Manners Matter

Early in the history of organized summer camps, cooks sparked a debate.

Directors on one side of the debate argued that camps should be egalitarian utopias that teach self-reliance. Therefore, children should cook for themselves.

No servants. Stoke the campfire and bust out the mess kits, they argued. The more children did for themselves at camp, the better. Hired help--cooks, custodians, or groundskeepers--created a class society. Quite the opposite of camps’ stated mission.

Directors on the other side of the debate argued that children should be protected from the hazards of hot coals and spend time playing and praying, not cooking and cleaning.

We all know how the cooking debate turned out. Except for the occasional s’more, the increasingly rare cookout, and a handful of rustic tripping camps, a grownup does the cooking at camp.

Whether this is class-oriented or not depends more on how campers and staff treat kitchen staff.

However, one thing is certain: Self-reliance remains a stated goal of organized summer camp. Self-reliance is what parents want for their children today, and what corporations want from those children tomorrow.

Why, then, are certain manifestations of self-reliant behavior increasingly neglected at camps?

When I returned home from my first camp experience, my parents were happy to hear that I had a good time. But what impressed them--and what they still talk about--is that I started making my bed, cleaning up after myself, and setting the table properly.

No, I didn’t go to Amy Vanderbilt’s Etiquette Camp for nine weeks. I went to an agency camp for two. Surprised? My parents were.

Don’t get me wrong. I was a well-behaved kid, but Mom and Dad had been trying to teach me this stuff for years…with limited success.

Camp made it all click. Thanks to the sterling leadership-by-example of the staff, I learned that having good manners was cool. Camp taught me, among many other skills, that manners matter.

Not convinced? Take two children of equal intelligence and an openness to new experiences. One child attends a camp where the tables are set and bussed by kitchen staff, the bathrooms are cleaned by custodial staff, and the trash is collected by maintenance staff.

The other child attends a camp where campers are taught that the fork goes on the left, the knife and spoon on the right. This is a good thing because the campers themselves set and clear the tables. They also clean the bathrooms and grounds as part of their duties.

Now, fast forward 15 years. Each of these former campers is an adult, about to sit down to an important business meeting over dinner at a four-star restaurant.

Camper A is disoriented by the array of flatware, chews with her mouth open, and reaches across the table for something she wants.

Camper B knows how to cut her entrée, chews with her mouth closed, and asks politely for items out of reach to be passed.

Who makes the better impression? You can have oodles of other so-called “21 st- century skills,” but slobs don’t get jobs. At least not as easily as candidates who are polished and poised.

“OK, Mr. Manners,” I hear some readers groaning. “Thanks for the pandering lecture.”

Actually, I’m just asking questions. Here’s the next one: Do you want your campers to be culturally fluent? Manners are, for the most part, arbitrary social conventions. But arbitrary doesn’t mean irrelevant.

Think about dress, another arbitrary social convention. Who is more likely to get the corporate job in a firm: the candidate wearing a suit and tie, or the one wearing cut-off jeans and an undershirt?

There is nothing inherently wrong with shorts and a T-shirt, but adherence to the corporate dress code matters in ...well …corporate culture. And in an increasingly international world, cultural fluency matters.

Table manners are but one set of cultural conventions, but they are so easily integrated into the daily routines at every camp that we should be hitting them out of the park. If table manners are a cinch, then the only reasons they are neglected are laziness and shortsightedness.

The thought is either, “As long as kids eat, it doesn’t matter what side the fork goes on,” or “As long as they set the table somehow, no one cares how they do it .” By that reasoning, as long as they wear clothes to an interview, it doesn’t matter what clothes they have on.

Here, of course, detractors will assert that camp is an informal place, where etiquette should play a minimal role.

And yet we insist on good sportsmanship, which is another way of saying “sports etiquette.” We explain and enforce rules and insist that campers congratulate the other team at the end of a contest, for example.

Detractors here will hasten to add that sportsmanship matters because following rules, playing fairly, and resolving conflict are all life skills. Indeed, this is correct, and it supports a camp’s choice to insist on good sportsmanship. Whither good manners?

Once again, consider the self-discipline, self-reliance, and social skills born of practicing conventional table manners.

If that still doesn’t grab you, consider the health benefits of campers’ using serving spoons instead of their fingers, the spiritual benefits of unselfishly serving one’s neighbor first, or taking the smallest piece, not to mention the community benefits of guidelines such as “You kill it; you fill it” for water pitchers, butter dishes, salt shakers, and the like.

When campers themselves have a role in setting tables according to some shared conventions, when they adhere to manners such as “no elbows on the table,” “chew with your mouth closed,” and “ask, don’t reach,” and when they clear and clean their own tables, then mealtime is no longer class-oriented.

Instead, it is a pleasant and culturally literate exercise in ownership that nurtures a collective spirit and promotes the type of self-reliance that leads to success in adulthood.

In a million little ways, camp well-done is preparation for life well-lived.

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves as the school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy. He is co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook and the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com , the top provider of web-based educational content for youth leaders. To book Chris for an event or to download more resources, visit CampSpirit.com .