Leadership lessons from camp

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Who’s really in charge? A counselor reflects on what it’s like for teenagers who supervise kids


  • Friends at Misty Meadows camp. Photo courtesy of Laura Measher

  • The author at Girl Scout horse camp. Photo courtesy of Laura Measher

  • Laura Measher today. Photo courtesy of Laura Measher

Sometimes it feels like what you really learn as a camp counselor is seeing different perspectives. As a kid, counselors were adults with everything figured out; as a counselor, I know things like college and writing are only just starting to make sense.

When I was a kid, I went to Camp Misty Meadows — four summers running, from age 7 to age 11. It was a Girl Scout horse camp in the pine forests of Texas, and I called it paradise. But even paradise had rules. Counselors, omniscient and omnipotent, enforced camp law. And with a giddy kind of hero-worship, we campers obeyed without question.

My third year at Misty Meadows, we had this counselor. Her camp name was Tink, like Tinker Bell. Tall, pretty and nice to everyone, she was every camper’s dream friend. A small crowd followed her at all times, and there were daily races to her lunch table.

That year, my best friend came to camp with me. To my despair, she was in Tink’s group, and I wasn’t. All summer, I fumed over their apparent friendship. Rather than sit with me, my friend took her prized seat with Tink everyday, leaving me to watch everyone’s favorite counselor talk to my best friend.

Hindsight is funny. Tink was probably 18 years old, humoring her young fan club. The counselors we’d treated like deities were teenagers working a fun summer job. Looking back now, as a counselor myself, I see past the illusion of control. It’s apparent now: we’re all a little in over our heads.

Last summer I worked at a day camp in Florida. Most weeks, I’m in charge of the Junior Group, ages 5-7. Their antics often remind me of my own camp days.

One particularly stormy day, we took the kids indoors. Indoors means quiet time. Dreading the struggle for silence to come, I jokingly asked if my campers wanted to play naptime: they immediately dropped to the ground and pretended to sleep.

That unquestioning obedience, at least, was something my younger self could relate to. Yet at 18, working at a summer camp made me realize just how young my counselors had been. I’d assumed that they were full-fledged adults running the show with little effort. Yet being in the same position myself, that assumption, though handy and adorable, seemed pretty unfounded.

Enforcing a Set of Rules

Sometimes, being a counselor is hard. Kids don’t make for monotonous work — every day is something new. As new situations emerge, things I’d assumed were set in stone must be flexible.

Rules are the best example of this. There is a set of rules all counselors are given to enforce day-to-day. But while as a kid I thought these were fixed in place by the camp gods, I’ve since learned that no, there are people actually in charge who create those guidelines. The thing about rules, though, is that they can’t be stagnant.

For example, when a 5-year-old camper asked me, “Can I text my mom that I’m okay?” I certainly didn’t respond with, “No phones allowed.”

On the other hand, while “No yoga on the paddleboards,” was never a formal rule, “No jumping off the paddleboards” was. When Tree Pose became purposely “falling” into the water, adjustments were made.

As a camper, camp seems like easy work. Rule-enforcing seems like power, not work, and you mostly just show up to find craft tables and activity plans at the ready.

Campers may not realize that these things don’t just manifest themselves. I never truly considered that Tink would have been behind-the-scenes cutting out dozens of construction paper cat ears. Or that she would’ve taught herself to make friendship bracelets to teach us. Or that she probably spent nights searching, “camp games,” “fun kids crafts,” and “please just tell me a craft with paper towel rolls.”

Yet as much as I discredited my counselors, I inevitably do the same to my campers now. Invariably, the campers always dream up the best crafts and games. Whereas the games you researched the night before, and planned thoroughly, and think will be big hits? Never quite there.

One day of camp, this became abundantly clear. My coworker and I planned a game of Sharks and Minnows for pool time, agreeing on timing and rules. When we called the kids to play, however, we received a chorus of groans. Giving in, we dumped a bucket of numbered rubber ducks into the deep end as toys instead. Unthinkingly, I said, “Find number 17!” To my awe, the kids scrambled to do so, water arcing through the air. We called number after number, for the rest of pool time.

Sometimes it feels like what you really learn as a camp counselor is seeing different perspectives. As a kid, counselors were adults with everything figured out; as a counselor, I know things like college and writing are only just starting to make sense. Even the people I look up to as role models today are humans, with their own problems to figure out.

I also know not to underestimate kids. Their perspective, sometimes forgotten in the rush of planning and line-leading and instructing, is the most important part of camp. As a kid, I didn’t see my counselors for who they were, but I certainly don’t have an unbiased view of my campers today. Their ideas and attitudes drive summer camp — after all, we’re all there for them.

As a camper, I thought it was the counselors who were the all-powerful controllers of camp life. As a counselor, I’ve learned that it’s the other way around.

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