Establishing Clear Limits

by Rabbi Ronald Garr and Minda G. Garr

Second in a Series of Four Articles


One of the major challenges of working with a pre-adolescent and adolescent camper population is the area of boundary setting and limits. David Elkind (1994) describes the major psychological issue of middle to late childhood (six to eleven) as the conflict between the desire to grow up and enjoy the benefits of adulthood versus the desire to remain a child, enjoying the accompanying benefits. In Erikson's (1950) model of psychosocial development, adolescence (twelve to eighteen) is the fifth stage, with the main conflict to be resolved that of identity versus role confusion, and the development of peer relations as one of the major events of this age group. Elkind (1994) speaks of the importance of establishing a stable and resilient sense of identity. Adolescents need to make sense of their experiences and to learn about themselves.

These are the children that make up our camper population. They come to camp to learn about themselves and to make sense of their interactions with others. They come to a safe environment where they can try on new and different behaviors that might not be acceptable at home. They come to a place where they can try on new roles and new experiences, trying to unravel the mystery of the transition from childhood to adolescence and the next transition from adolescence to adulthood.

One of the pivotal elements in structuring a successful camp experience for campers is the establishment of clear limits and expectations. Counselors are often surprised when confronted with camper behaviors that are difficult to manage in the cabin or in the activity area. Not recalling their own experiences as campers struggling with the many conflicts and issues of childhood and adolescence, counselors often believe that trust and kindness are sufficient conditions for a warm, cooperative atmosphere in the cabin setting. They sometimes feel angry and hurt when treated disrespectfully by their campers who seem unable to live and work harmoniously together. They may feel resentful and exploited.

What Is the Source of This Problem?

Most children who come to camp want to have a positive experience. They want to feel loved, encouraged, protected, and safe. But what is easy to forget is that they are still children, and their expressed reasons for coming to camp are to be with their friends and to have fun. And for some campers, some of the time, having fun means being able to do whatever they want, whenever they want—with no limits. For camp staff and educators, finding ways to balance campers' need for fun, and adult understanding of the importance of behavior management and limit setting represents a major challenge.

Young campers may have difficulty controlling their behavior in a group setting and may be too young to take on this responsibility. The freedom of being far away from home and school and living in a cabin with others their own age is a stimulating and exciting experience. There are many times when they need an external structure and our active support to behave in ways that are not only fun, but also inclusive of others. They need to be guided by a sense of mutuality, respect, and direction.

Older campers may also engage in disruptive behavior, but the motives are different. As they make their way from childhood to adulthood, no longer children but not yet adults, they are struggling to figure out who they want to be and who they are. One of the ways this struggle is expressed in the camp setting is in their interactions with authority figures—cabin counselors, activity counselors, unit heads, and teachers. They confuse the staff and themselves as they waver between resenting adult authority; feeling they should be treated as "equals"; and indicating in sometimes subtle ways that they should be able to count on the "adults" for support, guidance, and protection. These conflicting feelings can lead to puzzling and sometimes inappropriate behaviors, as they vacillate between wanting to be treated as equals and yet to be guided and protected. Eventually problems may develop in the camper-staff relationship.

The Struggle

The struggle witnessed in the camp setting is an external projection of the turbulence within as these adolescents struggle to grow into adulthood. Adolescent campers may at times be defiant, rigid, arrogant, and egocentric. At other times, they will be caring, sensitive, attentive, and thoughtful. Adolescent campers often are not "pliable." They expect to hear "reasonable" explanations to all requests and demands, but "reasonable" often has to follow their logic. The life of the counselor may be difficult, but it is never boring.

When functioning as a group, there are some additional reasons that may contribute to disruptive behaviors. One of the first things campers need and want to know when they begin the summer in a new cabin group is the limits of acceptable behavior. Asking what the rules are is one way to discover what these limits are. However, one of the important facts of the informal communication network in camp is that some rules are not as important as others, and only some rules will really be enforced. Campers will "test" the rules to discover which ones the staff is really committed to enforcing. "Testing" implies experimenting with behaviors that disrupt the prescribed or expected framework of cabin behaviors and/or camp activities, and to see what, if anything, will be the response. This testing period may vary, depending on the willingness and ability of the staff to establish boundaries and to clearly and firmly enforce a framework of acceptable behavior early in the camp season.

There is also a camp-specific reason why campers engage in unacceptable behavior. The "testing period" is likely to be more pronounced in the camp setting than it might be in non-camp settings. The informal setting and the more complex relationships that the campers have with the counselor as compared to a teacher at school, can contribute to a lack of clear hierarchical boundaries. This lack of clarity has an impact on counselors as well as campers. It is the responsibility of the counselor through words and action to define this ambiguous and sometimes confusing relationship.

It is the job of the counselor to convey to campers that in spite of relaxed dress and setting, and in spite of first names and multi-faceted relationships between counselor and campers, they have a clear mutual goal on which to focus—building a well-functioning group unit that knows how to play together, work together, and be together, in a framework of cooperation, mutual respect, and consideration. This goal is not conveyed when a counselor is absent from the cabin at critical times during the day and evening, routinely begins activities late, is unprepared, or does not insist on cabin and activity behaviors that contribute to growth and learning.

Peer influences are more prominent in a camp setting. Parents are far away, most daily interactions are with others of the same age, and counselors are sometimes only a few years older than they are. When a popular child chooses the path of misbehavior, others may follow unless there is a clear adult presence that can help campers look at the consequences of their actions.

Another reason why children who do well in school and other social settings may choose inappropriate behaviors in camp is based on an often healthy need—the need to experiment with new roles and behavioral options. They are far away from the immediate influence of their families, schools, and friends at home. With none of the usual constraints in place, campers have the opportunity to experiment. They try out new ways of presenting themselves to others and of interacting with adults and peers. At home, they may be afraid or locked into habitual roles and behavioral patterns—but at camp they may be able to try something new and different.

This is one of the great opportunities of camp life. Children trust that they are in a protected environment, one in which it is safe to experiment without worrying about parental reactions. For example, the child who is almost too "good" at home may experiment with acting out at camp, looking for ways to be noticed by "talking back" or "getting in trouble." It is important for the camp staff to support the efforts of children to experiment with new roles, but at the same time to insist that this experimentation take place within reasonable limits that do not undermine the basics of emotional health and safety within the camp community.

The Challenges

Serious challenges to senior staff arise as junior staff members sometimes seem hesitant to identify, notify, and enforce even the minimal rules in a serious way. There are several reasons for this. Often, cabin counselors are initially very uncomfortable being in positions of authority and managing the behavior of campers. They may wonder if they have the right to tell campers what they can and cannot do. They may fear that if they set limits, campers will dislike them. As a result, new and even veteran staff members may try to completely circumvent the problem of a hierarchy and authority. They will present themselves to the campers as friends or as equals and directly or indirectly try to make a deal with the campers:

"We will be nice to you, if you will be nice to us."
"We don't want to be mean counselors who are constantly saying, 'Stop this! Do that!'"
"We don't want to be your enemies. Since friends respect each other, let's just get along . . . ."

This approach is rarely successful. Very quickly, the counselor is likely to find campers are taking full advantage of his/her trusting attitude. Almost before the counselor realizes it has happened, the cabin or activity group is out of control, and the counselor is feeling personally insulted, demoralized, and very angry with the campers. At this point, the counselor may try to change his/her approach, trying to establish him or herself in the role of authority he or she had previously rejected. In his/her attempt to do something different, s/he often becomes overly strict.

Campers are confused as the counselor moves from a laid-back approach to behavior management to a strict authoritarian approach. They've gotten used to the counselor as their pal, and at this point it is very difficult to make a change. The counselor is feeling mad and frustrated with the campers, experiencing the group as out of control, and campers are angry and upset because the counselor is changing both the rules and his/her own behavior.

Staff Training

Although possible, it is challenging to make a successful change mid-session in management style. We suggest that it is more effective for counselors to explore some of the issues relating to limit setting, boundaries, and the use of authority before the camp season begins.

Knowing what to expect can be helpful in handling behaviors that are disruptive, or hopefully even preventing situations that may lead to hurt and angry feelings on both sides. A firm and clear approach to behavior management can make the difference between an exciting and meaningful summer experience and a confused and chaotic experience. Being clear does not mean being mean. Being firm does not mean being distant and uncaring. Children know we care about them when we provide an environment that is structured, with lots of room for play; an environment which has limits, with lots of room for caring and support; and an environment with clear boundaries where they can know for sure they are safe and protected.

Dinkmeyer, D. (1998) Parenting Teenagers: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting of Teens (STEP). Circle Pines, American Guidance Service.
Elkind, D. (1994). A sympathetic understanding of the child. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.
Mackenzie, R. (1997) "Setting Limits in the Classroom." American Educator 21, Fall. 32 - 43.
Steere, B. (1968). Becoming an Effective Classroom Manager: A Resource for Teachers. New York: SUNY Press.

Rabbi Ronald Garr, M.A., has been on the faculty of the David Yellin Academic College of Education in Jerusalem, Israel, since 1984 as a lecturer in adult and family education. Since 1979, Rabbi Garr has spent his summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin as program director for fifteen summers and director of staff training for twelve summers.

Minda Garr, M.S.W., has been on the faculty of the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1981 as a lecturer in social work practice courses and academic advisor of the school. Since 1979, Garr has spent her summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin as camp social worker and staff trainer.

Originally published in the 2006 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.