In the Trenches: Mid-Summer Letter to Staff

Bob Ditter

 

Dear Staff,

Right about now you may be having the time of your life, enjoying the freedom of being in the outdoors in a community of good friends; or you may be wondering, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” Whatever your particular experience at camp so far, I am writing with some thoughts about being more effective with campers and getting greater enjoyment out of your work.

Many counselors, especially those who have never been at camp before, or those who were campers for many years, wonder what all the fuss is during orientation about being a counselor. After all, how difficult can it be to hang out with a bunch of kids during the summer and have fun?

Experienced staff know better. Given the unpredictable moods of campers, the boredom of rainy days, the stress of in-fighting, the challenges of homesickness, and all the other formidable tasks that working with children brings, it is easy to see that, if you take the job seriously, being a camp counselor is hard work. Indeed, being a camp counselor is a craft — no different in many ways from being a good soccer player, cook, musician, or teacher. Sure you can “wing it,” but if you aspire to being more than a mediocre camp counselor — someone who is memorable to your campers — there are some fundamental skills and techniques you must master in order to succeed.

Survival Tip 1

Develop a “look.” In fact, develop two.
Remember how, when one of your parents didn’t approve of something you did when you were a kid, they often shot you their “look?”

You know what I mean — that curt, disapproving glance that says, “Not here, not now, not ever!” It is amazing how universal the “look” is, and how, as soon as I mention it, most counselors know exactly what I am talking about. Although the particular set of facial contortions may vary, the intent is clearly designed to stop you dead in your tracks. Judging from conversations I’ve had with many staff, the impact was usually pretty effective.

If you yourself don’t have a ”look,” set about developing one now. Children are very tuned-in to nonverbal cues, and combining a disapproving “look” with the right words can be very effective. Besides, it will give you a jump on your parenting skills, even if you don’t plan to need them for a few years, yet.

But tip #1 says to develop two looks. This is because you need another look that conveys your approval, not just your disapproval. This can be a gesture and a look — like a smile and a thumbs-up; or a smile and a pat on the back; or whatever comes to you naturally. That gesture and the look that goes with it will become crucial components of your communication with children, who often listen for the tone in our voice and the look on our face and not so much to the words coming from our mouth. This leads to . . . .

Survival Tip 2

Praise and reward almost always trump disapproval and criticism.
If you are like most counselors, you have a tendency to threaten campers with the loss of a privilege when you get exasperated with their behavior. Threatening children is usually not effective for several reasons. First, you often don’t have the authority to follow through on some of your threats — like no canteen, no going to the dance, or no going on the overnight trip. Second, threats and depriving children of privileges simply cause them to feel resentful and make them want to challenge you even more. So, it backfires. I suggest praise for those campers who “do the right thing,” and incentives for everyone to get things done. Create group rewards, like a special activity, in which everyone can participate. Having children work for an incentive usually works better than taking things away.

Survival Tip 3

You have two voices!
This tip is really about the feelings you may have when a camper or group of campers is engaging in behavior that is challenging your patience. The fact that you may feel like wanting to wring their necks from time to time is normal. You, of course, won’t do anything of the kind, but this is where you have two voices — the one only you hear and the one you use publicly. I often tell parents that it is healthier to admit to their occasional feelings of intense anger at their children than to try to ignore those feelings — because if you don’t have your feelings, they will have you! This means, however, that you need to get very skilled at knowing what you say to yourself, what to “edit,” and then what to say publicly.

Survival Tip 4

There is always a “double standard” when working with children.
This reminder is true no matter where your work with children takes place — be it at camp, school, or some other child-related program. Whatever angry or negative things children may do or say to us, we simply cannot do and say negative things back to them. We are the adults in this picture. It is up to us to raise the level of a child’s behavior rather than for us to lower the level of our behavior.

Survival Tip 5

Drop the emotional rope!
Of all the things I can say to you, this may be the most important and the most useful. When children challenge you, as they will inevitably do, your tendency may be to get into a kind of power struggle with them. I call this the emotional tug-of-war, with you pulling on one side saying, “Look, I’m the counselor, you have to listen to me!” and a child on the other side saying any of a number of things like, “I don’t make my bed at home, so I don’t have to make it here!” When you get into that struggle, you are actually less effective, because children are then reacting to your anger or frustration and not your good intentions.

There is a host of things children can say that may trigger us, so it is best to be aware of them and practice how to respond. The following are a few things I have heard from campers myself over the years:

“You’re not my parent . . . I don’t have to listen to you!”

Effective response (calmly spoken): “You’re right, I’m not your parent. And everyone knows that at camp we all help clean up.” (Then encourage them and move on!)

“My father/mother is a lawyer… I can get you sued!”

Effective response: Ignore the threat — responding to it would be picking up the emotional rope — and 1) simply, but calmly, state what you expect; 2) avoid responding to any further complaints; 3) restate what you expect; and 4) move on!

“My parents pay a lot of money for me to come to this camp! I can do what I want!”

Effective response (again, calmly spoken): “You and I both know (remember this phrase, you can use it over and over) that your parents didn’t send you here to be wild. And everybody knows that part of camp is . . . (fill in the blank).” Then move on!

Survival Tip 6

This is a job.
Working at camp can be tremendous fun. It can also be challenging. One of those challenges is working in close proximity with others. As in any job, you must learn to express your discontents and complaints in responsible ways. This means having the honesty to go directly to the person with whom you have the complaint, including the camp director, and expressing yourself in terms that are respectful of the other person. Doing so may be taking a risk, but it is essential if the community is to maintain trust and have integrity. You are all living too closely together to settle for anything less.

So, have a great summer!

Yours in Camping,
Bob Ditter

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for Bunk1.com and can be reached via e-mail at InTheTrenches@bunk1.com or by fax at 617-572-3373. “In the Trenches” is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

 

Originally published in the 2004 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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