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.