Where Are Their Adult Pants? Tools, Catchphrases, and Understanding for Choosing Today's Staff Members

Ariella Randle Rogge
Elizabeth Rundle Marable
January 2019
Oil painting of two pairs of legs hanging over canoe

It started with a camp director’s speech. You know, one of those impassioned, are-you-ready-for-this; get-your-stoke-on; you-can-do-it; don’t-be-scared-but-it’s-OK-to- be-nervous speeches the night before the kids arrived:

You brought a lot of pants to camp this summer. Rain pants. Hiking pants. Short pants. Warm pants. Quick-drying pants. Painting pants. Yoga pants. Fancy pants for time off. Pajama pants. Pantsuits. Name-brand pants. Thrift-store pants. Denim pants. But the most important pair of pants that you brought are a pair that you might not have remembered even packing — your adult pants. These are going to be the pants you have to wear. Every. Single. Day.

There will be days when you look in your closet or trunk and say, "Wow. I really don’t want to have to put my adult pants on." There will be a moment on a trip when it is pouring and you think, "The kids are OK, their tents are fine." There will be a weekend when your co-counselor is off, you are in charge of the cabin and afternoon activities, and someone eats too much macaroni and cheese and vomits all over the bathroom, and you will think, "Dang, I didn’t know adult pants were actually made of biohazard material." Because, as you know from your experience working with children, these are not a particular pair of pants we put on in special situations; they are every pair of pants we wear every day of the summer. They can be your work pants, play pants, caring pants, fun pants, sister pants, dance pants, inclusive pants, teamwork pants, or the I-can-do-this-job pants — and you get to wear them every day because you are the adult.

Sometimes you might think they are a little tight, a little uncomfortable, or a little challenging to put on (we have all had some of those jeans), but we suck it up and do what needs to be done for the children. And the best thing about it? Every single individual here brings different super powers and strengths to this job — and, just like we compliment someone’s cool new technical climbing pants — we can observe, learn from, borrow, and acknowledge each other’s "adult pants" skills. We are adults among other adults, and we will wear our adult pants with pride!

This impromptu speech did a few things for us that summer:

  1. It provided levity at a moment of significant nervousness.
  2. It demonstrated our empathy and understanding of the nature of the job.
  3. It reinforced our expectations and created a simple, go-to catchphrase for conversations and feedback throughout the summer.
  4. It helped us define for ourselves and our staff what it means to be an adult.

We used the hashtag #adultpants during staff meetings as a frame for our shout-outs ("Who saw someone really wearing those #adultpants with pizzazz this week?") and heard it reflected back in conversations among the staff: "The weather on the trip was absolutely horrible, but we had to put on our #adultpants, make breakfast, pack up camp, and get moving even though the kids were cold and cranky. It was the best trip ever!"

The metaphor even helped us process a hard fact of hiring staff members: There have always been some counselors who have a hard time locating their adult pants, or lose them, or — as we have been seeing more and more recently — simply do not bring them to camp. With this knowledge — and the collected wisdom of social scientists, generational researchers, psychologists, camp professionals, and educators — we asked, "How can we better prepare them for the job while recognizing the possible limitations of their personal experience?"

Why Is This Happening?

In their brand new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt examine the dangers of the culture of "safetyism" that has become prolific in universities and colleges throughout the country. Safetyism is a state where "the concept of ‘safety’ creeps so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger." It creates a "culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy" (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018). They posit, with the support of generational psychologist and author of iGen, Jean Twenge, that "iGen’s arrival at college coincides exactly with the arrival and intensification of safetyism from 2013–2017" (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018). In the book, Lukianoff and Haidt unpack why college campuses are struggling to effectively educate a generation of students who are more concerned with feeling safe and comfortable than being intellectually challenged or exposed to ideas that differ from their own — often emotionally based and potentially erroneous — perceptions of the world.

Twenge’s "iGen" (born between 1995 and 2012) will be the first generation to never remember a time before the Internet. Its earliest members were adolescents when the iPhone was introduced in 2007 and were in high school when the first iPad was released in 2010. Yet the most significant event for the generation occurred in 2012 when smartphone ownership in the US surpassed 50 percent — over half of our country’s population suddenly had fully connected social universes in their pockets. Twenge stated in her 2017 "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" article in The Atlantic, "The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health."

Twenge points out generational research is not designed to prove one generation is better or worse than another, just to shed light on the differences — both positive and negative. On the positive side, iGen members drink less and are less likely to be in car accidents; yet that is because they don’t drive or go to parties. They sit in their bedrooms on their phones and "talk" with their friends on social media platforms. Because of this, they are less likely to date or engage in sexual activity and — on the whole — spend significantly less time with peers. In fact, 12th graders in 2015 were "going out" less often than eighth graders in 2009. The number of teens who get together with their friends dropped 40 percent from 2000 to 2015, and the "markers of adolescence" are contracting, meaning 18-year-olds act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds act more like 13-year-olds once did (Twenge, 2017).

Smartphones and social media have allowed children and adolescents to have the "illusion of certainty" (Twenge, 2017); they can choose when, why, and how they interact with other people. Most of the time, those interactions happen from the safety and security of their own bedrooms or homes. The very nature of social media plays to the illusion of certainty with its encoded, short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops, which encourage teens to feel secure and validated by the very content they consume. In the article "Technology Designed for Addiction," from Psychology Today, author D.B. Dillard-Wright says, "The feedback loops of social media also drive political polarization and confirmation bias, as we are constantly pushed in the direction of content that aligns with what we already believe and fits with the demographic groups to which we already belong" (2018), which suddenly makes the rest of the world a very uncomfortable place to be.

Twenge says, "It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones" (2017). Anxiety management is all about the avoidance of discomfort and uncertainty, and the less children and adolescents are forced to incrementally confront the situations, people, and ideas that make them uncomfortable, the more rigid, inflexible, anxious, and fragile they will become. Lukianoff and Haidt believe "children, like many other complex adaptive systems, are antifragile" (2015). They must be exposed to age-appropriate challenges and activities throughout their childhood, adolescence, and — more recently — through their emerging adulthood so they can learn to productively engage with people and ideas that are unlike their own.

Childhood has moved from an on-ramp to a cliff in many ways. Because this generation is more comfortable with parental oversight, presence, and input, a lack of constant feedback and reassurance can cause them significant stress and anxiety. This is why colleges and universities are reeling from a generation of young adults who have grown up overprotected and are weaker, less resilient, and unable to cope with the multifaceted demands of an increasingly interconnected and, ironically, isolated digital world. Theirs is a transactional, consumer society with a social currency of "likes" and "loves," keeping the dopamine flowing and everyone coming back for more.

What Can We Do?

We can help them find their adult pants — because that is what you have to wear to be camp staff.

We should set ourselves up for success before staff training even begins. A primary goal during the off-season is to help would-be staff members see and reflect on those moments when they have worn adult pants and translate those moments to camp. We have to be able to assess their ability through their previous work or camp experiences. We need to find out when and where they have done hard work, demonstrated delayed gratification and self-control, and put others’ needs ahead of their own.

Gone are the days when we tried to trip people up during interviews; now we must focus on determining if an individual has enough of what it takes to work with children in our program. There are no perfect camp counselors, just individuals who may lack the real-world experience to know the job is a perfect fit for them. So we have to ask questions. Lots and lots of questions.

Here are some interview questions we like to use (some of which have been borrowed from almost two decades of ACA conferences, so please accept our apologies if we do not provide appropriate credit to the authors/creators):

We Are What We See:

  • What characteristics do you appreciate most about your parents?
  • How do they demonstrate those behaviors?
  • How do/did they respond to challenges when you were growing up?
  • What has that taught you?
  • Parents will be leaving their children in your care. Why are you a good candidate for this? What do you find are the most rewarding/challenging aspects of caring for children/youth?

Grit and Perseverance:

  • When did you last do something that was much harder/took longer than you anticipated?
  • How did that impact you?
  • What is a skill you have developed that has been challenging and required commitment and/or took a long time to master (or you are still working on)?
  • What is something you can do or have done since you were a child that you notice lots of other people don’t usually do?
  • How do you handle situations that are not fun?

MESH Questions:

  • What do you do to keep yourself emotionally healthy? Describe how you’ll utilize these strategies at camp. How will you respond if you cannot implement your coping strategies?
  • What is your relationship with social media and your phone? How will you feel without it?
  • When was the last time you were significantly emotionally activated? What were the circumstances? How did you handle it? How do you handle others’ emotions or emotional outbursts?

Present challenging, real-life camp scenarios that require judgment and critical thinking to solve; then listen and watch the interviewee’s response to you if you think it could be/should be done differently (which also helps you to develop coaching and feedback skills). Ask about their relationship to failure and what scares them more than anything. We need to know how they will cope with a job that is unlike anything they have ever done before, for longer than they have done it, and when and how they think they will ask for help. More than anything, we must create a clear understanding of the expectations of the job and be able to share the goals, objectives, organizational mission, and job description — over and over and over again — so they can begin to see themselves as an integral part of the camp community.

During camp, we can give our staff coaching, encouragement, validation, progressive learning, shared leadership opportunities, appropriate challenges, mentoring, caring, nurturing, training, and leadership similar to that which we provide our campers while they are at camp, but with the knowledge their growth and learning is paramount to the success of the campers. If we are going to continue to hire college-aged or younger staff, we have to acknowledge we will need to support them in ways that help them develop some of the self-efficacy and worldly maturity they may lack.

We can help them understand that being an adult requires taking personal responsibility, delaying gratification, practicing self-control and critical thinking, assuming responsibility for others, demonstrating self-reliance, and maintaining emotional regulation. We can help them see that "the world of children is made possible because of the world of adults" (McKay & McKay, 2014) and help them understand that they are moving away from being consumers of experiences to being creators of experiences.

To create these experiences for both campers and staff, you and your administrative team should determine a list of characteristics that all of your best staff members have in common. Perhaps it will be prior camp experience in your program, or just camp experience in general. Maybe it will be solid outdoor skills, because sharing their personal skills competence engenders more confidence in your staff. It could also be outstanding references that show demonstrated success working with children. Or it could be previous job experience where individuals have had to work in ever-changing environments requiring significant flexibility and adaptability. Yet the most important factor of all might be making sure these individuals align with your organization’s core values and mission.

Whatever the commonalities may be, those are the characteristics you need in your staff to start your summer off right — that and maybe a really impassioned speech.


  • Denizet-Lewis, B. (2017, October 11). Why are more American teenagers than ever suffering from severe anxiety? New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2017/10/11/magazine/why-aremore- american-teenagers-than-ever-suffering-fromsevere- anxiety.html?_r=0
  • Dillard-Wright, D. B. (2018, January 4). Technology designed for addiction: What are the dangers of digital feedback loops? Psychology Today. Retrieved from psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ boundless/201801/technology-designed-addiction
  • Lukianoff, G. & Haidt, J. (2018, September). The coddling of the American mind. How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. New York, NY: Penguin Press.
  • McKay, B. & McKay, K. (2014, October 27). Why growing up is hard to do (but why the world still needs adults). The Art of Manliness. Retrieved from artofmanliness.com/articles/growing-up/
  • Twenge, G. (2017, September). Have smartphones destroyed a generation? The Atlantic. Retrieved from theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/hasthe- smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/

Ariella Randle Rogge is a director at Sanborn Western Camps in Florissant, Colorado. She has spent the last 25 years working in the camp industry and in the experiential and secondary education fields. She believes deeply in the power of connecting people through shared experiences in the natural world. Ariella is the mom of two athletic, intelligent boys and the wife of a coach and inspiring father.

Elizabeth Marable is a director at Sanborn Western Camps in Florissant, Colorado. She has been in the camp industry since 2002, and her goal is to help campers and staff take time to slow down and make relevant, meaningful connections with the natural world and with each other. Elizabeth sits on the Rocky Mountain LCOL as co-professional development chair. She enjoys living and playing in the Colorado mountains with her husband Levi.