New Kids in the Tent: The Changing Profile of Today’s Camper

Bob Ditter
November 2008

"Jason!" shouts Lamont, "Give me back my iPod® and get off of my bed!" Lamont gives Jason a little shove, and soon their counselor is trying to break up a shouting match. Both boys are eight years old and going into third grade. This is their first time at sleep-away camp, and the interactions in the "Explorers" cabin have been pretty bumpy so far. Jason and Lamont, not their real names, are representative of a phenomenon being witnessed by camp professionals around the country, who are finding many of today's campers, so smart and capable in so many ways, struggling to get along with one another at camp. It is almost as if children these days need to be taught basic social skills before they can be successful in the kind of community life generally found at camp.

One wonders how it is that so many children have an increasingly difficult time functioning well in groups. Talk with their counselors, as I did at a variety of camps last summer, and one thing immediately becomes apparent. Campers today—both boys and girls—are having a harder time than ever sharing not just their possessions, but their space, their friends, their time, and the attention of their counselors. What is to account for this noticeable change in children?

The Parent Factor

It is clear that in the last ten to fifteen years parents have become increasingly involved in the lives of their children. The now familiar term "helicopter parents" describes parents who, while well-meaning, seem to hover and attend to every ache, pain, or concern their children experience. I prefer the term "attachment parenting," since the effect is to render children more dependent on their parents and less reliant on themselves. In her insightful book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Wendy Mogel aptly describes over-indulgent parents who, in a world of uncertainty and great change, are trying, with all good intentions, to "inoculate" their children against the perils of an uncertain future by inflating their self-esteem. Dr. Mogel notes that parents, by trying to shield their offspring from any physical or emotional discomfort, don't give them a chance to learn how to maneuver on their own outside home or school. Though children today have sky-high confidence, they are by and large not team players. After all, for most of their short lives up until the time they come to camp, parents have made it seem that the world revolves around them— their needs, their talents, and how "special" they are.

In her book, Generation Me, Jean Twenge points out that self-esteem was a term not widely used until the late 1960s. Before this time, respect for others was more important than respect for oneself. In the 1980s parents began to make a concerted effort to build up the self-esteem of their children. The trend was caught by some schools, where games like "Magic Circle" were played. Don't know Magic Circle? Some of your campers have probably played it. In Magic Circle, one child a day is given a badge that says, "I am great!" The other children take turns throughout the day praising the "great" child. All the compliments the child has "earned" throughout the day are written up and given to her to take home.

As Professor Twenge points out, a major aspect of the current millennial generation, or "Gen Me," is their high level of self-confidence. Many of these kids believe not only that they are special and bound for greatness, but that their generation is special and destined to do unimaginably great things. For youth who have watched twentyyear- olds make billions of dollars creating You- Tube, Facebook, and Google on the Internet, it is not hard to see why they believe it is only a matter of time before they are recognized for and achieve their own greatness.

So what happens when this "irrational exuberance" of self-esteem runs headlong into group life at camp? First of all, as we have seen, when children are used to being the center of their parents' attention and told that they are capable of doing anything they put their minds to, it can be very difficult for them to share the spotlight, cooperate, and fit in. In an article by Carlin Flora in the August 2007 issue of Psychology Today, Robert Leahy, a clinical professor at Weill- Cornell Medical College in New York, states that, "Young people in particular feel the need to grab the spotlight instead of working to become a stable member of the group." In other words, we actually have to teach kids today how to be in a group, since all they have been urged to do is be themselves. Most specifically, I believe children need to be taught how to share with others, since the act of sharing requires you to cooperate, see the world from the point of view of others, delay your own gratification, and make an effort to fit in.

A Practical Approach

Enter Jason and Lamont, the two campers I encountered last summer whose situation was more or less typical of the other campers in their group. They were having a tough time making the transition from doting parents to sharing the spotlight, fitting in, and cooperating with the brand new bunch of "brothers" they had suddenly "acquired" at camp. What they needed was a lesson in sharing. Not a sermon or a lecture but something they could do together as a group that would increase their ability to get along with one another.

I asked the boys' counselors to sit in with me while I met with the entire group. Their instructions were to speak up only when I specifically invited them to do so. (I wanted my work with the group to be a live learning experience for the staff, so I wanted them to concentrate on being good observers). After explaining to the assembled group who I was ("a friend of the director who came to camp to help the counselors be better counselors"), I noticed out loud that the boys seemed to be unhappy. I asked them whether that was true, inviting them to share how they thought they were getting along. My only "rule" was "no put-downs." I made it clear we weren't meeting to blame anyone.

One thing I have learned about children today is, given half a chance to talk, they will! These boys were typical of children today— extremely articulate and very adept at talking about their feelings, which they eagerly did. I asked them to think about how really good friends usually treated one another. I wrote down what they said. I asked them to look at the list and decide if what they had said was true of their group right now. Everyone agreed there was room for improvement! Then I said that what I noticed about the list they had made together is that it had a lot to do with sharing—that good friends typically shared with one another in many ways. They agreed. I then asked them to think about all the different ways they could share with one another. The first ways of sharing they thought of had to do with their things—sharing an electronic game, PSP®, or iPod; sharing equipment; sharing stuff. But soon they identified other ways of sharing, like sharing feelings, sharing your time, sharing your effort (like helping someone during clean-up), sharing a song or a laugh or sharing the counselors' time and attention. We made a list of all the different ways a person could share, and we gave them different "weights," since it is easier to share things, for example, than, say, to share your energy or time or patience. Then I presented them with a chart I had prepared beforehand with every camper's name and columns for the next few days. Here was my challenge: that twice a day, once at the end of rest hour and once at bedtime, they would sit with their counselors and say out loud whatever sharing they saw someone else do or whatever sharing someone did with them. The person who had done the sharing got points next to their name (the points determined by the kind of sharing they had done), and those points were added up for the group, not for that individual. After each share, a counselor would praise the child who had shared, summarize what kind of sharing it had been, and then let the next camper go. Each "check-in" was limited to ten minutes.

Thus, the sharing chart was born. However, unlike other similar behavior charts, you could only get points for the group and you could only get points if someone else recognized your deeds of sharing. I checked back with the counselors a week later and, though there had still been occasional conflicts, the cabin had made a remarkable turn-around. When I met with the boys they all agreed they were happier (and excited about the night time movie and popcorn they were earning as a group by having become better at sharing!) I repeated this approach with girls as well as boys in as many as eight different camps last summer, and it has proven to be a strong, positive method for helping kids make a better transition to life at camp.

Holding Onto Feelings Another observation I have about children today is that they seem to have a much harder time letting go of upset or hurt feelings. This is because parents, in a well-meaning effort to have a better connection with their children than their own parents did, have latched onto their children's feelings as a way of "understanding" and bonding with them. In his book Too Much of a Good Thing, Dan Kindlon notes how parents, in their attempt to save their children from any setback, failure, or pain, have made their children overly aware of their feelings rather than helping them cope with and learn from them.

This preoccupation with feelings may be partly responsible for the way children today have become overly sensitive to real or imagined slights from the other children. The Psychology Todayarticle I cited earlier reports that sensitivity to rejection by others is on the rise in young people today. As Mark Leary, noted psychologist at Duke University, points out in the article, when parents over-praise children, it backfires because they breed a need for approval by others. "If praise isn't based on anything specific, it gives you a sense of insecurity." In other words, children today get their feelings hurt all too easily because their ability to recover from hurt feelings has not been cultivated and is therefore not robust. Children don't always give one another the same undivided, unconditional attention they receive from their parents at home—a condition that is certainly true at camp.

The point is that feelings are meant to inform us, not run us. Children need help having their feelings, learning from them, then letting them go. This is how we help young people master their feelings, which is a central task of "growing up." Rather than be ruled by feelings, we need to learn how to manage them. While there are many ways to do this, let me share one that is particularly effective with children who have a temper problem.

Temper Tantrum

Children with tempers are especially challenging at camp. While they are often contrite after the one-on-one talks that invariably follow their outbursts, their ability to control themselves never seems to last. I approach such children with a method I have nick-named "Hot Head." First, I meet with the camper in question, along with a counselor he tells me he likes and trusts, and, in a non-judgmental way, point out how he is probably not very happy about losing his temper and getting into trouble all the time. I note that he may even secretly worry that the other kids might get the wrong idea about him. This "preamble," as I call it, is important in creating a sense of trust and openness with the child for what I will do later. It's like "setting the table" before the main course. What I usually say is something like, "Because you get so angry, other kids might not see what I can see, which is that you are basically a good kid." I also make it clear that in many cases his anger might be justified, but I wonder out loud why it is he seems to need to let everyone know just how mad he is at any given time. "You know, I don't blame you for feeling so angry with Zack for what he did. I think I'd have felt angry, too! It's what you did with your angry feelings that got you into trouble. I'll bet there is a better way to let Zack know how you feel so you don't end up getting into trouble for something he did wrong in the first place!" It's a kind of, "Why-are-you-letting-Zack-get-toyou- and-win-like-that" line of reasoning, which appeals to most kids.

Then I put a soft, red rubber ball in the child's hand and tell him, "Pretend this is your temper." He looks at the ball quizzically, then looks at me. Without warning I swipe the ball out of his hand. "Hey," I say. "You just lost your temper! How come you let me ‘get it' so easily?" Whenever I have done this, admittedly mostly with boys, they laugh. I say, "Let's try it again," and I place the ball back in his hand. Without warning, I steal it again. "Man!" I say. "You really stink at holding onto your temper! No wonder why you get angry all the time! Any kid can just come along and ‘Bam!' they've gotten your temper!"

I let this sink in a little. "So," and I say the kid's name, "Are you telling me that you just let anyone get you to lose your temper? Let's practice this again. This time I want you to hold on with all your might when I try to get you to lose your temper." We then have a mini-wrestling match, the both of us laughing, and I keep track of how long he can hold onto the ball before I wrest it away from him. You get the point. So does the child. But we are not finished. I now ask the boy to let the counselor he likes, who has been watching us all along, to try to get the "temper ball" from him. Once they've wrestled, I tell the counselor that he has to help this youngster "practice holding onto his temper" two or three times a day. They are to do it away from the other kids. I also help them identify a "safe place" the boy can go to if he feels himself getting so angry that he might lose his temper. This "cooling off spot" needs to be close to his cabin (the most usual "scene of the crime" for temper tantrums) and it is to be clear to all his counselors that when he takes off, it is a good thing, because it is his way of attempting to keep control of his temper and let go of his anger. He has a better chance of "talking it out" once he's cooled off!

The Impact of Technology

Another factor that sets this generation of children apart from other generations is technology. Children born more recently— today's campers and younger staff—grew up knowing nothing else but the Internet, cell phones, DVD players and iPods. For them technology has always been a part of life. With the Internet, the results are instantaneous, which means youth spend much less time waiting for results. The effect is that young people nurtured on the Internet have gotten much less practice at learning how to wait for others or delay gratification—two important skills for dealing with people in person and in groups! They are also used to getting their information in short, dense, concise chunks. Text messaging, for example, doesn't leave a lot of room for extras. The information in a text or IM ("instant message") or even an e-mail is brief and to the point. People of older generations tend to write e-mails as they do letters, whereas young people today use fewer symbols to convey more in their e-mails. Campers and staff today want information that cuts to the chase, which means that long-winded lectures, lessons, training sessions, and cabin "chats" do not work well with today's youth. They prefer to hear the critical or central pieces of information directly and briefly— a style of communicating their brains have been shaped to recognize and process well.

One of the great benefits of the Internet is that individuals have access not only to much more information than ever (for a glimpse of what I am talking about, see the nine-minute video, "Shift Happens" on YouTube), but also to many more people than ever. Witness the wildly popular "social networking sites," and, which together have over 195 million profiles. While use of these sites actually fosters appropriate developmental tasks in adolescents (being in touch with peers, creating one's own language or culture, trying on and experimenting with new images or "personas," and widening one's horizons), most people use these sites while sitting alone. Kids will also say things in an IM or e-mail that they would never say in person, thus again avoiding or side-stepping certain social rules of discourse with real people. Children who spend more time in "virtual" reality than they do in the actual company of other kids in groups can often be rude, impulsive, or inappropriate in their interactions with peers once they come to camp.

Perhaps the most obvious way technology has affected children is through cell phone use and text messaging, which makes contact with parents and friends many times a day the norm. Such contact perpetuates the child's dependency on parents. The number of children ages eleven to eighteen who have a cell phone (paid for by their parents who want to be in contact with them at all times of the day) increased over 111 percent between 2001 and 2004. Currently, about 13.5 million children ages thirteen to seventeen own a cell phone, according to M:Metrics, an industry researcher. Cell phone use and the frequent contact it enables between parents and children have become such a normal part of the fabric of family life that camps may eventually have to rethink their policy on cell phones at camp. The now familiar "two-phone strategy" of some camper parents— giving their child two phones to take to camp: one to give up when counselors ask for cell phones, and the other to "hide" for use in "emergencies"—points to how much a part of family life this has become.

While I still think cell phones have no place at camp, it may be time for directors to think more creatively about how to partner with parents around their children's experience at camp in other ways. I do believe this can be done without compromising a central feature of camp, which is that kids learn to grow, cope, and thrive while under the supervision of other caring adults. Parents are not going to change overnight. Besides, there is a positive aspect to the interest parents have taken in the lives of their children. My point is that camp professionals need to accept that many parents are going to continue to "hover," and it is up to us to accent the positive part of this trend and find ways to channel or redirect the over-intrusive or counter-productive parts of this behavior. I should mention that not all parents fit this model of attachment parenting and not all children fit the pattern of high self-esteem and low team-building that I have described here. Many children of color, from urban areas or rural areas, have completely different profiles and need to be understood as such.

Improving the Partnership With Parents

Wendy Mogel states in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, "The rules regarding childrearing are not primarily about making children feel good, but about making children into good people (p.36)." Just don't expect that the parents of your campers have read her book! Although, I have personally given away over three dozen copies of her book to parents.Yet there are ways communication and cooperation with parents can be improved. How about a link on your camp Web site to a page just for parents that has articles and books on raising children, and a bibliography or other pointers that are not just about camp, but about the overall well-being of children? What about having a Facebook,, Camp Alumni, or similar site maintained just for camper parents, just like some camps have for staff, where you can be in touch with parents about a variety of camp-related topics (a kind of modern day e-newsletter)? What about having a "parent advisory group" to explore ways to preserve the camp experience for campers while improving parent involvement or communication? What about a surprise DVD that goes out to parents of first-time campers showing their children thriving at camp? What about a CD you give parents that they pop into their car stereo on the way out of camp at the end of visiting day that reassures them about the child they just left and talks about the exciting activities that follow the departure of parents? Or what about the idea Jay Jacobs, executive director of Timber Lake Camps, had last year to have a mature, senior level counselor at camp whose only job was to make sure that the special dietary and other requests of parents for their children were being met and who made regular surprise calls to parents to tell them of all the little successes their children were having at camp. That kind of proactive attention paid great dividends when there was a problem that arose with a camper later in the session. By then the parents felt the camp had their child's best interests at heart and were convinced the camp really knew their child.

The Better We Understand . . . The better we understand today's youngsters— campers and staff alike—and the world they live in, the more successful camp professionals will be in imparting the principles and skills that help all human beings value what we are on the inside and not just what we are on the outside. These, indeed, are important ways to help young people develop greater resilience for the rest of their lives.

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee—Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., Penguin Books, New York, 2001.
Too Much of a Good Thing, Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., Hyperion Books, New York, 2001.
Generation Me, Why Today's Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable—than Ever Before, Jean M. Twenge, Free Press, Simon and Schuster, Inc., New York, 2006.
"Dumped (But Not Down)—Overcoming Rejection Sensitivity," by Carlin Flora, Psychology Today, August, 2007, pp. 66-72.
"The New Me Generation", by Jake Halpern, Boston Globe Magazine, September 30, 2007, pp. 36-39; 47-49.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. 

Originally published in the 2008 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.