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Practice-Parenting: Lessons of a Camp Counselor

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For the last two summers I worked as a counselor at a summer camp. The ages of the campers ranged from seven to seventeen. Kids stayed for six days at a time before a new term began. Every six days, I was responsible for another batch of twelve guys. We lived in teepees in the middle of the mountains, and overall it was a fantastic experience.

My time at this camp was invaluable. I can scarcely imagine better real-world training for parenthood. My fellow counselors and I used to joke that if we messed up one week it was all right because we would get a fresh start mere days later.

In seriousness though, working at this camp made me appreciate my parents so much. Another common saying amongst the camp staff (obviously not uttered in front of campers) was that there was no such thing as bad kids, only bad parents. This seemingly innocuous statement actually segues nicely into a larger issue that I became aware of over the course of my tenure as a counselor.

While the majority of my time was spent teaching sports classes and keeping my guys out of harm’s way, I slowly began to realize that there were some larger latent sociological issues at hand. The last day of every term was called Parents’ Morning. After a week apart, parents would trickle onto the camp grounds, eager to see their beloved offspring once again. With all the joyful reunions taking place, you would think that the kids had been gone for six years instead of six days.

During my first few weeks, I dreaded Parents’ Morning. As counselors, we had to wake up at about five in the morning and get our campers’ luggage out on the road so that it could be picked up and relocated in a place for convenient pick-up by exiting families. The rest of the morning was busy and stressful, and a few hours after the camp was cleared of campers several hundred new ones would arrive.

Over time, I realized that interacting with the parents of the children I had been taking care of all week provided an extremely interesting opportunity. I had the perspective of growing very familiar with the child first, only to meet the parents after I had made so many assumptions about them.

For example, what type of parents could possibly have produced the quintessential obnoxious, hyper, attention-starved kid who inevitably ended up in my teepee week after week? Would they be friendly or standoffish? Would they realize what sort of beast I had been forced to endure all week, or would they naively think their kid was a perfect saint?

Quiet, introverted kids also presented curious cases. Surely they must come from equally understated parents. Or maybe their parents are the loud, boisterous type and the kid is attempting to stay away from that in his own life? These are the questions I pondered during the week. Truth would be revealed on Parents’ Morning.

Another interesting dynamic I looked for was whether the parents of my guys would be together. This one was always very difficult to call. I am incredibly fortunate to have parents who are still married, so divorce is in no way something I am familiar with.

The saddest situation of all was when no parents would show up. Shocking as it may seem, on a few rare instances a camper would have no one to come greet them on Parents’ Morning. Not surprisingly, these kids usually gave me the most trouble. I think that it is safe to assume a correlation.

Another thing that became quickly evident was that many kids have no male role models in their lives. I spent countless hours engaging in the most mundane conversations imaginable, and at first I simply imagined this was a byproduct of dealing with young kids.

I gradually came to the realization that the lack of older male role models is what led to these boys feeling such an urge to talk to the counselors so much. The campers just wanted to be noticed and appreciated.

For some campers, this meant lashing out or misbehaving. These kids generally weren’t behaving this way out of pure malice. Rather, they just didn’t have any idea how to reach out and connect. Such a lack of social skills leads to major misbehaving, which understandably causes frustration for whatever authority figure is dealing with the situation. Typically the authority figure will then discipline the child, and the problem will only snowball from there.

As I dealt with various campers who had this problem, I picked up on some strategies to deal with the issue without making matters worse. Often making an effort to get to know the kid and connect with them on a personal level went a long way towards preventing conflict.

I learned more about parenting in my three months as a camp counselor than in the rest of my 21 years combined. I would recommend this job for anyone. Even people who don’t necessarily consider themselves “kid” people would probably learn a lot from spending some quality time being placed on such a pedestal by so many admiring youngsters.

Everyone involved got something positive out of the situation. I learned a great deal and got some real-world experience in dealing with children. The kids I got to know and invested time and energy in showed real growth and will hopefully continue to behave and mature back home. The parents, of course, got a peaceful week away from their kids.

If every college student spent a few weeks of their summer investing in younger kids and striving to be a positive example in their lives, I honestly believe we would make the world a better place.

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About Daniel Terracina

  • There has never been anything more influential on my adult life than my summers as a camp counsellor (and camp director!).
    There would be a lot of things in this world that would be different we we all went to camp.

  • Rather

    I’ve been working at a school for the last year, and I never had experience with kids before. They are sneaky! I agree that you get so much child-raising experience.