I am standing in the middle of the woodshop of a sailing camp for boys on Cape Cod examining the hunk of wood that is on its way to becoming a fully functional model sailboat when I hear the ruckus outside. I hand the hull over to the boy who owns it and quickly step onto the shop porch just in time to see Jake, one of my ten-year-old campers, with his back to me about to chuck a rock at some kid only a few feet away. "Jake!" I shout at the top of my lungs. Jake, startled by my exclamation, whips around and throws the rock at me. It whizzes past my right ear, missing me by inches only because I somehow manage to duck at the last second.
The "fun" started early with my tenyear- old challenger for the summer of 1974. "Jake," not his real name, arrived at camp with cherry bombs and firecrackers in his trunk. (He said they were to "help celebrate the Fourth of July!") From demonstrating the various motions of human reproduction with his pillow to planning disappearances out of the cabin during rest hour, Jake at once worried and delighted his cabin mates. Today Michael Thompson, in his book Best Friends, Worst Enemies, might well describe Jake as a "controversial child"; that is, a youth who definitely gets the attention of his peers in ways not necessarily popular with them or the adults around them.
I spent the summer taking Jake aside for "little chats" and time-outs. On days when he had clearly crossed a line by refusing to listen to another counselor, the two of us would row a pram out to the center of the salt water bay where the boys practiced their sailing skills so Jake — without the distractions of the busy camp around us — could hear one more time how he could save himself from being sent home. After the rock-throwing incident, he was never truly a danger — just a test of my patience and imagination. I will tell you, too, that nowhere in staff training was there a hint about how I should handle this young man. Even if we had talked about behavior management or communication skills, the work with Jake clearly went beyond the usual.
In the years since my camp counselor days, I have written many articles and given many training sessions on essential skills camp professionals need to develop in order to work effectively with campers. Some of them, like "drop the rope" and "state your expectations and detach," would probably have helped me in my work with Jake many years ago. Yet skills alone do not make for an effective camp counselor. There are qualities — abilities or competencies — that you either bring with you or develop quickly at camp if you wish to be successful. So rather than pen another article on skills, I want to share with you some of the lessons I learned over the years, beginning with "Jake," that I believe contribute to success at camp.
A word of warning: I will be talking out of both sides of my mouth!
Put the Needs of Others Ahead of Your Own. Be Selfish.
If I had to point to one quality that the best camp counselors I have seen over the years had, it would be their ability to put the needs of others ahead of their own. In a project I helped develop with a number of private, independent camps in the late 1990s with a company that specializes in staff selection, we held focus groups of campers and parents all around the United States where we asked campers to tell us about their favorite counselors. From the reams of information we collected, we determined that a critical core competency of the best camp counselors was their ability to put the needs of others ahead of their own. Who gets that last piece of dessert at lunch — you or a camper? Who gets your attention during an activity period — your friend or a camper? When you have a child who needs a little extra care because she is homesick or having an adjustment problem in her group, do you spend that extra time even though it may mean you get a little less down time yourself? Not everyone is able to notice and attend to the needs of children — and those who can set themselves apart at camp.
The capacity to put the needs of others ahead of your own has as part of it the tendency to be generous — that is, to be liberal in sharing our time, energy, enthusiasm, and recognition with others; and to be patient — to understand that children are a work in progress and that staying calm actually increases our influence with them.
I learned a long time ago as a child and family therapist that I couldn't help anyone if I didn't take good care of myself. Camp is taxing. Campers, in their noisy, messy, imperfect, impulsive, natural state, exert a kind of "regressive pull" on us. That is, they require the expenditure of a lot of emotional energy, and if we don't balance taking care of them with renewing and refreshing ourselves, we start to look and act just like they do in their worst moments! If you are not well rested and don't get some "down time" away from the kids, you are taking the risk of becoming irritable and impulsive yourself! Taking care of others definitely requires that you take good care of yourself!
One prime example of taking care of yourself is getting enough sleep. Research tells us that we are getting on average about an hour less sleep a night today than just twenty years ago. Lack of sleep over the course of a summer can lead to poor judgment and loss of patience. Be good to yourself, and you will be better able to be good to your campers!
Accept Constructive Feedback. Be Your Own Best Critic.
One of the most difficult yet productive abilities of anyone working with children is the capacity to hear and grow from constructive feedback. I don't know of anyone who is truly great at what they do who hasn't benefitted from the experience, advice, and knowledge of people who have gone before them. The challenge is that your pride may get in your way. Working with children today has so many different facets and challenges that you couldn't possibly have all the program ideas, behavior management ideas, or just fun ways to pass the time to stay fresh and continue to be a great counselor.
Another way to put this is that the good thing about counselors who are committed to excellence is they truly get engaged in their work. The drawback is that they truly get engaged in their work! In other words, taking pride in your work cuts both ways. It is what makes you give it your all and at the same time may be what keeps you from looking at how you can continue to get better. When someone gives you a pointer or makes a suggestion, you can sometimes feel unappreciated or slighted or get defensive. It's a common enough phenomenon, especially at camp where so many efforts of good counselors may go unrecognized and unappreciated. Just remember that people who are the best in their field are those who've been able to take pointers and learn from all the great folks who've gone before them. Being a camp counselor is no different.
Most of us know when we've done a good job and when we haven't. Be honest with yourself. When you cut corners or don't give your all, it is not only the children (and the camp) you are cheating, but yourself. Being the best you can be means living up to your best teachers, your best mentors, your best friends — all of the people who you carry inside of you who have encouraged, supported, and believed in you. With the understanding that we all have good days and bad days, those counselors who have a strong but fair "self-critic" are those that keep getting better and better.
It's Not About You. It's All about You!
When a camper is rude or defiant or questions your authority, it would be natural to take it personally or act defensively. After all, you've been encouraged to develop a relationship with your campers and work closely with them at camp. Having a camper get "under your skin" is a usual "hazard" of working so intimately with them. Yet we all know that children bring with them what I call "the other duffel bag" — all the unfinished tasks of growing up, including respecting authority, working together, and tolerating conflict. The less secure you are about yourself and where you stand with your own peers, the more susceptible you will be to the camper challenges that may come your way. You are the adult. Even when campers are testing your limits, deep down they are counting on you to be more mature and responsible than they may be at any given moment. To react to provocative camper behavior in a way that a child would means there is no standard of more civilized behavior being taught. That is why I say this is not "about you," but about the "growing up" of your campers who may use you as a kind of surrogate parent to work out some of their own issues.
That said, the success of camp is all about you. It is about your personal commitment to give of yourself; to bring the program to life; to inspire and encourage your campers; to temper their impulses; and teach them respect, patience, and empathy by being respectful, patient, and empathic. Qualities like these — respect, patience, fairness, and empathy — are learned only through experience, by being with people who practice them. Studies tell us over and over again that the single greatest factor assuring that young people grow up to be self-respecting, productive, and able to love and care for others is the presence of a caring adult in their lives. When Jake arrived at camp over thirty-five years ago, he didn't have much patience, empathy, or respect, yet somehow working with him helped me further develop those same qualities in myself.
Thompson, M., O'Neill Grace, C., & Cohen, L.J. (2001). Best Friends, Worst Enemies — Understanding the Social Lives of Children. New York: Ballantine Books.
Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2009). NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children, Twelve. New York: Hachette Book Group.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.
Originally published in the 2010 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.