This was the question the leadership director at one of North America’s oldest overnight camps asked the staff one evening. It seemed to be an inane question, given the label of “brotherhood” that the staff had given itself for decades. But the silence in the room suggested legitimate soul-searching had begun. The leadership director, Tom Giggi, was also silent, prompting even more serious reflection. (One of Tom’s strengths is asking good questions; another is his ability to wait for thoughtful replies, rather than answering himself for the group.)
Back when I was a camper, I worshipped my cabin leader. At a camp with strong internal leadership development, it was easy. The prestige of becoming a staff member, borne in part from the competitive selection process, coupled with the pure kindness the staff exuded, meant that most campers at Belknap grew up wanting to become cabin leaders. But now Tom was asking us to peel back the outward layer of kindness and examine its internal purity.
My thoughts drifted to a version of that question I’d been asked by my division head, Mark Goodman, back in 1984, my leader-in-training year. It was my first time working at camp for the full nine-week season and the first time the fabric of kindness that ostensibly bound the staff into a brotherhood started showing tears near the seams.
“Why is Saul being excluded?” Mark had asked me, speaking then about one of my fellow LITs. My defensive response included a litany of Saul’s foibles. “Well,” I began, “he can be kind of annoying. I know he loves camp, but his over-the-top enthusiasm comes off as insincere. And he’s constantly asking questions he knows the answers to, just to make conversation. And he’s clingy. Sometimes people want to be in smaller groups during nights off, but Saul is always there glomming on.”
I went on for several minutes and Mark just looked at me, patiently nodding. Eventually I realized that I hadn’t answered Mark’s question at all. I’d answered the related question, “What don’t you like about Saul?” but not “Why is Saul being excluded?” Mark was still silent. I swallowed hard, then spoke.
“Saul is being excluded because the rest of us LITs are excluding him.” Mark nodded, almost imperceptibly. I took a deep breath. “Now I’m thinking that one of the reasons Saul is clingy and over-the-top is because we’re not including him like we should be.” Mark’s eyes widened a bit. I continued: “You think if we treated Saul differently, he might change. You want us to include him more.” Finally, Mark spoke. “That would seem like the kind, campy thing to do.”
And so began a new chapter in my understanding of how camp helps people grow. It’s a social microcosm that serves as a proving ground for almost every interpersonal transgression and its positive opposite. The dialectics of bullying—befriending, gossiping—confronting, rejecting—accepting, prejudicing—understanding, hating—loving, and, yes, excluding—including all infiltrate camp at different points in the summer. The key is to leverage the collective strengths of your staff to create a positive community. To do that takes regular, honest reflection and discussion.
Every staff group (indeed every group of human beings anywhere) will have conflicts and will, at times, mistreat one another. Having come to terms with that truth, camp professionals can prevent burnout, breakdown and belligerence by facilitating at least one pre-season and one mid-season discussion that begins with How do we treat one another?
What followed the pregnant pause in the lodge the night Tom posed that question to the staff was a great discussion that included:
- Silly habits that had grown into traditions unintentionally hurtful to others
- Greater awareness of others’ needs and ideas about providing support
- Increased motivation to be inclusive, for the good of all
- Sincere appreciation for the genuine kindness staff do show one another
- Renewed sensitivity about how the hierarchy among staff can become a barrier to candid communication
Most of the staff left the in-service training that night encouraged by the group’s insights and armed with two or three concrete new practices that were generous, inclusive, and more in line with the vision of leadership they had romanticized as campers. Only now, that vision of pure kindness seemed closer to reality. One staff member summarized it well: “We were doing some things to ourselves that we never would have tolerated having campers do to one another.”
This winter, plan a time or two to have your staff discuss their behind-the-scenes treatment of each other. Does the way they treat each other after hours, during time off, and away from campers truly reflect the values they purport to embrace as a member of your camp?
Dr. Christopher Thurber is a psychologist, author, and father. He serves on the faculty of PhillipsExeterAcademy and is the director of content for Expert Online Training. To book a workshop, purchase DVDs, or access leadership resources, visit CampSpirit.com.