The Main Thing

Summer camp can help youth feel lovable and capable.

Posted Jul 09, 2019

 Sharon McCutcheon/Pexels
Source: Sharon McCutcheon/Pexels

Tucked discreetly inside a 1,700-word feature article in the May/June 2019 edition of Camping Magazine is a kernel of wisdom applicable to all who work with youth: “The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing” (Wallace, 2019).

Beautiful in its simplicity, this beacon of guidance reminds everyone to identify an organizing principle that binds disparate colleagues to a core mission enveloping each and every member of an organization.

With summer camps now open across the land, perhaps there is immediate applicability to counselors who are mentoring children over the next couple of months.

That principle, in my chosen field (mental health and education), is helping youth to feel lovable and capable, as suggested by former Tufts University professor Lonnie Carton, author of Raise Your Kids Right, an orientation speaker during my first year as a counselor. 

Sounds easy enough. But is it really?

Of course, each child and adolescent comes to us from a unique background of inputs … from family structure and values to other educational experiences and influential adults. Finding what makes each young person “tick” and identifying what exactly the practices are that we can follow to achieve our goal is no easy task. Yet the following are some unifying themes that may help.

According to Richard Lerner, Ph.D., author of The Good Teen, some important character traits include competence, confidence, connection, character, caring … and contribution.

In my own experiences, I have leaned heavily on the concept of “presence” as a fundamental building block of all meaningful human connections. Nowhere has this powerful construct been better articulated than by Debbie Hall in “The Power of Presence” (Hall, 2005).

Presence is a noun, not a verb; it is a state of being, not doing. States of being are not highly valued in a culture which places a high priority on doing. Yet, true presence or “being with” another person carries with it a silent power – to bear witness to a passage, to help carry an emotional burden or to begin a healing process. In it, there is an intimate connection with another that is perhaps too seldom felt in a society that strives for ever-faster “connectivity” … With therapy clients, I am still pulled by the need to do more than be, yet repeatedly struck by the healing power of connection created by being fully there in the quiet understanding of another. In it, none of us are truly alone.

The power of presence is not a one-way street, not only something we give to others. It always changes me, and always for the better.

Implicit in Hall’s essay are the concepts of risk and reward. What does that mean? Simply that forging strong, meaningful connections with young people requires taking (positive) risks, opening up, sharing oneself and remaining open and receptive to attitudes – even behaviors – that may make us somewhat uncomfortable.

Yet the consequences for demonstrating the courage to take such risks might very well result in impactful relationships that help young people grow and thrive. To wit, the late educator Leo Buscaglia reminded us about the importance of taking positive risks, “The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn, feel, change, grow or love” (Buscaglia, 1982).

As inspirational as all that may sound, the sad truth is that many in the field of youth development – be they teachers, coaches, camp directors/counselors or countless others – approach their work in a transactional way (boxes to check, schedules to keep, protocols to follow) at the expense of investing in relationships.

Is it possible, for example, that a teacher might end a school year having accomplished academic goals but absent any significant knowledge of his students? Or a coach grinding through the last game or match of a season without truly investing in the emotional health of her athletes? Or a camp director unable to identify personal relationships with one or more of his or her campers?

Sadly, yes. And those eventualities represent outcomes of a very different nature.

Where is the best place to start? Oddly enough, at the end. In other words, what do we want the final outcomes to look and feel like?

During my long tenure as a camp director, I would sometimes worry that the season might conclude without my having learned each child’s name, let alone any insights about personality, goals, ambitions, fears, and joys. In that experience was the end as I hoped it would be, not so much for me as for the well-being and growth of my campers.

Perhaps implied in any discussion of courage is the popular concept of resilience (the ability to “roll with the punches,” to “bounce back” from adversity, to learn from each experience and use the knowledge to advance personal and group goals). One of my favorite recitations on the subject came in the form of an essay penned by Michael Goodgame, a former camper of mine. Michael wrote the following.

Every few months I become a new person. Not all at once, and not in a “born again” sort of way. It’s a gradual transformation: over time my thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about the world and how I fit into it seem to shift. When I ask myself when it is that I learn and grow as a human being, I find myself thinking not of times when I carefully measured results of possible outcomes, but of times when I took a risk or did something out of character. The most satisfying moments come when I turn off my brain’s executive function and let my mind do what it knows is right. These are the times that I learn, because these are the times that I step outside my comfort zone and really think … Training myself out of being someone who feels as though he has to have his life planned out has been – and is – difficult. But building the confidence to attack what I do, not knowing what may come of it – that’s what will get me where I want to go. This makes for sort of a path. I may slow down or stumble on that path, but I won’t turn back.

Helping youth feel lovable and capable, empowered to take positive risks and develop a tolerance, if not an appreciation, for failure, ultimately brings growth. In the end, these may very well be the main things at summer camp and beyond.

References

Buscaglia, L. (1982). Living, loving and learning. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1982.

Carton, Lonnie. (1980). Raise your kids right. New York: Putnam. 1980.

Hall, D. (2005). The power of presence. This I Believe. December 26, 2005. National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5064534 (5 July 2019).

Lerner, M. (2007). The good teen. New York: Three Rivers Press. 2007.

Wallace, S. (2019). Unleashed: the power of you – alignment and engagement, part 1. Camping Magazine. May 2019. https://www.acacamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/unleashed-power-you-alignment-engagement-part-1 (5 July 2019).