While at camp, counselors often become campers' surrogate parents. You monitor their diets, bedtimes, and whether they brush their teeth. You cheer for them when they master a new skill and discipline them when they break a rule. Classes exist to help parents become better parents. Counselors can benefit from this information as well. By following some of the advice from these classes, you can learn to better manage and more positively influence campers.

Parenting Styles

Decide what kind of camp counselor you will be. Do this prior to going to camp if possible.

Parenting styles generally run a continuum between four basic types:

  • loving to hostile
  • permissive to firm

By looking at the continuum extremes, a parent may be:

  • Hostile and permissive: This person tends to be angry, detached, and does not care about the child's behavior.
  • Hostile and firm: This person demands camper compliance, but tends to use anger and fear.
  • Loving and permissive: This person gives campers anything they want and always gives in to their requests.
  • Loving and firm: This person commands respect and compliance, while being fun, warm, reinforcing, encouraging, trusting, and kind.

Relationship Building

Counselors should build relationships with campers. An excellent way to do this is by paying attention to campers and spending time with them. Parenting classes recommend that parents spend a twenty-minute period with their child. During this time, the parent is not directing or controlling the child; they merely enjoy time together, playing or reading.

While counselors probably do not have twenty minutes to spend with each camper individually, you can build relationships and trust through everyday activities. Pay attention to campers while on the bus, at a meal time, or during an activity. Talk with campers, do something that they enjoy, or be silly with campers.

Practice effective listening skills, and let campers know that you are listening to them. When a camper is talking with you, look the camper in the eye and give him your full attention. Avoid giving advice, rather use reflection by repeating the same words or feelings that the camper just said or felt. This lets the camper know that you are listening and encourages further interaction.

Clear, Written Rules

In family parenting classes, parents learn to establish family rules. Counselors and cabin groups can also benefit from having certain rules. Three to six rules are generally enough. Rules should be simple and clear. They should not be so long that they become ambiguous to individual interpretation. After the cabin has decided on the rules, write them down and post them in the cabin. Consider the benefits of including a rule that in your own words states, "Do what the camp counselor asks or directs."

Camper Compliance

When campers comply with the rules, they reason that you care for them and that you have a sense of dignity for yourself and for them. Compliant behavior puts campers in a position to acquire new skills, to listen carefully when instructions are given, and to ask you "how?" rather than challenge you with "why?"

The manner in how one commands compliance is the important issue. In most situations, first decide whether the camper's behavior is beyond the boundaries of "camp fun." You may decide that it is best to use humor and let the camper have fun with the situation. On the other hand, expecting compliance may be your major goal. If so, this fits easily within the frame of reference of being a firm but loving counselor.

A Reinforcement Program

What is the best way to get a camper to comply? Dr. Daniel G. Amen, in his book New Skills for Frazzled Parents, tells the story of a parent and child who attend an animal show at a marine park. During the show the animal trainer would instruct the penguins to do something and they would always comply. This caught the attention of the parent, who knew his son was smarter than these penguins, yet the son rarely complied with his father's instructions. At the end of the show, the parent asked the trainer how he got the penguins to do what he said. The trainer looked at the father and said, "Unlike parents, every time my penguins do something that I want or that is close to what I want, I give them a hug and a fish."

Reward positive behavior
While campers won't be too excited about receiving a fish, you can find other ways to reward compliant behavior. Purposefully look for, seek out, and catch your campers doing things that you want or doing things that approximate what you want. Then immediately reward it verbally by saying, "that's great," "I'm proud of you," or "good job," or offer a more subtle form of encouragement, such as catching their eye and smiling. Another option is rewarding them with a special job or privilege. Whatever form of reinforcement you choose, make sure to consistently reward campers for their positive behaviors and continue to do so throughout the entire camp session.

Effective Discipline

What do you do if a camper just won't follow the rules? You've done the prerequisites. You've decided what type of counselor to be. You've worked at building relationships. You've established group rules and been clear in your communication. You've also done a lot of hug-and-fish giving, but the camper will not comply with instructions. One workable solution is to use a time out program.

Time out programs
Time out is a simple, brief discipline method. It is a break in which the camper has time to calm down, think about why he is in time out, decide to apologize for the misbehavior, and find a way to return to compliant behavior. The ultimate goal of a time out program is to set up the child to behave in a way that he receives future praise. The result of effective praise goes beyond achieving compliant behavior to building resilience, courage, and hope.

Most time out programs are aimed at children between the ages of two and twelve. With children who have a mild temperament, the time out is easy to do and has almost immediate results. With a strong-willed child, time out, although effective, is more difficult to implement and results may require both tenacious and efficacious implementation. To be successful, you must plan ahead, explain ahead of time, put the responsibility on to the camper, and be consistent.

Implementing the program
In planning ahead, divide the camp day into two types of time periods: non-prime time and prime time. Non-prime time includes when campers are dressing in the morning, getting ready for bed at night, at meals, and attending mandatory activities. Prime time is all the in-between time. When beginning a time out program, do it initially in a prime time period. Do not try to use it during the non-prime time until it has been mastered.

When a counselor begins to anticipate the need to use a time out program, the counselor should plan a time to sit with campers and in a neutral voice clearly explain the process and rules of time out. Ask questions, have campers repeat what was stated, and role play what they need to do in time out. Campers are then prepared for future time outs.

By deciding your parenting style, building relationships with campers, and learning to be a fair disciplinarian, counselors can work effectively with campers.

John K. Durall, M.A., MFCC, is a licensed marriage, family, and child counselor. He is director of Camp Ja-Gonh for children with ADHD.

Originally published in the 1998 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.