In the Trenches: Lessons from the Summer Season

by Bob Ditter

Dear Bob,
Thank you for your “Using Sound Judgment” article (“In the Trenches,” July-August, 2001). We used it with our staff yesterday (between terms) to talk about making physical risk activities such as river wading, Capture the Flag, and British Bulldog safer. We had more than one instance of counselor behavior (from our first term) that would have been completely different if parents or I would have been standing there. Without naming names, we got the point across easily.

Happy Camping,
New Methods in New Mexico

Dear New,

I am glad to hear that you were able to use the piece on counselor judgment with your staff during your mid-season turnover. As you know, safety is a central concern for parents and camp professionals alike, and counselor judgment is an essential ingredient in maintaining both physical and emotional well-being at camp.

Your letter prompts me to share some observations and insights from my work at camps across the country this summer, starting with counselor judgment.

Counselor Judgment

An effective way to introduce the “Counselor Judgment Checklist” to your staff during orientation is to have them get into groups of three to five and brainstorm situations they have actually been in or imagine that they might be in with campers (or other staff) during the summer. Mix your staff by handing out different colored 3- by 5-inch file cards that correspond to how long staff have been at camp. For example, hand out green file cards to your first-time counselors who have also never been campers at your camp; yellow cards to returning staff; blue or pink cards to staff who have been campers at your camp; and purple cards to staff who have been on staff for three years or more. Include at least one person from each color-card category in every brainstorming group. Staff in these particular groupings will provide very different perspectives during the brainstorming exercise.

Making Choices

The above exercise lends itself to an important discussion about making choices. Counselor judgment, like camper and staff behavior, is a series of choices. Most campers and counselors act so quickly or routinely (or unconsciously) that they are not aware they are actually making a choice. I am often struck by how children (as well as staff!) do not see that the consequences they experience come directly from choices they make.

For example, when a counselor is “called on the carpet” for some misbehavior, often his or her lament will be, “Why are you getting me in trouble?” The truth is that it was the counselor’s behavior and the choices he or she made that brought about the “trouble.” No one “got the counselor into trouble” — rather, it was a choice made without thinking seriously about the impact of that choice. I am reminded of a book title I recently saw that carries a similar message: How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back, My Finger Prints Are on the Knife? So often, it is our own behavior that brings about the conditions in which we find ourselves.

Likewise, campers are often surprised to learn they have a choice when it comes to the way they act. The most common example is when a camper feels ridiculed or hurt by another child and responds by verbally or physically assaulting the offender. Many children have trouble making the choice to talk it out, get help, or respond in a less aggressive way. Campers often need to see a respected or admired counselor model other ways of responding to a provocation before they can change their behavior. After all, changing behavior really means making a different choice — something a child cannot do if they don’t know what other choices there might be.

In my experience, children understand the consequences of their choices much better when they are reminded that they can pick the way they act. (You pick a cherry popsicle, you pick volleyball, and you pick a behavior.) This will seem like real news to some kids, and by using the word “pick,” you can keep them interested if for no other reason than it keeps you from sounding like you are about to make a moral judgment.

I remember once talking with a camper about the way he always seemed to whine and complain, which encouraged disdainful responses from his fellow cabin mates. When I said that everyone in the cabin had a kind of “job” (a.k.a., role in the group), and that his job was obviously to be the complainer, he protested (keeping true to his role), “But I don’t like that job!” My response, which really got him thinking, was simply, “I don’t blame you. Why’d you pick that one?” It was the idea that he had picked his job that eventually helped me persuade him to get a new one with fewer adverse consequences.

Child-Friendly Language

Part of the challenge of getting children to understand the notion of “choice” has to do with the language you use with them. For example, when adults start talking about choice, many children hear what they might refer to as “adult-speak,” and they stop listening. “When counselors start talking to us about choices,” some campers have told me, “they sound like teachers and not counselors.” Other campers have told me it sounds like a lecture they’ve heard in school, and even if they know there is some truth in it, they can’t help but feel turned off. This is probably because most children view adults as preachy in ways that they don’t find helpful. The simple words you use can make a huge difference in the level of listening and openness among campers. I remember when I had finished graduate school that all the impressive sounding jargon I had learned actually made me less effective with children. I could not speak with them in a way that sounded friendly, engaging, and nonthreatening.

The concept of scaling down your interactions with children to fit their developmental level is not new, but counselors rarely find specific examples of language that is simpler and child friendly. Try to teach your staff to replace lofty words with simplified statements that children can understand. For example, you might use the phrase, “the way you act,” in place of the word “behavior,” especially with younger children. Likewise, instead of the word “inappropriate,” which I see shutting campers down from coast to coast, simply use the phrase, “that’s not okay!” For kids, this is more to the point and on a level in which they can relate.

The camp environment is teeming with opportunities to work with young people, both campers and staff. To be effective, however, you must be willing to reflect on your practices, be open to refining them, and make that reflection and openness a part of the very culture of the camp community you create. Only in this way can you offer anyone 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 2001 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.