In the Trenches
by Bob Ditter
Whether you are a volunteer, a new staff member, or a seasoned counselor,
working with campers can be both rewarding and challenging. Children
can be fun, warm, engaging, and energetic. They can also be cranky, mean
to one another, over-stimulated, and stubborn! Being successful with
campers requires that you have a consistent approach and a firm grasp
on a handful of skills to deal with unwanted behavior as it shows up.
The following seven skills are ones I have seen successful counselors
use most often when working with campers.
1. Don't pick up the rope!
Of all the things I say to counselors, this is the one they tell me
is the most important and the most useful. When campers challenge you,
it may be tempting to get into a power struggle with them. This is so
easy to do that even teachers and parents fall into this trap! 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.
They derive great satisfaction knowing they have "gotten" you!
The most effective way to respond when a child "throws us the
rope" is not to pick it up! There are a whole 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 examples:
- Camper: "You're not my parent . . . I don't have to listen
- Effective response (spoken calmly): "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!)
- Camper: "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. Simply, but calmly, state that you
are glad the camper's parent has such a great profession, and you still
expect them to clean up, wash their hands, help out, or whatever the
request is that you've made of them.
- Camper: "My parents pay a lot of money for me to come to this
camp! I can do what I want!"
- Effective response (again, spoken as calmly as you can): "I'm
glad your parents are able to send you here. That's great! And . .
. 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 cleaning up, helping out, going
to activities, etc." Then move on!
The most important part of "don't pick up the rope" is staying
calm. This takes some practice. Make it a game with yourself — that
you refuse to let a camper push your button. If a camper succeeds, he/she
wins and you lose! (Actually, if they succeed in "pushing your button," everybody
loses!) Also, responding with a sarcastic comeback, while tempting, only
encourages many campers to prolong the argument. Sarcasm is just another
way of picking up the rope!
2. Enter their world.
One of the reasons campers do not comply with counselor requests is
because they are actually looking to engage you. Behind this desire for
attention is a longing for adults to take an interest in their world — their
reality. For example, if you encounter a camper sitting on her bed playing
a game or reading a book when she should be cleaning up, instead of simply
barking orders, you might take a moment to be interested in what she
is doing. This is like seizing the opportunity to gain a window into
the camper's world — her interests, concerns, and so on. A few
moments spent looking at something together in a kind of momentary "time
out" with a camper may eventually result in much more compliance
on their part.
In this day of instant messaging, cell phones, web logs, and other
technical ways of "being connected," many children long for
the simple attention of a real, present, interested adult.
3. State your expectations and detach!
This is an especially effective technique to use with teens — though
it works equally well with younger children. The technique has four steps:
- When a camper is not complying with a request, like getting to an
activity on time or pitching in to do their part of clean-up, state
what you expect clearly and simply.
- Avoid getting into an argument (picking up the rope!) when the camper
complains or tries arguing. Remember, most children would rather argue
with you than do what it is they are supposed to do.
- Restate your expectation — simply and without responding to
any arguments being thrown your way.
- Detach. This means walk away! Move on to your next task or the next
camper and leave the camper you just spoke with to deal with the dilemma
of defying you. If he does defy you, go to skill #7 below.
This technique is used by all parents, day care teachers, school professionals — in
short, just about anyone who works with children. When you find campers
engaging in some kind of play or activity that is potentially harmful
or dangerous or emotionally hurtful to someone else, try redirecting
or channeling their energies into a different activity. In other words,
capitalize on their momentum and simply move it into an activity that
is interesting, but less risky.
At rest hour, for example, left to their own devices, many campers
tease one another or get noisy and restless. Creating quiet chess, checker,
or card game tournaments can help keep campers occupied in ways that
are a change from the hectic pace of camp — but still engaging.
5. Make campers "right" about what they are "right" about!
Many times campers will try to avoid doing what they are asked by engaging
us in an argument. Children today seem especially adept at this diversionary
practice, so you need something that works. The most effective way to
deal with this is to make campers "right" about what they are
right about. For example, if a camper complains about it being too hot — and
uses this as an excuse not to do their chore — agree with the part
that is "right," as follows: "You're right! It is hot!" Pause
for a moment and let this sink in, then continue: "and . . . we
still have to clean up!" Campers may not like your response any
better, but it will help you stay out of an argument and move on.
6. Separate a camper from his or her audience.
There are times when campers may become highly provocative or resistant
to counselor instructions. If you feel a camper is having an especially
difficult time, taking him or her away from the group (or having the
group move on without the difficult camper with another adult to supervise
them) may help the camper settle down. Sometimes campers "play to
an audience," and other times they may simply feel less secure and
more threatened in front of their peers. In either case, separating them
from their group may help.
7. Getting back to respect.
When a camper refuses to do something that is expected of all campers,
such as cleaning up, listening to a counselor, or going to activities,
it often helps to take that camper aside to speak with him or her. Once
you and the camper are somewhat away from the group, say, "I have
asked you, in a respectful way, to listen to me (or whatever the request
is). Are you telling me that if I ask you in a respectful way, you are
going to refuse me?" Then be silent and wait. If the camper is still
defiant or provocative, it is time to go to your supervisor with your
camper and say, in front of the camper, "I have asked Jason in a
respectful way to (name the request — clean up; go to his activity
on time; listen while I am speaking to the others; etc.) and he has refused." Your
supervisor should then verify this with your camper in front of you. "Is
this true, Jason? Is it true that Mike, your counselor, has asked you
to (name the request), and he has done it in a respectful way, and you
What this approach does is cool the situation down, enlist the support
of your supervisor (without your giving up your position as the camper's
primary caretaker), and move the discussion to a higher-stakes level.
Most campers comply or begin talking about what they need in order to
comply. Campers who are still defiant at this point might need further
intervention with the camp director or in a conference call with parents — arranged
not by you, but by your supervisor.
Remember Three Things
In looking at these skills, it is important to remember three things.
- First, campers will more likely watch and emulate what you do rather
than listen to what you say. Whether you know it or not, you are a
powerful role model. Behave the way you want your campers to behave.
- Second, keep your cool! Young or inexperienced counselors think
the louder they scream or the more forcefully they speak to campers,
the more in awe of them campers will be. This backfires. Power with
children comes through influence, not force.
- Third, have reasonable expectations. In the short time you have
with campers you may be able only to manage their behavior, not change
it. The skills above are designed to help you do this.
Like any other set of skills, the more you practice, the better you
will become. Mastering skills with children not only helps them grow,
it helps everyone get more of the good there is to get out of camp.
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 BobDitter1@aol.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.