Monday, April 13, 2009

Camping to Parenting: Top 10 Things I've Learned as a Summer Camp Professional That Make Me a Better Parent--A Two Part Series

Part I

I love summer camp. Being a camper, being a camp counselor, being a camp director, being a parent—I have made summer camp a part of my life and, now, part of the lives of my children. That said, it is remarkable how quickly you forget some of the cardinal rules you learned while you were a 20-something summer camp counselor about working with kids when your own children are in mid-meltdown about the shark show that “Daddy promised!” they could watch if they ate all of their mixed veggies. Sigh.

In order to help me regain my sanity, I have compiled a list of some of the most effective tools I have found for working with kids in the summer camp (and home!) setting, whether the kids are mine, yours, your sisters’, your neighbors, or “that kid” from down the street. I would love to hear from wise parents, youth development professionals, and other summer camp believers about kid-centric tools and techniques you find have worked for you. Since this is a two-part series, you may see some of your ideas in the next post.

10. The Power of Choice: Give kids real decision making opportunities by providing them with choices you can live with (i.e.: Do you want to clean the toilets before or after you make your bed? or What are your goals for this summer camp session? Do you want to climb a bunch of mountains or do you want to ride horses? Or Do you want to help mom set the table or do you want to make the salad for dinner tonight?). By doing this, you empower kids to take responsibility and ownership for their own actions.

9. Allow kids to define their own boundaries; facilitate the boundary creation. Give them ways to “frame” things in the positive: We’re going to the zoo today, what SHOULD we do at the zoo? We SHOULD stay together, we SHOULD wait our turn to look at the otters, we SHOULD have lots of fun. And what SHOULDN’T we do?.... “RUN!” “Eat too much candy!” “Feed the lions!” “Cut in line!” “Talk back!” You quickly learn that many children, even very young ones, have a great understanding of right from wrong…and by “framing” activities before they even begin, they can more readily “own” their actions and are more willing to respond if they accidentally do something they SHOULDN’T do.

8. If conflicts do occur, make kids right about what they need to be right about. “She hit me first.” “Yes. I saw that she hit you first. Why did she hit you, do you think?” Also, in heated situations, never make assumptions. Ask A LOT of questions and remember that most kids WANT to do the right thing…but sometimes they just forget how to do it. Don’t put kids in a box that they can’t get out of—during conversations, as they are growing up, socially, etc.. A great technique for getting a kid to talk is to MOVE. Children, especially boys, can have a hard time expressing their feelings if they feel like an adult is standing there, waiting for an answer, and “pressuring” them to say something. If you can remove the child from the situation and go for a walk (ideally outdoors), the questions you ask may elicit more than the standard, “I dunno” answers.

7. When they make bad choices, assign real and timely consequences. This one takes practice and you have to know your children or campers very well in order to assign a consequence that is neither too harsh nor too lenient for the action. I will often make sure I—with the help of the kids--have “framed” the entire experience so any resulting “bad choices” already have consequences assigned (i.e.: “We decided as a group that people who don’t help with clean-up today won’t get to have any of Emily’s cake after clean-up. SO…is everyone ready to win cabin clean-up today?”). That also takes some of the emotional volatility out of the situation. If everyone knows what will happen and when, I am not perceived as being arbitrary or unfair.

6. Give them plenty of opportunities to practice making both good and, inevitably, bad choices. Give them a safe framework to practice in…overnight camp is an outstanding, safe place to practice decision-making. Overnight camp provides a community with multiple supportive adults who genuinely want each child to have an outstanding camp experience. Through their interactions with other adults and children, who may or may not have similar interests and experiences, kids learn how to make and keep friends, practice perseverance and resilience, and gain a better understanding of themselves…all of which helps them become wise decision-makers.

Next time, Part II! I look forward to hearing your thoughts….

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1 comment:

  1. One of the most useful things I've found is letting kids know that you like them and think that they're a cool, funny and special person - even if at that moment you're having to sort out some problem they've got themselves into. Children gain such a lot of confidence from feeling well-liked, and they're more responsive to advice and suggestions if you're a friendly grown-up.
    And kids remember the teacher/camp counsellor that "didn't like me" for a long time.

    Another technique that works for me is praise. Praise is wonderful - it makes kids feel valued and proud, and shows that you've noticed things about them and thought good things about them. When I'm looking after kids, it's so much more fun if in your mind you're looking out for the amazing moments that you can give praise for, than just watching out for problems you need to sort out. Especially for children who often find themselves getting into trouble, praise is vital.