The language kids are exposed to on sitcom re-runs every day at 5 p.m. would make the toughest camp director blush just 30 years ago (most kids did not talk like they do on That '70s Show in the 1970s). And when kids pack for camp they bring that behavior with them.
Perhaps the single biggest behavioral problem facing today's camp is bullying. The factors that contribute are many, from relaxed standards at home and at school to the erosion of authority and its role in people's lives.
But the signs of it that appear at camp are not easily contained. You can't go to someone's home or school and enforce discipline. And even if you did, you would probably be sued.
"These are good kids; it's just that things that used to not be okay are now okay, and as a result it's easier to go too far. So when kids are picking on each other, counselors are more likely to laugh it off until it goes too far," says Gary Forster, camping specialist for the YMCA. "Bullying is a huge issue. ACA is doing research on it right now to design strategies on how to help counselors be better at dealing with it. It's more difficult to be a counselor today than it used to be, and yet we haven't given them tools in this area."
Until specific strategies are addressed, camps will need to closely evaluate staff training, and devote more time to recognizing and stopping the problem. Also, says Forster, the program and the way it's organized could be a contributor.
"If you've set up obstacles, like a program that's hard for counselors to facilitate, then they're already worn down when these problems start happening and are more likely to ignore it or overreact," he says. "The more things we can get right up front with the way the program's designed and how kids interact, then the more likely the counselors will have the energy to deal with those situations."
Monte Torkelsen, director at Big Lake Youth Camp in Sisters, Ore., relates that they have invested more in training to better equip their counselors.
"We do a lot more counselor training than we used to. We bring in professionals who teach our counselors methods of discipline without resorting to corporal punishment," says Torkelsen. "It is better in the long run, but it seems there's much more hypersensitivity about punishment now than 20 years ago.
Disciplines like hugging trees or putting your nose in the corner that used to be seen as somewhat humorous or as a good way to make kids tougher now bring much stronger reponse; lengthy letters from parents or occasionally a lawsuit."
Another key, says Torkelsen, is continually reinforcing the counselors with the fact that they are role models. They need to envision that they're always on-camera. Like actors in a movie, campers and parents are watching them every minute of every day.
"Studies show that the average American's belief in absolute truth and God is diminishing rapidly. This reveals itself in the notion that there really is no right or wrong -- just what is right for me. I see these attitudes revealed clearly as I visit schools in the off-season," says Torkelsen. "Camp provides a place where God and truth still have a place however. As campers interact with college-aged staff who demonstrate that commitment to God and to truth can be a good thing it becomes intriguing to them. When campers see staff they admire actually living what they talk, it is hard to ignore."
Forster puts it this way: "I tell counselors they need to have zero tolerance, but infinite patience. You can't tolerate a single put-down, a single swear word. When it happens, you politely let the camper know what they've done wrong, why it's against your rules, and give them an alternative way to react in the future. Every time, no exceptions, no waiting until they've pushed all your buttons and you're ready to swear right back at them. But at the same time you have to remember that their job as kids is to try new things, to experiment and fail and try again until they learn the skills of life that work. Camp can be the best place on earth to practice those skills, especially when we reward their progress and have the patience to celebrate even small successes."