the most valuable gift you can give anyone is your attention. When you take time to get to know your campers, are interested in them, and support their developing sense of autonomy and mastery, you will be giving them the most powerful experience camp can give: the gift of thriving! If you are successful, you will know by the shining in their eyes — the relief of having experienced a world they could not otherwise have been a part of had you not created it with them. Have a safe, vital summer!
Handling Behavior Problems
Most camper behavior problems can be seen in terms of autonomy, mastery, or connection. Let’s take the case of the five-year-old camper at a day camp in Illinois who has a temper problem. When this camper gets frustrated and can’t do something, he sits down and cries, stomps his feet, and refuses to cooperate or move. What the clever counselor did in response to this challenging behavior was use her relationship with the boy to acknowledge his feelings (“It really is hard when those bad feelings come over you, isn’t it, Jacob?”), then got a piece of paper and said, “Show me how angry you are and tear this paper right up!” The boy took the paper and tore it with great energy and enthusiasm into a bunch of pieces. Mastery! The counselor praised him for what a great job he did. What was a problem (his temper outburst) got redirected into an opportunity for mastery (as well as for autonomy, since the boy did tear the paper of his own volition). Later, when it happened again, the counselor handed him the paper and encouraged him to tear it into even more pieces. Increased mastery! I told her to write “mean feelings” onto the paper next time and tell him, “Let’s tear up those mean feelings that make you feel so bad! We’ll show them!” By doing so the counselor is helping the camper master his feelings and sense of self-control. Then there is the case of the little girl who is so overwhelmed by all that is new at camp, she can’t seem to keep herself organized. After her counselors repeatedly went over the schedule and procedures to no avail, I suggested this might be a problem of relationship: she needed a “camp buddy” — a peer to pair up with to feel less alone and more connected who could help her navigate the schedule.
Author’s Note: Special thanks to Andy and Wendy Siegel, Tyler Hill Camp, Tyler Hill, Pennsylvania, and Stacy Schwartz and Howard Thall, Banner Day Camp, Lake Forest, Illinois, for examples mentioned in this article.
- The outings needed to be once every few days rather than every day for several reasons, perhaps the most important being that doing it less often kept the anticipation and value of the activity high and guarded against it becoming less interesting over time. Once children master a task they often become bored with it. The other reason simply had to do with the boys’ busy schedules!
- It is important that a boy can “earn” his way back into the club for good behavior; otherwise, there is no incentive for that boy to keep from picking up stones in the future and getting on the wrong side of his counselors!
- I make a distinction between “punishment” and “consequences.” In fact, the biggest distinction between these two concepts is autonomy. Punishments are imposed on us by others. Consequences are the natural result of what happens in the world and carry less judgment.
Bronson, P., and Merryman, A. (2009). Nurture shock. New York, NY: Twelve Publishing.
Fredrickson, B.L. (2013). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we feel, think, do, and become. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.
Ryan, R.M. (2013). Self-determination. Harvard Medical School Conference on Coaching in Leadership and Healthcare 2013. The Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital. Boston, Massachusetts, September 27–28, 2013.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit www.BobDitter.com.
Originally published in the May/June 2014 Camping Magazine
Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts