In the Trenches: Campers with a Mean Streak

In the Trenches

By Bob Ditter

Dear Bob,

Every summer we have campers who, when no one is looking, can be extremely
mean to other campers. We have found this in our youngest campers as well
as in older campers, both boys and girls. For example, last summer we
had a boy in our "Puma" group (boys eight to nine years old)
who at times was very helpful to counselors. The boy, whom I will call
"Charlie," liked his counselors and was eager to volunteer
and help out with cleanup and other tasks. At other times, however, he
would tease, taunt, and even hit his cabin mates. One time the counselor
walked into the cabin at rest hour to find him swinging a rope around,
indiscriminately whipping any boy who happened to be in his way. One time
a counselor caught him sneaking up behind another camper and yanking his
pants down. Confronting him with his behavior always seemed to have the
same result — he would initially either stare back at you blankly,
as if he didn't know what you were talking about; or he would be
somewhat regretful and contrite. Regardless of his reaction when spoken
to, it never seemed to have a lasting impact on his behavior. What would
your advice be about handling such behavior?

— Dilemma in the Dells

Available from ACA

Pocket Guide for Resident Camp Counselors
by Bob Ditter
Guide For Day Camp Counselors
by Bob Ditter
Guide For All Girls Resident Camp Counselors
by Bob Ditter
Guide For All Boys Resident Camp Counselors
by Bob Ditter
Laugh At Me Program Kit
by Peter Yarrow Productions and
Educators for Social Responsibility

Dear Dilemma,
Many camp professionals have contacted me about mean or bullying
camper behavior. Many have wondered what is causing what they see as an
increase in this sort of behavior. No matter what the explanation, if
you can't help Charlie control his impulses, he won't have a good experience
at camp if he is constantly getting into trouble, nor will any kid near
him who happens to walk into his path when he's feeling mean.

In fashioning a response to Charlie's behavior, let's start
with his counselors, who are, after all, "in the trenches"
with Charlie and are most suitably positioned to carry out the plan. They
need to be coached in both the overall approach and the exact language
to use with Charlie. Allow me to digress here for a moment and talk about

When I meet with counselors about a challenge like Charlie, I give them
a pen and a note card and have them write down what I tell them. There
are two reasons I do this. First, if they do the writing, they are taking
an active step in responding to Charlie, which is a good way to start
counteracting any feelings of frustration or resignation they may have
developed in dealing with him. By the time they finally ask for help,
they are usually feeling discouraged and angry at the camper for making
them feel like failures. If the counselors have "given up"
on Charlie, they will not embrace the plan and it will fail. Your first
job is to revive their enthusiasm and give them some hope!

The second reason I do this is that counselors, dedicated and wonderful
as they may be, are also by and large not trained in the subtleties of
working with campers in the way I am about to ask them to. Most counselors
have a kind of trial-and-error, "shoot from the hip," intuitive
approach. Even though it may be obvious that their approach hasn't
worked, don't underestimate human tenacity! People continue to use
what they are familiar with even if they know it isn't helping.
I want to make sure they understand the exact language I am using and
have them adopt that language and the approach it represents as closely
as possible — especially since Charlie has been so successful at
outsmarting everything else they've tried up to this point!

I would have the counselors speak with Charlie at a time when he is
not in trouble so that he is more receptive. I would have them say the

  1. "We've been thinking about how you've been getting
    along here in the cabin with the other boys, and it almost seems like
    there's two of you — the great Charlie that helps out
    and is friendly and cooperative that we love to see and the mean Charlie
    that can tease other campers, or say mean things, or do mean things,
    like the time you pulled Jacob's pants down or the time you were
    swinging the rope, hitting other boys." Essential points: It is
    important to say "it almost seems like there's two of you,"
    and it is important to give specific examples of the "helpful,
    nice Charlie" and the "mean Charlie."
  2. "We'd like to see more of the great Charlie that we like
    so much and less of the mean Charlie who hurts other people's
    feelings." If at this point, Charlie says he doesn't mean
    to hurt other boys, the counselors should respond with "maybe
    you don't mean to hurt anyone, Charlie, but it still happens,
    and we want to help you stop." If Charlie complains that he is
    also a victim of boys being mean to him, simply have the counselors
    say that when that happens he should come and tell them, and not "get
    even" by doing something back, which might get him into trouble.
    "Part of the reason we are doing this, Charlie, is to help you
    not get into trouble. We know you don't like it when you're
    in trouble, and we don't like it, either!" Essential point:
    Children don't like getting into trouble, and the counselors are
    going to help him by being on his "better" side.
  3. The counselors then continue as follows: "Every time we see
    you doing great things here at camp — helping others; doing what
    your counselors ask you to do; sharing with the other boys — we
    will let you know what a great job you are doing. And every time we
    see you doing or saying something mean, we're going to point it
    out to you." Essential point: We're going to watch you like
    a hawk for a few days and let you know immediately how you're
  4. "If after we point it out to you, you're still doing or
    saying mean things, then you may have to talk to the unit director or
    maybe even go with another group for part of a day." Essential
    point: We are willing to back this up with something more serious if
    that's what it takes!

The counselors will then have to make a concerted effort to notice when
Charlie is being helpful or cooperative or sharing and tell him, "That's
the Charlie we like to see!" Likewise, when the counselors see him
saying something mean or teasing another camper, they will need to point
it out to him, saying, "This is what we are talking about, Charlie.
This is what the mean Charlie does that hurts other people's feelings
and gets you into trouble." Essentially, Charlie needs more feedback,
and he needs it as soon after he acts as possible.

Words Alone Won't Do the Job

Talking to Charlie and giving him more immediate feedback is only the
beginning. It only provides the framework for what will invariably come
next, which is that Charlie will "test" the system to see if
it works. Once he does something more egregious, like slam-dunking another
boy, there needs to be a consequence. This is where the unit director
comes into play. Consequences need to be discussed and agreed upon with
the unit director or boys head counselor beforehand, and they need to
be immediate and significant. One consequence that works well with most
campers is what I call "furlough." This is when a camper is
separated from his or her own group and placed for part of a day in another
group. For Charlie, he would move up a couple of age groups. This makes
most campers uncomfortable without being punitive, and it keeps them in
the program.

The unit director needs to make a careful assessment as to how many
age groups ahead to send Charlie, and the counselors of the group Charlie
will be moved to need to understand why Charlie is there and how he should
be treated. (He will be treated with respect and will be included in the
program to the degree he is capable of participating in it. He is not
there to be shamed.) The other kids in the group Charlie is going to are
simply told Charlie is "visiting" their group for a day. The
campers in Charlie's group are told Charlie is taking a break from their
group. I have found that this simple move has tremendous impact, both
on "Charlie" (he gets it that you mean business) and the boys
in his group, who get some time without him and have their sense of justice
and fairness restored.

Another effective consequence is having Charlie talk to the unit director
or head counselor while the rest of his group is at a favorite activity,
goes to canteen, or some other privilege. I tend to prefer furlough as
a consequence over forms of deprivation, like missing an activity, but
different consequences work with varying degrees of success depending
on the individual camper. In the furlough scheme, older campers are sent
down to "help out" with the little kids for a day, which has
equal impact as sending younger campers up a few age groups.

What About the Parents?

One element missing from this scheme is the parent connection. Given that
campers have much more contact with their parents while they are at camp
(e-mails, letters, even phone calls at some camps), and given that parents
are much more involved in their children's behavior at camp, it is crucial
that parents be spoken to about Charlie's behavior and the plan being
devised to address it. In the next issue, I will talk about the language
and the approach to use with parents and the common pitfalls most camp
professionals encounter when dealing with parents about their child's
behavior at camp.

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

Originally published in the 2005 November/December
issue of Camping Magazine.