Tell your campers stories. Give them the rich gift they are missing when they stare at a screen. The stories do not need to be great — just tell them.
By the time your campers arrive, you will be oriented to how camp works, what is expected of you, and how to manage some of the camper challenges that you will inevitably face — like homesickness and bullying. If you want to be a really good counselor, listen carefully to what they tell you, really learn what they teach, and put all of it into practice.
If you want to be a great counselor — the kind who positively stands out from the masses — listen carefully to the message you'll hear that says "always be willing to ask for help," and put that into practice along with all the many others.
If, however, you want to become one of the truly great counselors, the rare kind who makes a lasting and substantial difference not just in a child's summer but often in his or her whole life, there are important things you can do.
Make It Magical for the Masses in the Middle
By the time the first day of camp is over, you'll be able to recognize the campers who are most likely to be your challenging ones and those who will easily become everyone's favorites.
As happens in schools, certain kids quickly get noticed for being more challenging. Typically, they are the defiant, mischievous ones, the kids who clearly lack social skills to connect with their peers, the ones who wander off when they should be with the group, or the ones who withdraw and become sullen and nonparticipatory. Because of the risk and concerns these kids bring, you will have to deal with them immediately, and they will demand your time and energy.
Likewise, there are certain kids who possess a unique kind of charisma and charm that makes them incredibly likeable. They are often motivated to do anything and will approach things with a positive attitude, an authentic curiosity, and a willingness to wait their turn and be cooperative. You'll think to yourself "I wish they all were like this," and it is normal to find yourself drawn to them, giving them more attention. Likely, they will seek it out as well.
The truly great counselors, though, are the ones who recognize the masses in the middle. They are careful to ensure that they focus their attention, time, and energy on these kids too. They do this even though these kids are not necessarily as easy to connect with (you'll often have to do more work to engage them) and even though it is easy to justify not putting the extra "over and above" time in with them because they seem to be doing fine.
Remember, the masses in the middle are often used to being the masses in the middle.
They are used to sitting quietly while the problem kids get attended to and sitting back watching while the charismatic kids get more attention and accolades. They tend to think of themselves as being more ordinary. This is not to suggest that they are secretly troubled, but rather to point out that these are the kids who tend to spend more time being content playing with their peers and/ or in their own thoughts, and who have little experience of the profound impact a relationship with the right adults can make. Often these kids have the potential to really blossom and thrive when they are given proper attention, support, and encouragement from caring adults who truly see them not just for whom they are, but for whom they could be.
Be the one who does.
Tell Them Stories — Especially at Bedtime, Even When They Are Teens
Albert Einstein credits his parents telling him stories as a child as the key to his creativity and genius that emerged as an adult. He said, "If you want your kids to be intelligent, tell them fairy tales. If you want them to be really intelligent, tell them lots of fairy tales."
It is hard to discuss this topic without sounding too trite or sounding like a course in advanced neurobiology. Let me just say it the way I see it: television and video games make you dull. Beyond the more than one thousand studies that have effectively proven the direct link between viewing violent and/ or sexual images and an increase in more violent activity and more indiscriminate sexually activity at younger ages, (Did you know the U.S. Army uses violent video games to train soldiers to be desensitized to killing?) is a deeper, even more concerning reality. Spending four to six hours a day staring at screens (the national average for your demographic in 2008, and what will add up to being almost twenty years of your life) inhibits vital brain development that will be critical to being able to sustain focus over a long period of time and developing your capacity to think creatively.
In the case of what you are doing this summer, simply consider this: Have you ever read a book that you really liked, only to see the movie version of it and be disappointed?
This is because when you read or are told stories, you activate specific areas of the right hemisphere of your brain that enables you to create your own images, voices, tastes, smells, and physical sensations. When I say, "Imagine a warm freshly baked chocolate chip cookie that is just coming out of the oven," immediately everyone reading this imagines a different oven, a different cookie with its own unique smells and tastes. If though I just show you a picture of the cookie, I remove your individuality and creativity and all of you will have the same image in mind.
The experience of imagining creatively versus processing what is imposed upon you takes you from the three-dimensional world of rich, full sensorial experience to the kind of one- and two-dimensional data that you are often bored to tears with in school. In the extreme (which happens more than you may think), you've gone from being vibrantly engaged and charged to dull, unthinking, and complacent. People, for whom these elements of the brain continue to be underutilized, lose access to them by the time they are in their mid-twenties. Scary, isn't it?
The oldest tradition in human society is that of telling stories. Long before there was writing to record these stories, wisdom, morals, and critical skills were taught by elders telling stories to youth. This was typically done while sitting around the campfire beneath the stars in the darkest hours of the night. Being in the presence of one who does this with you, immediately engages what are often underutilized corners of your mind and often makes you begin to feel more alive.
Tell your campers stories. Give them the rich gift they are missing when they stare at a screen. The stories do not need to be great — just tell them. Obviously keep them age-appropriate. Stories that come from books you read or experiences you had as a child are perfect.
One of my favorites is a true story I started telling eight-year-olds about a hike a group of my neighborhood friends and I took when I was about twelve. We wandered deep into the woods behind our neighborhood and after hours of hiking and climbing to the top of a steep tree-covered hill, we found an old rusted 1940s gangster style car that had been abandoned forty years earlier. That story was so well received in camp that the fifteen-year-olds wanted to hear it too! In fact, some of them, now in their mid thirties who are still in contact with me, remind me about how cool it was to sit there in the dark at night and hear about that car and what we found inside its glove box . . . .
Share and Show Your Passion
Share and show your passion, unapologetically and largely unedited — and use this to create a world for your campers this summer the way it could be.
We live in a culture that in so many ways has become passionless. Many people are skeptics and cynics and settle for a "live for now" attitude that revolves around thrills and adrenaline highs without substance, depth, and true fulfillment.
There is a great line from an obscure early Tom Hanks film called Joe Versus the Volcano (Warner Bros. Pictures 1990). Hanks is an office worker, going to work each day in his windowless office in the basement of a building accompanied by hundreds of others who are just mindlessly moving through their days; all of whom are surviving but living without passion and joy. Hanks sits in his chair and notices that the sole on his shoe is coming apart. He begins to pull at it. A co-worker walks in and asks him something to which Hanks looks up and replies, "I'm losing my sole" — which of course could easily have been spelled "soul."
It is a poignant metaphor and a moment that spoke to many of my generation (I am forty and came of age in the early 1980s). We knew that if we weren't careful, our fate would not be much different.
The irony is that those in your generation who, until this recent economic downturn, have grown up with so much, have found a different source of pressure that saps at your "sole" — the pressure and competition to excel in school and be "the best" at everything. For many more than would willingly admit, there is also a more ubiquitous and less expressed pressure to be at the top of the social game, to look good, and do everything right to ensure that you are associated with the right crowd and are always included. Many of your campers experience this as well, and many in fact, see this stress in their parents' lives as well.
I have long said that those who can grow up in common culture, go through our education system, achieve all the markers they are told are essential to their ability to succeed, and still retain their sense of wonder, joy, and true enthusiasm for life and learning are truly fortunate.
Choose to Be Extraordinary
What does all this have to do with your work with campers this summer? A lot.
You are at camp — not in that other world that values so much of all the things that offer so little.
You do not need to play by those rules now. In fact, as long as you stay within the parameters of the camp's expectations and are aligned with the camp's mission, you have tremendous latitude to make your own rules.
You can create an environment in your bunk that excludes superficial chatter about things that don't matter — like how people look and how many points they scored. You can create an environment in which how much people laugh and how deeply they connect is what's really important. You can create an environment in which who you dance with and how you dance does not matter, but rather one in which everyone feels safe just to dance.
To do any of these things — and the countless others you can create in your ideal environment — requires your commitment to ensuring your campers understand that this summer will be different. It requires your passion — the kind of passion that sets an example, that motivates others, and that encourages your campers to rise above setbacks and challenges and to pursue an extraordinary life.
You can make a difference. This is your opportunity. This is your summer. Choose to make it extraordinary. Please.
Joe Versus the Volcano. Motion Picture. Directed by John Patrick Shanley. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1990.
Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is professional trainer, author, and creator of Heightened Awareness Training™ For Camp Staff. Look for his new book Make Your Own Rules™ in 2010. For more information, visit www.Leiken.com . Contact Leiken at Jeff@Leiken.com  or 415-441-8218.
© Likone Corp. 2009
Originally published in the 2009 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.