There are many different kinds of relationships you will have in your life.
The relationship you will have with your campers this summer, though, will be among the most unique, powerful, and fragile ones you will likely ever have. With just a few properly timed words, you can become a child’s favorite person in the world. In even fewer ones, you can destroy that forever.
Social practices that work in some relationships don’t work in others. Being adept at adjusting these based on who the person is and what relationship you will have is critical. Your ability to do this effectively allows you to make friendships with peers, get responses from professors, and it’s even what got you selected through an interview process to be a staff member at camp this summer.
Each of these relationships relies on utilizing different social skills, using different language, and following different rules — social rules that are unwritten and unspoken, yet you are expected to follow.
One critical component to creating and sustaining these relationships is having proper boundaries and adjusting them to be appropriate for each different relationship. Things you would readily tell your best friends are things you might never tell your coworkers. Things you might tell your siblings are things you might not tell your parents. Things you might share with your roommate are things you might not share with your classmates. You get the idea.
Think about how many times you failed to have appropriate boundaries and the price you paid for it. Those times you shared private information with someone only to have them not keep it private. You trusted someone you shouldn’t have. You should have had better boundaries.
Or the times you told a joke that might have been funny among your peers, but with the people you told it to, it was taken as disrespectful or offensive. You should have had better boundaries. One of the most common errors camp counselors make is failing to have appropriate boundaries with their campers.
The most common violations of boundaries are:
- Sharing information with kids that is not appropriate for their age (e.g. personal information about your life — especially your love life or news going on in the world that they are not ready to hear or deal with).
- Sharing information that was meant for staff only (e.g. information about upcoming events or personal information about decisions made by leadership that was asked to be kept in confidence among the staff).
- Sharing something private a camper told you about that may seem insignificant to you at twenty years old, but to a ten-year-old child was sacred (e.g. a fear he has, a dream he has of something he someday wants to do, etc.). Note: this is separate and different from something that you would be required to report as a health and safety issue, which you will be trained on at camp.
A less obvious boundary violation, though, is one that is the most pervasive yet often under recognized and underappreciated. It is the boundary between using sarcasm in a way that is playfully affectionate and life affirming versus using it in a way that is caustic, divisive, and hurtful.
The problem is, most of the time, it is very difficult to know when you might have crossed the line. Just think about how many times in your life someone makes a sarcastic comment to you in a way that they presume is harmless to you, yet while you may laugh on the outside, it actually really upsets you on the inside.
You laugh publically to save face and protect yourself, yet inside, privately, you make a decision to be more guarded with that person, to build a bigger wall, to have better boundaries to protect yourself.
Children are no different. Whereas an eight-year-old may wear his emotions on his sleeve, by ten years old he won’t. A twelve-year-old girl will often hold it together amid playful teasing, until suddenly she bursts and the tears are everywhere.
Yet, how many times does the short kid get the name “Shorty” or the red-haired kid with freckles get called “Rusty”? A girl at one camp I visited last summer talked a little like one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, and they’d nicknamed her “Jersey Girl.” The presumption is that it is all in good humor so it will be taken that way. In the case of “Jersey Girl,” it was only after she wrote her parents about it that the camp learned how much she was hurt by the nickname.
It isn’t just nicknames that can backfire, though. At one camp I visited, they had a tradition that if someone dropped a tray in the dining hall, the entire camp together would do a chant that began “is a klutz, a biiiiiiig klutz!” While intended to be playful, one new twelve-year-old-girl burst into tears with embarrassment when they did it to her. Until you know a person is definitely going to be laughing with you, you should assume they will take it as you laughing at them.
Positive Inside Jokes
Here’s the paradox: Having playful, affectionate, inside jokes, nicknames, and so on is a very common part of the bonding experience. It is what you share with one another and no one else. That kind of exclusivity is what makes this relationship special. But because children won’t make it easy for you to know how they are taking things, it is 100 percent up to you to ensure you get it right. It is up to you to ensure your inside jokes, the stories about things your campers did, and the nicknames you give one another, are all positive and life affi rming, and received as such by the child.
I will never forget an incident that happened in June of 1992. I was working as a counselor at a boy’s summer camp in northern Wisconsin. It had rained for three straight days and early afternoon on the third day the clouds cleared. Within minutes, another counselor named Frank and I had a football in hand, and within ten minutes not less than thirty boys of all ages were out on the field with us.
The field was soaked, and boys were slipping in the mud, falling all over themselves playing this spontaneous game of mud football.
At one point, I dropped back to throw a pass. The soaking wet ball slipped from my hands while I was trying to throw it, wobbled end over end, and went nowhere near where I’d intended to throw it.
Out of nowhere, a twelve-year-old boy named Stephen intercepted it and began running back up field. I was the only one on my team between him and the end zone. As I reached out to tag him, I slipped face first in the mud! I rolled over to see Stephen jump right over me and land in the end zone, where he promptly spiked the ball and splattered even more mud on my face.
In a moment of spontaneous attempt at humor, I quickly said, “What in the world was that, a kangaroo? Did my pass just get intercepted by a kangaroo that hops over his opponents? Is this Australian rules football?” All the kids around laughed and Stephen smiled at me and said, “That’s right, they call me the Kangaroo!”
It was the kind of moment that happens spontaneously and naturally at camp all the time.
Suddenly, two other boys started to laugh at Stephen for calling himself the Kangaroo, not with him. My attempt to be playful was about to turn against me. Both Frank and I picked up on this instantly.
Before the teasing boys could get any further, Frank quickly declared “New rules! We are now playing the American northern Wisconsin version of Australian rules football! That makes this officially the, uh, let’s see, the ANWARF League! Your team is the Kangaroos, and our team is the Koalas. Stephen is the Chief Kangaroo. Who is going to be the Grand Koala?”
The boys immediately jumped on board, wanting to be the Grand Koala and making all sorts of playful jokes as we made up the official rules of the ANW-ARF League.
For the rest of the summer when I would see Stephen, I’d say, “What’s up, Kangaroo?” and he’d reply, “G’day mate!”
The moment of playfulness on my part that could have turned awful became a moment of bonding and a highlight of both our summers.
It’s great to be quick and to come up with the funny comments. It’s even greater to make certain that only good comes from it.
Boundaries like these are a skill to learn and demand you have the awareness to recognize and redirect when things don’t exactly go as you intended.
Remember: The kind of relationship you will have with your campers this summer is among the most unique, powerful, and fragile ones you will likely ever have. With just a few properly timed words, you can become a child’s favorite person in the world.
You may not always get it 100 percent right in the beginning, but it is 100 percent up to you that you make it right in the end.
You can do it.
Jeffrey Leiken, MA, is a professional mentor who has helped train over 10,000 summer camp counselors. He travels the world, specializing in empowering youth to lead extraordinary lives. Learn more at www.Leiken.com, or contact him at Jeff@Leiken.com or 415.441.8218.
Originally published in the 2014 May/June Camping Magazine
Photo courtesy of Camp El Tesoro, Granbury, Texas