Each generation tends to look at the next generation and claim things aren’t as they used to be. There was a time in the 1970s and 80s when summer job opportunities for teens were so limited that many camps could rely on their former campers wanting to work as counselors all throughout their college years — and being willing to work for less money than new hires. There was a time also when the need for counselors to be gifted with counseling and communication skills was less important than their knowing the ins and outs of the rituals and routines of camp. Now, it seems it is hard to find a teenager or young adult who has the interest or skill in either.
Today, there is a higher expectation placed on the child care industry as a whole. Insurance and liability demands accompany parental expectations for quality care. There is also the issue that more parents are raising their children in a more entitled, permissive way. Thus camps are dealing with “high maintenance” parents who value their child having “fun” more than they value their child learning valuable life lessons. Indeed, there is a whole aspect of the camp industry that focuses on programs for teens so that they can continue to have fun, travel in comfort, stay in camp in luxury, be free to socialize and function in their usual teenage ways — without having to give up much, if any, of the innocence of childhood and the comforts of home. Clearly, these camps have an appeal to certain parents.
The reality that must be confronted, however, is that childhood does not last forever. Adolescence is not a process that has a predetermined end date — nor is there a guarantee in this culture that, left to their own devices, teenagers will learn the values and skills they’ll need to become responsible adults — or even camp counselors. Camps that continue to accommodate their teens’ desire to have fun and socialize — without demanding their intentional commitment to the process of maturing — will most assuredly be disappointed by these former campers when they ask them to be counselors.
One respected colleague of mine took a stance at a conference last year, stating that teenagers should never be left to their own devices with a group of campers. Sadly, in the case of those camps with low expectations placed on their teenagers, this statement certainly has validity. For me, the statement is more about the culture that raised the teenagers — including the camp — than it is about the teenagers themselves. It is not the age; it is how they are raised to be at that age. Indeed there are cultures on earth today where fifteen-year-olds are responsible for leading and defending whole communities. In our culture, we are often amazed how fifteen-year-olds cannot even be responsible for taking out the garbage.
Some camps are taking a very different position. They realize that kids will always rise up or fall down to the expectations held for them. Thus, they are deciding to become intentional about raising the bar for teenagers — including teens from backgrounds that have low expectations of their need to assume responsibility and accountability. Expectations are not limited by socio-economic status — low expectations are often just as prevalent in what we call high-risk backgrounds as they are in extremely privileged backgrounds. Some camps who have never had counselor-in-training programs are now adding them. Others who have had these programs are raising their level of expectations for those who participate in them.
Camp Champions, An Innovative Program
One camp on the cutting edge of this process is Camp Champions in Marble Falls, Texas. Camp Champions offered an opportunity for teenage boys to participate in an innovative program designed to promote responsibility and maturity. The memorable weekend-long program was held at another camp in Texas in early September, taking advantage of hundreds of acres of forests and hills that offered an ideal setting for such an adventure.
Steve Baskin, camp owner, and Paul Cope, camp director, realized that many boys are influenced by their peers to be critical of one another, sarcastic, and irresponsible. They realized, as well, that in many cases there are very few strong adult male role models for teenage boys — role models who teach them otherwise. Baskin and Cope acknowledged how the age-old responsibility men had always assumed to transition boys into adulthood through an initiatory rite of passage has been lost in our culture over the past hundred years. Additionally, they knew that the leverage they held through their camp relationship with the boys and their families gave them an opportunity to address all these issues in a unique and powerful way.
Their idea was outside the norm of the camp experience and camp role. It required working with parents in a more involved way. It demanded a program that prioritized a whole set of values that differed from the camp experience as the participants knew it. They also realized they were taking a big chance in doing all of this — yet the potential for success was so great, they were willing to go to the cutting edge.
A detailed invitation letter from Baskin and Cope to parents described the value of the program in depth. Parents were explicitly informed that the program would neither be comfortable nor fun — and that it would in fact be emotionally, mentally, and physically demanding on their sons. Parents were urged to send their sons and to support the process by committing to attend a closing ceremony and by incorporating many of the program suggestions in how to treat their sons differently afterwards.
Parents were advised to make the following changes:
For many of the parents agreeing to these changes was more difficult than the decision to send their sons to the program! For some, the commitment included driving five hours each way to attend the closing ceremony. For others, it meant changing the whole way they’d set up life at home for themselves and their children.
Despite the rather unusual nature of the program, parents were overwhelmingly supportive and indeed grateful for the opportunity for their sons to participate. They reported being overwhelmed at times with the societal pressure to give their kids things — and the seeming lack of gratitude their kids possessed. Some acknowledged that despite their best efforts to raise their children to be respectful and responsible, their kids were still being influenced by the current teenage culture of entitlement and lack of gratitude.
For the participating boys, a different presentation was made. In a meeting during the summer, they were presented with a provocative discussion about what it means to be a man, about the difference between adolescence and adulthood, and about the difference between living a mediocre life and one of excellence. They were offered an opportunity to participate in an experience that would change the way they think about their lives and themselves and about all that is possible for them in the future. They were promised that they would walk away with confidence, certainty, and a new sense of personal truth. They would learn to carry themselves in a new way that would be recognizable to all those with whom they come in contact ,and they would no longer be treated as kids, but as young adults aspiring to responsible mature adulthood.
As a result of the presentations to the parents and the meetings with the boys, the program ultimately drew twenty teenage boys between the ages of fifteen and seventeen — nearly twice as many as were originally expected — all but one of who were willingly and excitedly participating.
Baskin and Cope organized a group of leaders — ten adult men who brought varying aspects of expertise, all of whom were committed to living their lives with impeccable integrity and intent. The leaders needed to be congruent models of maturity and adulthood, as well as to have skills in communicating with youth.
Unlike similar programs that became popular in the 1970s and 80s that challenged men to get in touch with their feelings and cry and pound pillows, this program is built entirely around positive youth development. The challenges the boys faced in the program fostered positive self-awareness — arrogance was replaced with the realization of how their behavior affects others and introversion was replaced with confidence.
From the moment the boys arrived at the site, they were in a process — on the journey. They were greeted, checked in, and treated as children, being served milk and cookies. After nearly a half hour, the “party” was suddenly interrupted as the leaders of the weekend arrived and led the boys to another building — in silence. The boys were given bland uniform clothing without brand named logos. Instead of a name on their white T-shirts, there was a number — a number that would remain until each “earned” their name back — a number that was the only distinguishing material feature between them.
A Challenging Day
Ultimately, the day led to a descent down a hill where they were individually met by the leaders of the weekend and challenged to stand for themselves and to find their own inner resolve. The message repeatedly was to recognize what it is about them personally and what it is about others that can free them from the constant turmoil of taking things personally that are not meant to be personal — a limiting behavior that many teens (and many adults!) often do.
A Final Challenge
There were closing rituals and words shared before the boys were presented back to their parents in a special ceremony welcoming them as “men.” The response from the parents was overwhelmingly positive. The feedback from the initiates continues to pour in months later.
The young men are now part of an e-mail group — they exchange and share thoughts and feelings on various issues — providing responses and receiving feedback from their peers and the leaders. The group shares openly their struggles and ultimately their triumphs as they behave as responsible young adults. They are learning to communicate honestly with others. The bluntness with which they hold one another accountable is astounding — in many ways it transcends the honesty and accountability to which many “older” adults aspire.
Baskin and Cope do not know how many of these young men will eventually want to work at camp as counselors. They do know that those who do want to work at camp will truly demonstrate the necessary values of a camp counselor — they will be responsible and willing to place the needs of others first — qualities that are often hard to find in teens and young adults. Baskin and Cope know the work they did that weekend will have played a significant role in why these qualities will show up in these young men.
This program made a direct impact on these young men, helping them transition from childhood to adolescence into adulthood . . . from dependence to independence to interdependence . . . from camper to counselor to leader. They are cultivating leadership in themselves and someday, perhaps, leadership in others — leadership with compassion — leadership with skill — leadership with purpose. And perhaps most importantly, leadership with integrity.
Camp Champions will repeat the program again next year and has already begun plans to offer a version appropriate for teenage girls — a program to help young women transition toward independence and adulthood, as well. They have taken their camp program to the cutting edge — and are reaping the rewards and benefits in great ways.
Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is a professional counselor who travels internationally training organizations who work with children. He has worked with over 100 summer camps. To learn more about this program or his other services, visit www.MentorCounselor.com  or contact him at 415-441-8218 or by e-mail at Jleiken@MentorCounselor.com .
Originally published in the 2004 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.