It is the middle of the summer. You have probably already greeted many new and returning campers and have enjoyed some of the fun that camp offers. You have also probably discovered or rediscovered how much hard work it takes to be a good camp counselor! Like getting campers to clean up, help put equipment away, work together, wait their turn, ask for help, or any number of other things that kids typically don’t find fun.

Indeed, when I visit a camp in the summer I often hear from counselors how frustrated they are that some kids don’t pitch in or make their beds or help with any form of cleanup. I have even heard some counselors refer to campers as “spoiled,” “lazy,” or “self-centered.” While most of you truly enjoy your campers and create positive and important relationships with them, I understand how frustrating it can be when they resist doing the things you need to get them to do. So I would like to offer you a new way of thinking about campers and about child behavior in general.

Like the rest of us, campers come to camp with habits they have formed — or ones they haven’t yet had the chance to form — well before they ever stepped foot into camp. For example, would you really expect that if most of your campers have never made their beds or gathered their dirty laundry at home that those habits would somehow magically appear just because they are now living in a cabin or a group with you?

I think of children as either having a lack of good habits or a few bad habits, usually through no fault of their own. If we think about camper behavior in terms of cultivating habits, it allows us to see kids as having greater potential than if we simply write them off as spoiled or lazy. Rather than labeling kids, it is far more constructive to think about them as having the potential to develop better habits to replace some of those they come to camp with. Thinking this way puts some of the responsibility for creating those new habits on us. If we are serious about wanting to cultivate new habits in kids or extinguish old ones that are counterproductive, we need to ask ourselves whether it would be more productive and effective to yell, shame, or express frustration with campers or to encourage and invite them, praise their emerging success, and support their efforts. Once you realize that you have a lot to do with the habits children develop, you come to understand an essential truth about changing behavior: If we want to cultivate new habits in someone else, we may need to cultivate some new habits in ourselves to make that happen.
The truth is, we cultivate good habits in campers at camp all the time. At gymnastics, the coaches cultivate good habits on the balance beam, the horse, the parallel bars, and mats. At swimming, the instructors cultivate new breathing habits, strokes, and kicks. At the climbing tower or ropes course, the counselors cultivate good safety habits, like tying into harnesses or billet lines, or clearly calling out climbing commands. Indeed, most camps take great pride in the safety habits they so effectively and intentionally cultivate in campers during all the activities in which those campers participate — archery, swimming, horseback riding, woodworking, pottery, and sports to name just a few. I am suggesting that we think of self-care, friendship, and group living in the same way.
Let me give you a specific example. The next time a camper does something that irritates you or doesn’t do something he or she is supposed to do, notice what you do in response. Chances are good that your attention is focused on the child, not yourself. You are probably expressing your feelings of frustration and disappointment or anger either to yourself, a co-counselor, or the camper. That is your habit. You do it without thinking about it. Now consider changing your habitual response by creating a different habit. What if you taught yourself to pause momentarily, take a deep breath, and focus on yourself? In that pause, take time to identify clearly what you are feeling and give that feeling a name. Then allow yourself to let that feeling flow through you — really experience it. Then let that feeling go. After you have allowed yourself to experience the feeling, you can then gather your thoughts about how better to respond to that child. Chances are good after that ten-second pause you will be able to deal with the camper more calmly, which will probably elicit an entirely different response in the child than if you simply yelled at him or her! You might, for example, be able to say something like, “Of course you don’t like making your bed. Who does? I don’t even like doing it. But here at camp it helps us keep things from getting so messy we can’t find anything. We all learn how to do it, even me!” (Validation) “In fact, you’re getting better at this. Remember when you first came to camp? You’re much better at it now!” This is an example of how if you change your habits, campers may then be better able to change theirs.
Let’s think about another habit that many children do not have, which is the habit of identifying and expressing gratitude for the good things — friends, experiences, opportunities — that they have in their lives. The fact that children do not experience and then express gratitude is not their fault. Gratitude is a habit that can be taught and practiced. It might be a great habit to focus on developing at camp. After all, you can’t have joy without gratitude. Joy without gratitude does not last; it is shallow. To cultivate the habit of campers expressing gratitude requires us to model it by truly feeling and expressing it ourselves, then giving a time and place for the expression of gratitude to take place. We can also validate kids when they express gratitude. In other words, unless we are intentional both about expressing our own gratitude and following the known habits for creating good habits, campers are less likely to develop their own habits of identifying, experiencing, and expressing gratitude.
Parents often send their children to camp for the skills they will learn by playing tennis, swimming, and doing other activities. While this is a great motive, at camp we have the opportunity to instill in their children strong, healthy habits that will serve them the rest of their lives.
Duhigg, C. (2014). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York, NY: Random House.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. “In the Trenches” is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.