July 2, 2017
This photo is from an activity that is the beginning of the Senior Camper program. The Senior Camper program is our high school leadership program and is one of the programs we are most known for. In fact, Susie Ma’am and I have given over 20 presentations at national and international camp conferences on the topic of camp and teens, including one in Turkey and 8 different locations in China. I will also give a talk in Sochi this October.
People are intrigued with our journey of discovery regarding teens aged 15-17.
Many camps struggle with their campers after they enter high school, particularly after they get their driver’s licenses. Some camps try to retain their high-schoolers by “giving them what they want”. They will survey the campers and then make changes based on this survey. In most cases, customer surveys are great ways to enhance satisfaction, but we have found that this is not always the case with our older teens.
In surveys, they will say that they want more idle “hang out” time, more time with the opposite sex (preferably unsupervised) and access to phones and internet.
OK, lets all just agree that unsupervised teen time is a terrible idea, but lets look at the other ideas. On their face, they seem logical. Hanging out and using technology are the core elements of teen social activity. They, like all of us, crave that which is familiar. Further, it is scary to go away from what is familiar.
Over the years, we have realized that what they think they want differs from what they truly crave. What do they crave?
About 17 years ago, we noticed our high school campers were leaving us as well. We, too, tried to give them more time to “hang out”, suntan and relax. Their numbers continued to dwindle.
Looking at this reality, we made a decision that really changed our view of young people. We decided that if they were going to leave the program, lets at least make it a program we were proud of. We gave them more responsibility. We organized multiple times to meet with them to talk about leadership, listening, stress and other topics they cared about. We even gave them work projects.
To our amazement, the program started to grow noticeably. We added even more sessions, responsibilities, and special retreats; combined with some unique activities (such as night climbs and competitions under our field lights).
Since we made these changes, the program has grown almost 6 times!
This experience has helped shape a more positive view on humanity in general and teens in particular. I now believe that deep down we all grave love, connection and contribution more than comfort and indulgence. OK, sometimes comfort and indulgence sounds pretty sweet and we succumb to temptation, but ultimately our heart craves more meaning and significance.
I know this might sound naïve or overly optimistic, but I see evidence everyday in our Senior Campers and our counselors. Even on days that are hot and tiring, they put the needs and wants of their campers ahead of their own. They do this not from obligation, but from the heart.
So the next time you read an article about the “current generation” being narcissistic, lazy or self-absorbed, please know that they are capable of much more. Perhaps we simply are not challenging them enough.
Or, as a mentor of mine once said about young people, “you rarely get what you hope for from teens, but you almost always get what you expect.” We just need to expect more. They will rise to the occasion.