When I sat down to write this article, I could still hear Axl Rose (lead singer of the ’80s rock band Guns N’ Roses) whistling the opening of the group’s hit song “Patience” like it was yesterday. The chorus of the song went like this: “I need a little patience, yeeaaahhhh . . . Come on patience, yeeaahhhh.” As I processed that song and focused more intently on the word “patience,” I realized it is one of the most important words you will hear, learn, and, hopefully, put into practice this summer.

When summer camps ask me to come and lead training for their staff, one of the consistently favored topics is how to teach staff to be patient with kids. When I tell some camps that I do an entire workshop on learning patience, some folks respond, “You can’t teach patience! You either have it or you don’t.” I could not disagree more! Here are my thoughts about why, if you practice patience this summer, the experience for your campers and the culture of your camp will be better.

Know Yourself and Your Co-Counselor(s)

Sadly and admittedly, as a young camp counselor, I struggled mightily with patience. I was an enthusiastic, loud, and fun counselor in a large group. However, when it came down to some kids at camp, in a small setting, they drove me crazy. I cringe at the thoughts of my use of sarcasm as a defense mechanism and my lack of ability to really listen to my campers. In those developmental years, it was all about me. It was my happiness, my time, or my rest hour, and no kids were going to get in the way of that!

I’m happy to say that my level of patience improved over the years. So, I ask you, what do kids do that drives you crazy? What kinds of things have kids done (if you’ve worked with kids before) that just got under your skin? Take a few minutes right now to stop reading and make a list of those — a sort of “patience inventory.” Do this activity on your own. Don’t spend any more than ten minutes on it. Then, get together with your co-counselor(s) and discuss this list together. Be HONEST. Don’t hold anything back. The only way you can work through this issue is if you are totally upfront about it.

After you have had that important discussion, identify your similarities and differences with regard to patience. There will be several. If everyone is really honest, you will now be able to recognize what each other’s “button-pushing moments” are with kids. That way, if one of your campers is displaying the behavior or traits that drive you crazy, you can ask your co-counselor to step in and help — and vice versa. By doing this, you will work off of each other’s strengths, and more importantly, have the chance to display more patience for a camper and their issues.

They Are Someone’s Baby, No Matter How Old They Are

Before my wife and I had our two sons, I thought I knew how parents thought. In my years of teaching and working at camp, I have had a student (or two, or three) who has annoyed me. Let’s be honest about this. We are human. There are some kids who are not as easy to deal with as others. That’s reality.

One thing I could never understand was that if I met with parents at school or called parents from camp to talk about their child’s behavior, there were times when parents would respond with comments like, “That’s hard to believe” or “I can’t see my child acting that way.” I’d actually have some parents attempt to defend their child’s behavior, and I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t figure out how they couldn’t see the way this kid was acting or behaving was not acceptable for the camp environment. I couldn’t see it — that is, until I became a parent.

I’m certainly not insinuating that you need to be a parent to understand the way parents think, but let me give it to you from a parent’s perspective. When I watch my oldest son, Nolan, at playgroup or in preschool, every fiber in my body wants him to be successful. I want every one of his interactions to be happy. I want every person that works with him to be patient and kind. I want every single activity that he participates in to be fun, safe, stimulating, and exciting. Huh? Sounds a lot like camp, right? He’s my baby. He’s my oldest son. I want only the best for him. That’s the same for most parents. They only want the best for their kids.

My point? Remember, all kids are the children of, or under the care of, some adult in their “out of camp life.” Work with kids in your cabin and in your activity area as if their parents or guardians are watching. How much would your patience level have to change as a counselor if you really thought your actual campers’ parents or guardians were evaluating you? I hope it wouldn’t have to change too much. I hope that if some camper’s parents randomly showed up, they would say, “Wow, that person is so patient with my kid!”

One tangible you can do to remind yourself that all kids are someone’s children is have a picture of yourself in your cabin, when you were the age of the group of kids with whom you are working. If you are the leader of eight-year-olds this summer, find an old picture of when you were eight and have it in your bunk. Put it somewhere perhaps where everyone can see. Just a reminder that you were young once, too, and you may have tested the patience of an adult in your life.

Finally, regarding this “parent angle” — trust me, a lot of parents know if their kids are challenging. They know if their kids have the ability to push buttons or make people angry. Have empathy for those kids and parents. You may only have to work with that difficult camper for two weeks. Imagine how burned out some of those parents can get after years of living with and loving a difficult child. You have an opportunity to be a role model of patience, care, and love for that kid. Sound cheesy? Again, remember, you may have been that kid that drove people crazy when you were a camper! I know I was at times. Imagine how much patience others had with you. Return the favor. Think like a parent.

Rule with an Iron Fist!

Really? No, but do set the tone early. Put this magazine down for a second, but keep it close enough to you to read and do what I’m about to describe. Sit up straight where you are and have your feet touching the floor or the ground. Place your hands in your lap. Extend one hand out in front of you palm side up and open your hand up wide open. (Keep it up and keep reading.) You see, this is how some camp counselors start off the summer with their bunk or their group of kids. Wide open. Wanting to be friends. Not wanting a lot of rules. Wanting us “all to be in this together.” All of these thoughts are well-intentioned, but with this generation of kids, if you try that approach from the start, you will get buried. I speak from firsthand experience. (You can put your hand down now.)

With the first cabin group my co-counselor and I had at camp one summer, we were so committed to the “all in this together” mentality that we actually put our counselor bunks out in the middle of the cabin! The campers’ bunks were all around us, and we were one big happy family. For about a week. Then we noticed that kids seemed to be testing our patience. They seemed to be taking advantage of us. Sure enough, we found ourselves getting quite upset at our kids at times and losing our patience. Is it any wonder? We had not set expectations. We set no ground rules. It was a mess. Then someone taught me this “hand and fist” activity.

Put your magazine down again. Extend that same hand, palm side up and open it nice and wide. Now close that palm and make a fist. Not a really tight fist — just a fist that is firm enough to hold some change without it falling. (OK, hold that fist there.) That’s how you need to start off with your group of kids.

Some of you may be thinking, “start off making a fist at my kids?!” Obviously, not literally. However, start with strong expectations of your kids. Start by introducing yourselves in a fun and positive way. Start by building your cabin group by setting the behavior expectations of the entire group together. (You can put your fist down now.) Spend that first day with your kids talking about how important it is that everyone treats each other well, including their counselors. Write it down and put it up in your cabin or in your bunk. Make sure you, your kids, and your co-counselors all sign it.

You see, by setting these guidelines together, you have created an atmosphere of respect, but more importantly, you have created a culture within your group. Wait, I thought this article was about patience? It is. By understanding each other’s expectations, and creating a culture around those expectations, moments that test your patience will be fewer.

Put your magazine down one last time. Put your hand out in front of you palmside-up with a wide-open hand. You see, if you start out the season with “wide-open” expectations, it will be harder to bring everyone together into the tight, respectful unit that your fist represents. However, if you start out with clear expectations (make a fist), you will be able to loosen up with your kids when you can, but it will easier to go back to that place of respect when you need to.

Take Care of Yourself

Need a day off from your day off? Huh? Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. Did you “tear it up” so much on your day off from camp that you need to sleep, but you can’t because your kids in your cabin want you to head down to breakfast or you need to drive to day camp? Take care of yourself at camp. Lack of sleep and/ or not being physically alert is a big reason for lack of patience. Everyone’s patience wears thin when they are not in a good place physically. You need your down time, workout time, or chill time so you can be at your best with your campers.

Approach with Open Arms, and Say “I’m Sorry”

Finally, I often hear things like, “Kids these days . . .” from camp directors and school colleagues, I cut them off before they finish and say, “. . . are awesome, aren’t they?” I truly believe it. Kids today are awesome. They have not grown up in an easy world. They see more simulated deaths on TV, experience more divorced parents in real life, and participate in more scheduled activities than any generation before them. Be open to them. Approach them from a place of understanding, respect, and compassion each and every day at camp. If you do this, they will treat you the same way. So, if and when those lack-of-patience moments come up and your response doesn’t reflect respect, don’t be too stubborn to tell your camper, “I’m sorry.” It shows that you are human — you are role modeling how a healthy adult deals with conflict and handles mistakes. It’s just one of the many lessons campers will take from you and apply to their life outside of camp. It’s one more set of lessons you are passing along to your campers that they can take with them.

Steve Maguire has facilitated over 400 summer camp staff trainings across the United States over the last five years. To learn more, contact Steve at www.maguirepresentations.com.

Originally published in the 2012 May/June Camping Magazine.