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Posts for June 2017

Beating Bullying: How Camps & Teen Programs Curate the Social Dynamic

One of the hardest lessons we all have to learn at some point or another is also one of the simplest: people can be mean. For many of us, adolescence and the teenage years served as the crux of this experience – pranks and meanspirited jokes abounded, and exclusion ran rampant. I certainly remember many instances during these times when I felt picked on – and I also remember other occasions where I was the bully in a given interaction, relishing another’s discomfort. For many years, these types of interactions simply seemed par for the course. However, even though exclusionary or bullying behavior may be normalized among adolescents, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have lasting impact – and just because something appears to be accepted, that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be altered.

At many summer camps, there is particular emphasis placed on creating an environment free from meanness and bullying. Camps see themselves not just as organizations that run activities for children, but as inclusive communities that truly foster the development of independence, confidence, and social maturity – and in many cases, they are able to achieve these lofty goals. A huge component of creating an environment in which kids can thrive and develop stems from imbuing camps with a culture that simply does not tolerate meanness or bullying. Yes, there will be instances when campers may be mean to one another – kids are kids, and some sort of friction and negativity is oftentimes inevitable. However, by and large, many camps do a great job of creating safe communities in which bullying and social exclusion simply cannot thrive.

More nurturing camps combat bullying by staying attuned to when this behavior takes place and by addressing it appropriately. Counselors are trained to identify bullying behavior, and are attuned to the very subtle forms that exclusion and meanspiritedness may take (and, particularly among girls, bullying can be incredibly subtle). At well run camps, this behavior will not go unacknowledged – initially, a counselor may facilitate a conversation between a camper who feels they are getting picked on, and the camper they see as a bully. If the bullying behavior continues, a director or camper’s parents may need to become involved. If a child simply cannot coexist with other campers without putting them down, they may simply be asked to leave camp, or not invited back for the following summer. While this may seem a harsh response to “kids being kids”, it is often times a vital and necessary step that helps preserve camp as a safe space in the minds of all campers, which will thus allow them to continue developing in those crucial ways that are unique to a summer at camp.

Teen programs also do a great deal to foster the all-important “group dynamic”, and strive to create a positive social environment for all participants. On many programs, students will have an initial conversation with the group to discuss group expectations, which will include social expectations for how participants will treat one another. This strategy invests students in their social behavior from the onset of the program, delineating clear expectations and creating an environment that is already focused on fostering a positive social atmosphere. On smaller programs, particularly some travel and/or service programs, students will have regular group check-ins with their faculty members, which serves to continue reinforcing the cohesive group dynamic that leaders are so focused on building. Leaders are trained to navigate the complicated relationship between giving teens the social autonomy they need, and providing the supervision that ensures a positive group dynamic. And much like with camps, if someone is unable to adhere to the expectations placed on the group, they may be simply sent home from the program.

When I was in high school and participated on a teen program, I experienced the benefit first-hand of a well-curated social environment. From the onset of the program, we played games and had structured activities that were designed to allow us to create initial bonds. Roommate dynamics were managed to ensure (to the greatest degree possible) that cliques did not form, and we ultimately had a very cohesive group of students. As a result, I found myself more willing to try new things – exploring activities, such as improv, that I had always been interested in but never felt comfortable doing. As I have chronicled before on this blog, this started a chain of events that ultimately led me to discover a passion that I had otherwise completely ignored – and I still do improv to this day!

Childhood, adolescence, and the teenage years are times of vital social development, but at times they can certainly be socially trying. However, just because kids can be mean, this does not mean that meanness will always be tolerated. Camps and teen programs pay acute attention to the social dynamics that exist over the summers, taking actions to curate a positive and inclusive atmosphere, and taking steps to eliminate and eradicate any bullying or meanspirited behavior. At the right camp or teen program, your child can be put in a social situation where they are able to feel good about themselves – and this will only help them as they continue to develop and mature.

How Camp & Teen Programs Help Kids Keep Open Minds

For families in 2017, the college admissions process looms larger and starker than ever – but those kids who attend camps and students who attend teen programs may have the upper hand when it comes to navigating this stressful and trying process. High school seniors across the country are in the midst of graduation, and their counterparts in the 11th, 10th, and 9th grade (and younger!) are already thinking about the steps they need to take to strengthen their applications. And this makes sense – today’s applicants need excellent academic records, SAT/ACT scores, and extracurricular activities to gain admission to the best universities, and for many that means a regimented schedule, and a tutor or two. It’s important that, during this time, our children don’t get the wrong impression about their own abilities what success really means. According to “this Slate article”:http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2015/07/helicopter_parenting_is_increasingly_correlated_with_college_age_depression.html one area where we’re failing our kids is in helping them keep an open mind and a good perspective as they learn and grow. It is vital to develop this tool in children from a young age, and to allow them to continue practicing and strengthening this useful skill as they grow older, so that they have the ability to maintain this perspective in spite of the stresses of the college admissions process.

No surprise: camp can help. At camp, children have an opportunity to take a break from academic competition and a fast, goal-oriented pace. They are free to try new activities, from wakeboarding to fencing to jewelry making, and experience failure in a welcoming, low-pressure environment. This means happier kids who are more resilient when things don’t go their way in school and beyond. Campers gain a new perspective when they make friends from across the nation and around the world, and keep in touch throughout the school year. Camp families often remark that, while away, their children are more open to trying new games, regiments, and even foods by the end of the summer!

These types of comments resonate strongly with me, and cause me to recall my own camp experience. When I first went to camp I was a bookish adolescent, a picky eater with little interest in sports. In the months that followed, and often against my will, I participated in every land and water sport camp had to offer, including such foreign endeavors as equestrian and jet skiing. My diet was forced to change too, since my staple foods weren’t always available. I am not claiming that camp was an experience that totally changed who I was – when I returned home at the end of the summer, I returned to most of my old ways. I was still much more interested in books and reading than playing sports. However, I had more confidence in myself. I knew that trying new things and meeting new people didn’t have to be an uncomfortable experience. I wasn’t entirely changed, but I was more receptive, more outgoing, and more resilient.

The teen programs I experienced in the years that followed reinforced these lessons and taught me new ones. Living with a dorm roommate for the first time helped me change my living habits and become more aware of the space and needs of others. The freedom they provided, allowing us to determine our own meals and activities helped me keep an open mind for new experiences. The college-level high school summer programs boosted my confidence and belief in my own success when I eventually enrolled at a university.

A key component to a happy and healthy life is to resist becoming stuck in our ways. Camp and teen programs provide invaluable experiences that allow children and young adults to develop the ability to be open minded, and to maintain perspective. The transformative power of camp and teen programs to cultivate self-confidence, resiliency, and an open mind provides a unique opportunity for children and teens to develop the skills they need to eventually be strong, capable adults – no matter what stresses the college process may bring.