“Hey, wazzup?” is a perfectly good greeting when meeting one of the counselors you’ll be working with this summer for the first time. But what will you say when you meet your campers’ parents?

Maybe manners and social skills come naturally to you, but even so, you need to give some thought to the impression you will leave with your campers’ parents. Your interactions with them will have a profound impact on how they feel about you, your camp, and their child’s experience. Have you thought about what impression you want to give?

Most camps have guidelines for what to wear and how to groom yourself on arrival day, so be sure you’re up on the policies. My guess is that most camp directors want you to be clean and in some kind of identifying uniform. It’s important that you look your best, but there’s a lot more to making a good first impression than having a pleasant appearance.

This summer, leave a lasting, positive impression on your campers’ parents by preparing well for the first day of camp.

Why Is It Important to Make a Good First Impression on Your Campers’ Parents?

Why is this seemingly superficial thing so important? I contend that it is vitally important for you to project a positive impression as your campers’ parents drop them off at camp because:

  • The camp experience isn’t just for your campers. Parents are also going through, for many of them, their first experience leaving their children in someone else’s care for an extended period of time.
  • You have a limited opportunity to make a good impression. You may be meeting and talking with them for five minutes. That’s a short time to make an impression, but you will make one (good or bad!).
  • Your campers’ parents equate how you treat them with how you will treat their child. Are you smiling, attentive, a good listener, polite, respectful? They will be assessing if they think you are a good counselor during their short interaction with you. Think of it as a mini interview.

Think Like a Parent!

Most camp counselors are not parents. That’s what makes you more fun! It also makes it a little harder for you to empathize with your campers’ parents.

Michael Brandwein, in his book Training Terrific Staff, has an exercise called “A Letter for Learning” (2004). You are asked to pretend you are a parent sending your child to camp for the first time and write about your fears, hopes, and concerns. After discussion, there is a moving letter for you to read that Brandwein has composed. He really sums up how parents feel about sending their child to camp and the mixed emotions that are involved.

If your camp doesn’t do Brandwein’s exercise during training, you can do some of your own empathy training by doing the following:

  • Spend a minute identifying an important child in your life (sibling, cousin, close friend).
  • Think about how you would want him/her treated by his/her counselor.
  • Think about what you would worry about.

Are you thinking more like a parent? Good!

Social Skills Primer: The Basics of Greeting

You may not need to read this. Perhaps you took etiquette classes or had parents who were sticklers for manners. But I have found in my many years at camp that some college-age counselors have not yet learned some basic greeting skills. These are important skills, and I promise they will be useful for you well beyond camp.

First of all, I want to share with you something else we learned from Michael Brandwein that we use every single summer. It’s called “WESTI” (2008). This acronym provides us with a reminder of what to do when we greet each camper or parent for the first time. Here’s what WESTI stands for:

W: Warm smile — it’s so important to have a pleasant facial expression!
E: Eye contact — look them in the eye with your sunglasses OFF!
S: Shake their hand (parents) — or give them a high five (campers). Please practice your handshake and get feedback if you haven’t already worked on this. You need just the right amount of pressure, not a limp noodle handshake or one that causes bruising on grandma’s tender skin. A firm, “web to web” shake is what you need (Burnham, 2007).
T: Tell them who you are and how you’re feeling — “Hi, I’m Sunshine. I’ve been so excited to meet you, and I’m so glad you’re here!”
I: Introduce them to others — for parents, you may want to introduce them to your co-counselor or another person who will be working with their child. “This is Flash. He teaches sailing.” For campers, introduce them to another camper who’s already arrived.

Here are some other tips to make a good impression:

  • Stand up!
    Let’s say you’re waiting for your campers to arrive. Perhaps you’re sitting down somewhere, relaxing with some of your co-workers. As soon as you spot your camper and their parents coming toward you or are alerted to their arrival, stand up and approach them. Do not wait for them to be delivered to you.
  • Use deodorant.
    I know every camp director wants their counselors to be clean and smelling good when meeting parents. Wear deodorant! Also, wear whatever your specified camp uniform is, and make sure it is clean and doesn’t look like it’s been balled up in the bottom of your laundry bag.
  • What do you call parents?
    We ask our staff to refer to parents by their title and name, (i.e. Dr. Jones or Mrs. Park) until the parent says, “Call me Joe.” Even in our modern casual era, some parents still like to be referred to by their formal name. Let their preferences guide this. Don’t assume Dr. Jones wants to be called Joe. Your camp may have another policy, so check with your camp director if you’re not sure.
  • Practice!
    Please practice using WESTI, your handshake, and making small talk with another counselor before you meet your first parent this summer. Give each other feedback. You’ll feel more comfortable and less nervous. And you’ll make a great first impression!

Brandwein, M. (2004). Training terrific staff! Volume 1: A handbook of practical and creative tools for camp. Martinsville, IN: American Camp Association.
Brandwein, M. (2008). Training terrific staff! Volume 2: More great tools for outstanding staff development. Martinsville, IN: American Camp Association.
Burnham, C. (2007). 7 tips to improve your handshake. Owning the room. Retrieved from http://cynthiaburnham.com/article_-_your_handshake

Audrey Monke, with her husband Steve, has owned and directed Gold Arrow Camp (Lakeshore, California) for the past twenty-four years. They have five children (ages nine to nineteen) who keep their life camp-like year round. Audrey has been a member of ACA since 1989 and was president of WAIC (Western Association of Independent Camps) from 2007–2010. She writes about camp and parenting at sunshine-parenting.com.

Originally published in the 2013 May/June Camping Magazine.