Congratulations! If you are reading this, it means that you have decided to be a camp counselor for at least a part of this summer! Now that you have landed the plum job, allow me to tell you the great news and the less-than-great news about what is in store for you.
The great news is easy. You will be working mostly outdoors, doing fun activities, hanging with other young adults your age, and doing something with your campers that is meaningful and helps them grow — expanding their horizons, helping them make new friends and be better friends, and becoming increasingly able to care for themselves. All while dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. Sounds pretty terrific! So, you ask, what’s the downside?
Let me be the first to tell you that, as impressive as it is that you’ve been entrusted with other people’s children, especially if you have grown up at your camp and have now graduated to being on staff, the campers you will be working with won’t be as impressed. You see, campers don’t listen to you just because you are their counselor. Most campers couldn’t care less about whatever status you feel you have attained as a staff member. Campers listen to you when they sense that you are truly interested in them and have spent time playing with and relating to them. In other words, they listen to you when you have worked to win them over by showing up as authentic. And believe me, kids can spot a fake a mile away, especially when it comes to the people who are their caretakers.
Investing time to get to know your campers is what I call creating “money in the bank” with them. Having money in the bank with your campers gives you “currency”— trust and credibility. If, as a staff member, you simply dictate directives to your campers, or if you seem more interested in your cell phone and your own social life at camp, talking with your friends and thinking about what you are going to do on your nights off, your campers will immediately pick up on it. Being truly present, which means getting rid of distractions so you can give your campers your undivided attention, is what will gain you their trust. As I often say to counselors at the many camps I visit during the camp season, the number one gift you can give anyone is your attention — not just your time — but your attention. After all, you can spend time with someone and be so distracted that you aren’t really with them.
Speaking of undivided attention, let’s talk about what, from the campers’ side of things, is going to make connecting with them more challenging than ever. In this age of social media, screen time, and video games, more and more camper-age children spend hours on their devices. We know that by the time kids in the United States are between eight and 12 years old, they are spending about six hours a day looking at a screen. For teens ages 13 to 18, that figure is about nine hours a day (Common Sense Media, 2018). In addition to that, by the time boys are 14, they are playing online video games, like Fortnite, another six hours per week (Limelight Networks, 2018). Many of those boys admit they miss doing regular activities, like homework or brushing their teeth, while they are engaged in their online play. Anecdotally, I have had boys tell me that on weekends they can play Fortnite or other online games for up to 12 hours in a row, often never leaving the house that day unless their parents make a point of extracting them from their screens. (Boys play online games an average of one and a half hours a week more than girls, according to the Limelight report of 2018). Those same youngsters are also spending hours posting on Instagram and Snapchat or watching YouTube, currently the three most popular social media sites for tweens and teens, according to the Pew Research Center (Anderson & Jiang, 2018). I can’t tell you the number of camps I either visited or heard from last summer where counselors were struggling to connect with boys eight to 12 years old because they had spent weekends during the school year playing Fortnite for hours at a time and had lost what has been called “the language of face contact” (Zimbardo & Duncan, 2012). That language includes the verbal and nonverbal cues that help people understand, trust, and communicate with one another.
What is the connection between so much screen time and the challenge of establishing closer relationships with your campers? Many kids have had considerably less time in social situations actually looking one another in the eye and communicating directly, without a screen in their midst. Some evidence also shows that when kids “get out of practice” with things like how to break the ice with other new kids, how to ask good questions to draw other kids out, or how to share the limelight, there is often a kind of atrophying that occurs. In other words, you may have a group of youngsters together at camp who don’t know how to make friends or simply connect as easily with one another, or with you.
Having seen firsthand the way some counselors struggle to connect with their campers — to create money in the bank with them — I have put together the following list of practices that can help you do just that.
- Take turns sitting next to different campers at each meal. Change it up so you get to hang out with all of your campers.
- Make a point of walking and talking with one, two, or three of your campers together while going from one activity to another. This downtime is often when you hear more from your campers about what is going on among them as a group. It gives you the opportunity to connect with them more like a peer (even though we know you are not their peer). If you tend to walk alone or with other counselors, you are missing an important opportunity to connect with your kids.
- Sit with different groups of your campers during rest hour and either talk, play a card game, or engage with them in some other quiet-time activity. Again, especially in the first few days of a new session, this is a terrific chance to connect more informally with your kids. If you tend to sleep during rest hour, once again you are missing a key opportunity to create money in the bank with them.
- Make a checklist of things that you know about your campers. For example, do you know the favorite camp activity of each of them? Do you know if they have a pet at home and what their pet’s name is? (Talking about pets, who occupy a special place in many kids’ hearts, is an especially great way to make a more personal connection with most any camper.) Do you know what they are most looking forward to doing while at camp? Did they read an especially terrific book during the school year? What about a movie? A new hobby? A place they went on vacation? All of these are “keys” to connecting with your campers.
- After a few days, check your list of “keys” (if you email me, I can send you my version of this handy bunk or cabin group list) to see which kids you seem to know well and which ones you still don’t have much of a connection with. Sometimes, seeing it written out on paper helps to focus where you may need to place more of your attention as a way of getting to know certain campers better.
As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Once you have more money in the bank with your campers, not only will they be more likely to listen to you when you ask them to do things like clean up, get ready for the next activity, brush their teeth, or help one another out, but they will also feel more connected to you as someone they can look up to and whose values and way of including others can influence them. Happy camping!
Anderson, M., & Jiang, J. (2018, May 31). Teens, social media and technology 2018. The Pew Research Center — Internet and Technology. Retrieved from pewinternet.org/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/
Common Sense Media. (2018, May). The common sense census: Media use by tweens and teens. Retrieved from www.commonsensemedia.org/research
Limelight Networks. (2018). The state of online gaming — 2018. Retrieved from limelight.com/resources/white-paper/state-of-online-gaming-2018/
Zimbardo, P., & Duncan, N. (2012). The demise of guys: Why boys are struggling and what we can do about it. TED Books.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.