"Weeks! Why would your parents send you away for weeks? Were they getting divorced?" My freshman year of college, I was asked this question by a well-meaning but horrified new friend who had never experienced any type of overnight camp. Waxing rhapsodic about my own experiences, and talking about my application to be a camp staff member at "my" camp in Wisconsin, I learned that there are two kinds of people: camp people and people deprived of the opportunity to become camp people.
Of my own 43 summers, I've spent 40 of them involved in camp in one way or another. In day camps and overnight camps, as a camper, counselor, senior staff, camp parent, and camp doctor, I have seen firsthand that camp is school for kids' character. As a family physician, I'm often asked by the parents in my practice, "Should she [or he] go to camp? And how should I choose what kind of camp is right for my child?"
To this I ask my own questions: "What can camp do for this child this summer?" and "What will help your child get one step closer to being the respectful, resilient, responsible adult you are working so hard to raise?"
Imagine a place where counselors listen to the words kids are using with one another and point out how those words make others feel.
Imagine a time where kids who feel passionate but awkward, interested but confused, confident but inexperienced can feel heard, understood, and safe.
Imagine an entire community of people who command respect and offer it at the same time.
What if you could inspire your staff to watch their campers with insight, to understand better when to step in and when to step back? What if you could inspire your counselors to push through their own obstacles and challenges both as a model for their campers and as a way to become stronger adults themselves? What if you could inspire your entire camp to define resilience with their actions and reactions?
How about the chance to impact the work ethic of every child and adult at camp this summer? What if you could provide an impact that emboldens your campers to ask, "How can I help?" and staff to ask, "What else can I do?" Maybe you can provide an impact in the form of cabin chores, social action, and community spirit that make responsibility a byword.
Most kids take a step back from the "Three Rs" of school during the summer. What a great time to take a step toward these Three Rs of great character — respect, resilience, and responsibility.
Different Camps; So Many Opportunities
Specialty camps build skills and confidence. Even if a child does not turn into a star athlete or virtuoso musician, he or she will become something of an expert for that week (or session) in a set of skills. Skill or interest-focused camps — or the specialties available at a larger camp — build knowledge as well as hone ability, and this is perfect because many kids like to know a lot about something.
Day camps encourage kids to play hard and try a whole variety of new experiences. With wonderful options like gardening, rock-climbing, swimming, crafts, and sports of every kind, children often find they love something they had never even heard of before the summer. When children leave home for a day of camp or a week or more, they are often supervised by older teens and young adults. While this may make some parents nervous, this is actually a great opportunity for our kids! With a teenage counselor kids will:
- Learn to ask for what they need
- Get some practice waiting
- Try new activities
- Perhaps find a role model
- Play hard
Being supervised by someone a little younger and less experienced wi l l encourage a child to build a little resilience, and speak up for herself. Since these counselors are supervised by older, more experienced camp administration, this is actually a perk of summer.
Those Three Rs — respect, responsibility, and resilience — mature like crazy when kids and teens spend their days away from home, be it at day camp for a week or overnight camp for an entire summer.
Respect develops when you have to interact with people you've never met. There has to be a way to get along with that kind of annoying kid who is in your group or sharing your bunk, your cubby, your floor space, and the other 22 kids sharing your bathroom. Summer camp is the place to discover the ability to have empathy and boundaries, to show tolerance and learn to like someone different than anyone you've ever met.
Resilience is the answer to the doubts we have as parents. Won't he miss me? What if she gets sick? Homesickness, bug bites, disappointments, and injuries all can be weathered without mom or dad. As the camp doctor at a fantastic overnight camp, I can tell you that kids do look for a parent in those moments. And then they surprise themselves as they turn to counselors, new friends, and their own inner strength to get through and get over the hardships. What pride and self-confidence they discover as they learn of their own resilience.
Resilience is one of the hardest character traits to teach. We know that our children need the ability to stand in the face of adversity, but we don't necessarily know how to build those skills. We can give our children and teens lots of chances to find their own inner strength, and to develop it. I recommend camp as the perfect chance.
Responsibility is the bread and butter of communal living. Camp can send a child home knowing how to properly sweep a floor, set and clear a table for 14, or clean up garbage strewn about after a storm. Camp can instill in a child the understanding that the jobs on the chore chart have to get done before fun can be had. Parents can get a young person back from camp who pitches in for the greater good of the family.
Because camp is the place to teach all of these amazing skills, how can camp directors and senior staff make their counselors more effective teachers?
Respect, like most things, is learned when we demonstrate, name, and praise it. Staff need the framework for establishing a respectful group before camp even begins. There are tangible demonstrations of respect that all kids are capable of following and all counselors can teach:
- Names. What we call each other impacts how each person feels. Nicknames can make us feel a part of something or entirely apart from something. So how can counselors know if a nickname is a good or bad idea? Ask the person what he or she would like to be called. Simple, right?
- Speak for yourself. Communication is about what we say and also how we say it. Kids need to know there are clear limits. If someone speaks to them in a way they do not like, counselors will enforce the rules to allow campers to stand up for themselves.
- Who's in charge? In a group, some kids rise to the top of the social power pile. Making staff aware of these dynamics will give the counselors the language they need to upset that power balance and make sure everyone is getting the respect they deserve.
- Privacy. Camp is a place for sharing things and living (even at day camp) in close quarters. Privacy — the right to change without being stared at, to know that someone will get permission before touching your stuff, the certainty that a secret told to the cabin will not end up big news to the whole camp at breakfast — is a fundamental element of respect.
Resilience is not just about surviving something difficult. Resilience requires kids to navigate something dif f icult and move toward a posit ive act ion. Counselors of ten see themselves as bound to help and fix. Kids are usually better served by hearing that someone has enough faith in them to listen while they find their own solutions.
- Offer empathy. Genuine empathy, not the snarky or sarcastic — "Well, you messed that up" — variety, will show kids that someone is listening and cares.
- Don't give the answer away. Kids know that grown-ups can solve problems. What they need to learn is that they can solve problems. Staff can impact lifelong problem-solving skills by asking, "What do you think you could do?"
- Guide their plan. Asking kids for options is the first step in teaching resilience, but staff need to know how to express that not every idea is a great one, and to ask the right questions and weigh in enough to guide a camper toward a solution that has a chance of delivering his or her desired outcome.
Responsibility not only makes camp run more smoothly, it also sets your campers and staff up for a lifetime of success. If your staff can master and teach the following steps, they will be amazed at how easy it is to get work done and let fun begin.
- Notice the task. "We're done at the waterfront but there are life jackets everywhere." Whatever the activity or situation, kids and teens usually don't see the work that needs to be done. This is a learned skill — and a very important one.
- Show initiative. "How can we help?" That one question can change the entire culture at camp. Teach kids to say it whenever they want something, such as to get to the next activity or to call attention to a problem.
- Do the job. Many children (and some staff) have grown up believing that many tasks just aren't their "job." When we really invest in a community, we know that every obligation — from picking up trash on the path to sitting quietly in an emergency — can make a difference.
- Complete it well. "Has anything been left out?" Doing a little to help is better than nothing, but to truly teach responsibility we need to challenge kids to do something hard: Stick to a job until it's entirely finished.
- Check back in. "What else can we do?" A responsibility isn't over until the person in charge says it is. Staff can model this really well by asking activity specialists this question before ever leaving an area for the next pursuit.
What is camp — in all of its wonderful variations — for? Camp is for growing. Camp is school for character building. Whatever kids need to learn, camp is a place to find it.
All of the children and staff who will be a part of your summer are in that lucky part of the population. They are camp people. We have the chance to make sure that, even more than camp friends and connections, the skills our kids learn will set them up for a life of success in whatever area they choose to pursue. Learning respect, resilience, and responsibility at camp will establish each of them as a person who can achieve his or her dreams. After all, that is what camp is for.
Photo courtesy of Camp Burnt Gin, Wedgefield, South Carolina.
Originally published in the 2015 January/February Camping Magazine.