July’s Camp Kindness Day showcased the role that organized camping plays in promoting character traits that ultimately transcend June, July, and August, amplifying that what young people can learn during the summer — in so many ways — prepares them to grow into “socially minded, community-oriented” citizens (ACA, 2019a).

Caring, compassionate, and grateful children and teens: what could be better than that? As Dan Michel, director of Brewster Day Camp in Massachusetts, told me, “Kindness and gratitude are two qualities that are increasingly needed in our everyday lives, and we are lucky enough to be in a position at camp to be able to incorporate these qualities into our programs and ideology.”

Surely, Dan is not alone in expressing the sheer magnitude of opportunity we have, collectively, to reshape the thinking and actions of millions of young people whose paths include summer camp.

Reams of data support the conclusion that camps nurture positive youth development and favorable outcomes perhaps not replicable in any other learning environment (ACA, 2019b). The traits revealed constitute a “through line” of character, integrity, and contribution. Is it any wonder that campers routinely count their summer friends as their best friends and that the camp gestalt encourages them to be their genuine selves?

Deconstructing Character Traits

Finding the true meaning of the aforementioned character traits requires a nuanced understanding of each and how they differ.

Such nuances informed camp consultant Bob Ditter’s March/April 2017 Camping Magazine article, “Sympathy, Empathy, and the Shift to Compassion.” As the title suggests, Ditter sought to differentiate among each of those three constructs.

Of the first two, sympathy and empathy, Ditter explains that sympathy is a “feeling” of sorrow, if largely impersonal. Empathy, while also a feeling, typically implies a more meaningful connection to another but does not infer action (and may lead to personal distress). In each there are both plusses and minuses. Where the rubber hits the road is in the role of compassion, which may result in active helping behaviors.

According to Ditter, “When caretakers, such as camp counselors, make the shift from empathy to compassion, they are not only more effective in helping their campers because they are not stressed themselves, but they actually undergo all the neurological and physical benefits of that one experience in moments of joy and gratitude” (Ditter, 2017).

Therein lies the intersection of caring (feeling) and compassion (action).

To the extent that sympathy, empathy, and compassion exist along a continuum — and that empathy may precede compassionate acts — camps play a pivotal role at an important inflection point some refer to as an “empathy gap.”

A June 2019 CBS Radio discussion on the topic offers, “Empathy is considered such a core part of what it means to be a feeling, engaged human that people who lack empathy are thought to be lacking in humanity.

“Some would go so far as to say that empathy — the emotional and moral imagination that allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of other people — is what makes us human” (CBS Radio, 2019).

Appreciating the perspectives of others may also make it more likely that camp counselors, as mentors, seek out ones of their own, which in turn can be of critical importance, even in college.

In fact, data exists in support of that premise. “The Elon University Poll and the Center for Engaged Learning examined the nature and qualities of relationships that matter most for college students. The poll found that graduates who had seven to 10 significant relationships with faculty and staff were more than three times as likely to report their college experience as ‘very rewarding’ than those with no such relationships. Similar effects were found for peer relationships in college” (Lambert et al, 2018).

Social-Emotional Health

A wide swath of positive, empathic relationships has never been more important.

During the 2018 season, a camp parent asked me if the camp her child was attending was enrolling a higher number of youth with mental health disorders. My reply: “No, it’s a representative sample.” What does that mean? That the percentage of young people experiencing psychological distress has risen significantly. Adding some quantification, the National Alliance on Mental Illness offers, “Mental health conditions are common among teens and young adults. 1 in 5 live with a mental health condition — half develop the condition by age 14 and three quarters by age 24” (NAMI, 2019).

James Mazza, a University of Washington researcher, noted in a July 2019 Vox.com article, “We’re seeing a lot more kids having mental health difficulties, whether that’s anxiety, trauma, depression, eating disorders, emotional difficulties, a lot more . . . Our schools need to be focusing much more on mental wellness or providing kids and youth with skills to deal with the emotion disregulation they’ll experience during adolescence” (Resnick, 2019).

Might camps play a similarly important role? Of course, and maybe more so given the close affinity young people tend to articulate about their summer experiences.

As Tyler, 17, told me, “When I think about what kind of person I am at camp and compare it to who I am in everyday life, I see two different people. During the school year, I make education my priority, living each day with an almost monotonous rhythm. On the contrary, living at camp every day is filled with excitement, and everyone is in a positive mood. I think at school the boring, robotic mindset ‘infects’ a lot of people and spreads. At [camp] that mindset is replaced with a friendly, exciting, and happy mindset that perpetually exists through everyone.”

Marisa, also 17, shared, “Camp has always brought out the best in me. Some say it could have been the beautiful weather or location, but I truly believe it was the people. Camp always had such positive energy and vibes that I wanted to do my best in activities and other events. I grew as a person. It was different from school, because I was with people who had the same interests as me, not just grouped with people who live in the same location.”

It sounds as though camp might be an effective antidote to loneliness, something that is on the rise among Gen Zers (Manning-Schaffel, 2018).

Perhaps most alarming are the rates of depression among youth. As Deborah Serani poignantly stated in a June 2019 article in The Sober World magazine, “Depression doesn’t care if you’re rich or famous, poor or homeless.

“It doesn’t care if you’re young or old, ordinary or superlatively gifted. Depression cuts across social economic status, is found in every culture and in every country around the world. It drapes itself over men, women, and children — and thinks nothing of how it decays your mind, siphons your soul, and crushes the glimpse of possibility, hope, and freedom at every turn.

“Depression is not an experience that fades with the next sunrise or can be shaken off with a newfound attitude. It won’t be cured by tough-love. Or rectified by ignoring it. And if you try to minimize its wrenching hold on your health, it’ll root itself even deeper. Depression can’t be willed away either. And it can’t be ranked alongside adjectives like blue, sad, dejected, down, melancholy, or unhappy. Depression demands you to see it for what it truly is — an illness. A beast” (Serani, 2019).

A beast for sure.

San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge stated in a November 2017 article, “Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens.

“In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of US teens who felt useless and joyless — classic symptoms of depression — surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent . . . .

“My colleagues and I found that the increases in depression, suicide attempts, and suicide appeared among teens from every background — more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country. All told, our analysis found that the generation of teens I call ‘iGen’ — those born after 1995 — is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors.

“What happened so that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide, and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone” (Twenge, 2017).

By their very nature, camps facilitate meaningful (and often cell phone-free) connections between campers and campers and staff that promote overall well-being. We can be quite intentional about focusing on the social-emotional health of all. Following are some examples of how:

  • Model socially inclusive behaviors.
  • Create a zero tolerance expectation for bullying, hazing, and harassment.
  • Limit (or ban) screen time.
  • Schedule blocks of time for guided conversations about positive relationships, feelings, and mental health.
  • Engage parents as part of your team in addressing any “preexisting” struggles a camper may have experienced.
  • Provide opportunities for campers and staff to publicly acknowledge the kind, caring, helpful acts of others.

Conflict and Consequence

As idyllic as camp may seem, like in any environment — educational or otherwise — conflict exists. In fact, conflict is a part of most every human relationship. Thus, it is not something to hide but rather to constructively address. The consequences for not doing so can be impactful and long-lasting. Why? Because problems left unaddressed tend to grow rather than diminish or disappear.

While it may sound counterintuitive, conflict helps us to better understand points of view divergent from our own and to collaborate for the benefit of all.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, in the Psychology Today article “17 Rules to Guide You Through Any Conflict,” points to the work of conflict specialist Dana Caspersen, who offers the following advice (2015).

  1. Don’t hear attack. Listen for what is behind the words.
  2. Resist the urge to attack — change the conversation from the inside.
  3. Talk to the other person’s best self.
  4. Differentiate needs, interests, and strategies.
  5. Acknowledge emotions — see them as signals.
  6. Differentiate between acknowledgement and agreement.
  7. When listening, avoid making suggestions.
  8. Differentiate between evaluation and observation.
  9. Test your assumptions — and relinquish them if they prove false.
  10. Develop curiosity in difficult situations.
  11. Assume useful dialogue is possible, even when it seems unlikely.
  12. If you are making things worse, stop.
  13. Figure out what’s happening, not whose fault it is.
  14. Acknowledge conflict.
  15. Assume undiscovered options exist.
  16. Be explicit about agreements.
  17. Expect and plan for future conflict.

Coalition Building

Effectively tackling conflict likely means forming coalitions — or teams — internally (with staff) and possibly even externally (with organizations that can inform our work).

Team building begins the moment counselors arrive at camp, as it is then that they will begin to assess your commitment to them (believing that you care about them as people ranks highly on measures of job satisfaction). Sociologists refer to this as “primacy,” or first impression.

David Ingram’s article for the Small Business Chronicle, “Elements for Effective Teamwork,” sets forth some characteristics of high-performing teams (Ingram, 2019).

Commitment and Trust

All members of a high-impact team must be fully committed to achieving the team’s mission and goals. Each member must devote a reasonable amount of time and energy to advancing the team’s mission and must be able to trust that all other team members are doing the same. Mistrust stemming from unbalanced workloads can lead to petty political moves, such as high performers slacking off to close the gap between team member outputs.

Open Lines of Communication

Effective teams must have open lines of communication. Communication must be honest and flow between all team members equally. Team members who understand each other’s unique communication styles, or who agree on a single style of communication from the outset, are more likely to move the team in a productive direction that everyone understands and supports. Team members must never be hesitant to communicate with other members about issues and concerns, as well as new ideas or personal observations.

Diversity of Capabilities

Teams that possess a wide range of professional competencies can be more fully equipped to meet a wide range of challenges. When building teams, take time to ensure that each team member possesses skills and strengths that complement the skills, strengths, and weaknesses of other team members. Bringing together people with common skill-sets can lead to a great deal of discussion with little subsequent action. Ensuring that each team member possesses a unique specialty allows [them] to trust each other for certain aspects of performance, while fully understanding what their own contribution is expected to be.

Adaptable to Changing Conditions

High-powered teams must be flexible and adaptable to changing conditions. Team strategies, goals, tasks, workflows, and even members can change over the life of the team. Team members should be able to rally together and meet new challenges head-on, rather than splintering into ideological factions or banding together to resist change. Change is an unavoidable part of modern business, and the most effective teams have the ability to roll with the punches and change the way they work together on the fly.

Confidence and Creative Freedom

All team members should feel free to think creatively — to try new things and fail without the fear of consequences. This aspect of teamwork brings together all of the other elements for effective teamwork. Team members must trust that others will listen openly to their ideas . . . they must be trusted enough in their area of expertise to lead the way in new initiatives, and they must be adaptable enough to accommodate the changes inherent in bringing new ideas to realization.

Good advice through and through.

But what about outside help?

Three resources come to mind:

  • True to Life Training empowers teams and individuals to do right in their lives and communities and believes that “people improve the quality of their interpersonal interactions by understanding the power and influence of their own behavior.”
  • The Momentous Institute focuses on mental health “so children can achieve their full potential.” They state, “Children with strong social-emotional health demonstrate self-control, communicate well, problem solve, are empathetic, respectful, grateful, gritty, and optimistic . . .”
  • Total Brain addresses rising rates of mental illness by providing a neuroscience-based mental health and fitness platform, accentuating 12 key brain capacities through self-awareness and training. It also offers access to original clinical research.

A Through Line

Caring, compassion, and conflict resolution represent a true north for successful summer camps intent on maximizing the saliency of relationships, creating in the process a “through line” that connects effort and outcome in transformative, life-changing ways.

Photo on courtesy of Brave Trails, Pasadena, California.


ACA. (2019a). Camp Kindness Day — July 23, 2019. American Camp Association. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/camp-kindness-day

ACA. (2019b). The value of camp. American Camp Association. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/campers-families/because-camp/benefits-camp/value-camp

CBS Radio. (2019). Empathy makes us human, but research suggests it may be on the decline. The Sunday Edition. CBS Radio. Retrieved from cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/the-sunday-edition-for-june-9-2019-1.5165327/empathy-makes-us-human-but-research-suggests-it-may-be-on-the-decline-1.5166354

Ditter, B. (2017, March). Sympathy, empathy, and the shift to compassion. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/sympathy-empathy-shift-compassion

Ingram, D. (2019, April 24). Elements for effective teamwork. Small Business Chronicle. Retrieved from smallbusiness.chron.com/elements-effective-teamwork-964.html

Lambert, L., Husser, J., & Felten, P. (2018, August 22). Mentors play critical role in quality of college experience, new poll suggests. The Conversation. August 22, 2018. (3 Aug. 2019).

Manning-Schaffel, V. (2018, May 14). Americans are lonelier than ever — but ‘Gen Z’ may be the loneliest. NBC News. Retrieved from nbcnews.com/better/pop-culture/americans-are-lonelier-ever-gen-z-may-be-loneliest-ncna873101

Momentous Institute. (2019). Social emotional health. Retrieved from momentousinstitute.org/social-emotional-health

NAMI. (2019). Teens and young adults. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved from nami.org/Find-Support/Teens-and-Young-Adults

Resnick, B. (2019, July 11). Teens are increasingly depressed, anxious and suicidal. How can we help? Vox Media. Retrieved from vox.com/science-and-health/2019/7/11/18759712/teen-suicide-depression-anxiety-how-to-help-resources

Serani, D. (2019, June 30). Sobriety, depression and suicide. The Sober World. Retrieved from thesoberworld.com/2019/06/30/sobriety-depression-and-suicide/

Total Brain. (2019). The total brain platform. Retrieved from totalbrain.com/affinitygroups/

True to Life Training. (2019). About us. Retrieved from truetolifetraining.com/about/

Twenge, J. (2017, November 14). With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there’s a likely culprit. The Conversation. Retrieved from theconversation.com/with-teen-mental-health-deteriorating-over-five-years-theres-a-likely-culprit-86996

Wallace, S. (2018a, September 18). My better self. LinkedIn. Retrieved from linkedin.com/pulse/my-better-self-stephen-gray-wallace/?published=t

Wallace, S. (2018b). An introduction to camp counseling. Summit Communications.

Whitbourne, S. K. (2015, January 27). 17 rules to guide you through any conflict. Psychology Today. Retrieved from psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201501/17-rules-guide-you-through-any-conflict

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, is cofounder and chief executive officer of CampTelligence, LLC, a data collection, analysis, and consulting firm, and president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing favorable youth outcomes and reducing risk. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and is a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com, NBC Learn, and WebMD. He is also an expert partner at the Risk Assistance Network & Exchange (RANE) and was national chairman and chief executive officer at SADD for more than 15 years. Additional information about Stephen’s work can be found at StephenGrayWallace.com.

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