There aren’t a lot of Harvard students who’ve worked as camp counselors, but I can usually spot them: they have a combination of flexibility and interpersonal savvy that makes them good leaders. I always thought that the kind of person who chooses to be a camp counselor is likely already an affable and mature person. But many educators have come to recognize that summer camp, and specifically being a counselor, fosters precisely the skill that we value so highly in young adults: taking responsibility. Caring for younger children helps teenagers learn how to be more mature themselves.
Interaction within mixed-age groups is increasingly rare, undoubtedly a by-product of our “overprogrammed child” culture, with soccer leagues even for preschoolers who can’t find the goalpost. Girls can still gain this valuable experience through babysitting (though it seems like fewer girls are taking on such work), but for boys it is much harder. As Michael Thompson, the author of Raising Cain, pointed out recently at the Aspen Ideas Festival, teenage boys face something of a Catch-22 in that adults are reluctant to give an immature teenage boy responsibility for the young kids who would help him mature. Overnight summer camps provide just such a mentoring opportunity through an incremental leadership pathway that enables teenagers, usually starting at age 14 or 15 as counselors in training, to assume increasing levels of responsibility for kids.
Peter Swain, executive director of YMCA Camp Fuller, in its 125th year serving youth on the shores of Rhode Island and one of the oldest camps in the nation, is explicitly aware of this learning opportunity. “Seeing young, anxious campers grow into confident, capable leaders is why I have continued to do this job,” he says. “It’s great to see camp staff carry their camp values into their college and working life — it really means that the work of camp has meaning to society.” As Swain notes, “The path from camper to young staff is well-worn and thus clear to follow. And the role models are obvious and always there to see.”
Camps also provide a safe place for young staff to make mistakes without dire consequences. One of my sons, for example, now 17, learned to windsurf at camp, where he joined a special leadership track for senior campers in his final year. He returns to camp this summer as a junior counselor, teaching windsurfing to younger children. The gravity of supervising children in open water is not lost on him, but he feels up to the task because he’s surrounded at all times by senior staff and he knows the water and equipment well. There are few other situations where a young adult can take on a serious leadership role with as much responsibility and careful guidance as in a camp.
A study of 4-H camp counselors in Ohio (some as young as 14) showed increased leadership skills and improved motivation to stay in school and plan for the future. Many of the counselors were also able to learn from unsuccessful strategies they tried, like the fact that simply yelling at children doesn’t necessarily make them compliant.
Traditional summer camps do such a great job of supplementing the work of parents and schools that we often miss the complexity of what they’re up to. Some people think of camp counseling as a frivolous endeavor, something for big kids who can’t quite cut the umbilical cord of childhood. The stepwise leadership structure — which virtually guarantees high percentages of alumni staff — can create the impression that camp jobs are not real work on par with college internships in the financial industry or working in a lab but something more like a nostalgic hobby. Even high school students worry that a summer-camp job isn’t substantive enough to put on a college application.
But if we are serious about developing young leadership, we should get over these parochial views and take steps to make camp counseling more common. We should consider a tax credit or financial aid for counselors who might otherwise take a better-paying job. And employers and college-admissions officers need to hear how the camp-counselor experience prepares successful young adults through teamwork, empathy, cross-cultural understanding, ability to work with subordinates and superiors, creativity, working under pressure and managing with limited resources.
In most societies throughout history, older children have always cared for younger children. The anthropologist Margaret Mead called caretaking a “pivot” role: a person doing something for someone else that was once done for him or her. As she trenchantly noted: “Just as a child is getting old enough so that its willfulness is becoming unbearable, a younger one is saddled upon it … each child being disciplined and socialized through the responsibility for a still younger one.” Among all the foregoing benefits, here’s yet one more: camp counselors may come to appreciate their parents’ hard work too.