I am lucky enough to have been a teaching assistant this year, so at age twenty-four my summer is once again free, and I am able to go back to camp as a counselor. My non-camp friends don’t understand the allure that camp has for me. They can’t see why I would voluntarily give up my summers to be with a bunch of kids. I tell them how great it is to know I can have such a positive impact on the kids I work with, even though being a counselor is hard work sometimes.
What I am writing to you about is to get some help with how to describe the role of a counselor. Being a younger child’s best friend rings true in some ways, but I know some counselors have trouble getting tough when they need to after getting close to their campers. Also, do you have any tips about working with children that might be helpful during the summer?
— Lucas M.
I am glad that you are still so enthusiastic about camp, and I appreciate the opportunity to share the following ideas about being a counselor.
The Role You Play
There are also drawbacks to the concept of being a camper’s best friend. You mentioned one drawback in your letter. Besides the ability to set limits with campers (for their own physical and emotional safety), a counselor would not confide in or share with a camper aspects of his or her personal life as one might do with a best friend. A counselor would not expect to get advice from or lean on a camper as one might a best friend. Finally, a counselor would not engage in certain kinds of activities with a camper that one might with friends. So, while a counselor can have a lot of fun and be enormously helpful to a child, being a best friend is a very different kind of relationship.
Another way to view the role of a counselor with children is as a wise, benevolent, and caring older brother or sister. An older brother or sister wouldn’t let a younger sibling do something to hurt themselves or others. An older brother or sister would intervene when a younger sibling was getting too wound up. Older brothers and sisters care for their siblings and have fun with them and take an interest in them while still being able to put on the brakes when needed. Also, unlike a friend, there are certain confidences or aspects of your private life you would not share with a younger brother or sister because it would be confusing, upsetting, or put too much of a burden on them. We all know that younger siblings can be curious. An older brother or sister would know this was natural, but would be careful not to share information that was essentially private.
The Decisions You Make
Being an effective counselor also means making sound decisions for your campers. The first question to ask yourself when making a decision that affects campers is, “Whose well being am I serving — mine (I get to be popular; I get to have fun doing what I want to do; I get to be with my friends) or my campers?” A second question is, “What is the risk involved, and am I certain that everyone will be able to negotiate that risk and end up safe both emotionally and physically?” With the greatest of relationships and the best of intentions, if our decision-making endangers or compromises the safety of children, we have lost the trust given to us when we assumed the responsibilities of being a counselor.
The Time You Spend
When it comes to the quality of time a counselor spends with campers, I have some tips that may help you be a more successful counselor:
When campers begin to show challenging behavior, think of their actions as nonverbal statements. Campers are usually expressing one of three to four sentiments with their misbehavior: they are seeking attention, power, revenge, or trying to protect themselves.
Take a deep breath
Helping children solve problems and learn social skills is easier if they think you have their best interests at heart. Camp is full of opportunities for children to learn new and more effective behaviors for getting what they want, like making and keeping friends and getting attention and recognition for their true accomplishments. Have a great summer!
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 InTheTrenches@bunk1.com  or by fax at 617-572-3373. “In the Trenches” is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.
Originally published in the 1999 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.