From Me to Us

April 9, 2015

By Bob and Rob Wipfler. A part of Camp 101, a blog series for ACA. 

Educators love to talk amongst themselves about their students.  So do camp directors, and our family enjoys predicting which campers will evolve into strong, capable counselors down the road.  Yet, like the weatherman who busts more forecasts than he gets right, we often find it difficult to ascertain a young person’s true capabilities until we actually see him or her in action as a first year counselor. 

It is easy to think you can peg that happy, effusive, popular camper as future staff material.  She, loving camp as she does, is flattered to know she is in the camp’s future plans.  Many campers of this ilk do go on to have fabulous second camp careers as staff.  Others struggle and their disappointment is connected to the erroneous belief that the best times of their camp lives are over once they graduate from the camper ranks.  In truth, all that is necessary is a switch of mindset and suddenly they come to realize that the golden days of camp are AHEAD of them -- as counselors. 

We like to tell the story of a counselor who gave up his day off in order to coach his team in a camp intramural game.  While not a sanctioned policy (staff personnel need regular breaks,) the extraordinary wallop of this tale is effective with young staff, many of whom are stuck in the mode they remember from when they were campers.  Back then, they saw camp as a ME place, where every activity was organized with camper participation and success as the goal.  As youngsters, they were “featured” by counselors who were trained to appreciate that “camp is for the campers.”  Out on the lake, it was campers who did the water-skiing, while counselors did the teaching and boat driving.  What these green staff don’t see right away is that while camp was a ME place to them at the time, it nearly always was an US place to their counselors.  Now, camp has got to become an US place for them, too.

Whenever a staff prospect says, “I love water-skiing,” a red flag goes up for the camp director.  “You will not be doing that much skiing,” is the honest response to this ME acknowledgement.  The director will be quick to point out that this attitude could result in a ME VERSUS THEM relationship between the counselor and his campers.  

Again, using water-skiing as the example, when a staff person views his job as merely one of catering to the whims of his charges, he is in this ME VERSUS THEM mode of operation.  He hauls kids about the lake for hours on end, thinking more about getting through the line of skiers with enough time for him to take a run (usually much longer.) This guy is easy to spot; he never is in a good mood and you often can hear him hollering at the campers, whose failings, most significantly to him, are wasting precious time until he gets to ski. ME VERSUS THEM is a selfish attitude and often includes the dangerous “power drunk” syndrome whereby a counselor is way too bossy with youngsters to the satisfaction of no one.

It is a whole different ball game when a counselor comes to camp with the proper attitude towards his job of sincerely relating to the campers.  We call this the US relationship.  Out on the lake, that ski instructor takes great pride in getting a child up on water skis for the first time.  He honks the boat horn and praises the child in the dining room.  He loves it when the two of them succeed, together.  If the child fails at first, an inevitability with beginner water-skiing, the counselor remains positive, encouraging, and patient. He is never eying the clock for his own turn. In fact, the very best instructors have to be urged to take time for themselves now and again.   

Thankfully, most camp directors can spot these attitudes in their Counselor-in-Training programs or with newcomer applicants come January.  Nevertheless, we feel it is imperative to talk about both the selfish ME and the generous US methodologies during staff orientation.  Operating in US mode, a good counselor has fun at camp, invests in the interests of his campers, and specifically involves them in his own enjoyment of the camp experience.  

“Have a sanctioned blast at camp; Include your kids in the wholesome fun; The rest is gravy.” That’s one of the first things we say at staff orientation.  Sure, the cancelled day off escapade was an over-the top sacrifice and the gold medal example of US behavior.   The counselor who simply participates with kids during general swim also is operating in US mode.  So is the clinic head who celebrates both major and minor camper successes.  And, the staff person who sits down with a recalcitrant child and says “We have a problem.  Let US try to work out a solution” has a far better chance of success than does the ME VERSUS THEM guy.  If directors can get staff to glean the significance of FROM ME TO US, they are on target for developing strong and dependable camp counselors. 

“Camp 101” is a blog co-authored by the father/son team of Bob and Rob Wipfler, co-directors of Kingswood Camp for Boys in Piermont, NH. Together they have over 101 years of experience at residential summer camps. 

Photo courtesy of Kingswood Camp for Boys, Piermont NH.