In the Trenches: Remember Who the Adults Are at Camp

by Bob Ditter

Dear Bob,

Every summer, we have new staff who come to camp somewhat naive about the demands of being a counselor. No matter what we tell them about the long hours and the demands of working with campers, we feel like we haven't quite prepared them for the summer ahead. Do you have any advice or thoughts that we could share that might help counselors realize the awesome responsibility and opportunity they have working with our young people?

- Wondering in Wisconsin

Dear Wondering,

Nothing replaces experience as a teacher. I suspect many camp directors feel like you do, that no matter how well they have prepared their staff they could have used one more day! And despite your training efforts, there will always be some counselors who will say, "They never told me it would be like this!" That having been said, there are some thoughts I can share with staff.

Becoming a Memorable Counselor

As a staff person, think back to when you were younger. You probably knew adults - teachers, relatives, coaches, scout leaders, etc. - around whom you felt safe, nurtured, encouraged, or basically cared for. You probably also knew adults around whom you and your friends felt unsafe - adults who were critical, unpredictable, moody, or just made you feel wary, ashamed, or like you were a burden. Your campers can tell just from being with you and sensing how accepting and genuinely happy you are to be with them which category of adult you fall into.

Having spoken to thousands of campers over the years, I know that what leaves a positive impression on them are counselors who sincerely enjoy spending time with them, listen to them, and play with them. Campers also said that staff members who keep things emotionally safe and teach them something new or who lead them to be more successful are particularly memorable. That something new can be anything from how to make a new friend, to how to hold a lacrosse stick or put the right spin on a basketball, to how to use a new tool or how to overcome a fear of trying new things.

Notice that nowhere in this list do you find campers who say their favorite counselors are ones who let them do whatever they want. Though campers will often pressure you to let them do what they like, counselors who cave into this pressure are not only not memorable but may be compromising the physical and emotional sense of safety among campers. It is ironic that campers often ask to do the very things that later make them feel unsafe or out of control. One of the hardest things to remember when you are surrounded by children all summer is that you are the adult and that it is your sound judgement that often means the difference between a safe activity and one where a child gets seriously hurt - physically or emotionally.

Getting to Know Campers

Let me also share a few survival tips. Children who are strangers to one another need time to become comfortable before they can truly get along, cooperate, and perform at a high level. The time you take to get to know your charges and help them get to know one another will pay later when you are trying to guide them through clean-up or some other cooperative activity. Likewise, campers who know each other very well, either from past summers or from home, may need new challenges to grow beyond old loyalties and cliques.

One particular caution has to do with working with teens who know each other well from past years. If you are new to camp and the teens are long-time veterans, you will find that they will ignore you at first while they reconnect with one another. Do not force yourself on them early in the session. Give them a chance to renew their friendships. After perhaps a day, once they have reconstituted themselves as a group, they will turn their attention to you. That is when you can begin the process of getting to know them and letting them know you. (Teens, by the way, are usually not shy about asking questions. Just remember that you do not - in fact, should not - share all the intimate details of your private life with them. Win them over through your interest in them and your willingness to enter their worlds.) The patience you exhibit with teens will pay off. Forcing yourself on teens, especially as a female counselor working with teen girls, will only backfire.

You Are the Adult, So Keep Your Cool

Remember that as a counselor, there is a double standard when working with campers. If a camper uses rude or inappropriate language with you or engages in hostile behavior, you cannot react in kind. You are the adult. Losing your cool or yelling may make you feel better momentarily, but campers will come to resent you or respect you less for it. Besides, yelling will not accomplish your long-term objectives.

With older campers, state your expectations clearly ("Guys, it's clean-up time and we all know what our jobs are, so let's go!); stay out of the battles or traps they may set for you ("Awe, come on! We're tired! Can't we skip clean-up this morning?"); and restate your expectations and then detach. Detach means to not take things personally and get into a power struggle with your campers. Remember, any consequences of misbehavior on their part are theirs, not yours!

Use games, countdowns, contests, songs, or group challenges to engage younger campers. The more fun you put into the summer, the more you and your campers will get out of it, and the more enjoyable your job will be as a caretaker of children. One wonderful advantage of camp over most other settings working with children is the tremendous variety of activities at your disposal with which to engage campers. Your impact will be most felt out on the ropes course, down by the waterfront, out on the climbing tower, or working in groups on a craft project. This is where you will help children learn all those little lessons of life, like learning how to wait, how to help out, and how to overcome a fear or support one another. This, indeed, is where camp gives kids a world of good.

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 2000 May/June of Camping Magazine.