Ready, Set, Go: How Camp Prepares Children for Lives of Success

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed

The following is an excerpt from Wallace’s original article appearing in the 2013 November/December Camping Magazine.

The middle and high school years are filled with challenges, change, and promise. Perhaps more than anything else, parents hope that their children will be prepared to be productive and successful young men and women of good character. I call this “readiness.” They also want their children to avoid risky behavior that might very well interfere with healthy development.
Camps play a critical role in promoting readiness and reducing risk by helping children build four essential pillars of success:

  1. Sense of Self
  2. Rites of Passage
  3. Positive Risk Taking
  4. Mentoring Relationships

Each has been linked with positive youth outcomes and risk reduction related to such behaviors as underage drinking, other drug use, and early intimate sexual behavior. They also relate to overall mental health.
While I have shared these concepts in prior Camping Magazine articles, this piece reflects the aggregation of activities related to each that promotes forward movement in youth development and decision making.

Sense of Self

Sense of self is an original construct developed to measure, quantitatively, a young person’s progress on three important developmental tasks: identity formation, independence, and peer relationships.

For both boys and girls, at the most basic level, the sense of self informs and directs their outward behavior while, at the same time, affecting overall mood and physical/ mental health. In other words, a young person who “feels good” about himself is less likely to make poor choices. This is not so much because he’s having a good day as opposed to a bad one, but rather because he feels some sense of accomplishment in rising to the developmental challenges that face him without resorting to risky behavior to feel more grown up, more independent, or more in control.

Unlike self-concept (a fairly objective description of oneself, such as “I am short”) or self-esteem (a more subjective evaluation of that description, such as “being short is bad”), sense of self — as I have defined it in my research — is a more global term that captures young people’s assessments of their own progress on the developmental continuum of figuring out “who” they are when it comes to things such as personality, sociability, sexuality, and eventually, employability; achieving an appropriate degree of separation from their parents, including developing an internal locus of control (self-directed) as opposed to relying on an external one (other-directed); and establishing more adult-like relationships with their peer group that may appear qualitatively different than those from early childhood in terms of depth and longevity.

Such successes lead to more positive feelings about their place in the world, family, and peer group. For example, high sense of self youth tend to describe themselves as smart, successful, responsible, and confident.

Fourteen-year-old Christopher tells me he is “energetic, smart, kind, and easy to get along with.” He also rates himself on the high end of a scale measuring such traits as happiness, optimism, success, and resiliency. Similarly, thirteen-year-old Tonya describes herself as happy, capable, and successful, saying, “I have a nice personality and people like being around me.” Those are important considerations because when it comes to decision making, the data make clear that high sense of self kids feel better, make better decisions, and enjoy interpersonal relationships more than their low sense of self peers do (Teens Today, March 2004). They are also more resistant to negative pressure from friends and are more inclined to feel positive about their relationships with parents.

On the other side of the coin, low sense of self kids are more likely to drink alcohol, to use other drugs to escape from or forget about problems, to have friends who use drugs (an important risk factor), to cite boredom and depression as reasons to have sex, and to feel strongly that it is OK to drive after drinking or using other drugs.

This last point is of increasing concern as new research from the SADD organization (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance, as reported last April, reveals that roughly one quarter of young drivers (23 percent) say they drive under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs (2013).

What Camps Can Do

It will not come as a surprise to camp directors that their counselors hold tremendous power to positively affect the campers. This is certainly the case when it comes to promoting a positive sense of self. For example, they can:

  • Encourage campers to pursue a wide range of interests and a sampling of activities.
  • Support campers as they adjust to separation from their parents and learn to solve problems on their own or to seek help from their counselors.
  • Teach and role model appropriate social skills that will aid them in establishing and maintaining friendships within the camp community.

Read the entire article.

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, author of the book Reality Gap — Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex: What Parents Don’t Know and Teens Aren’t Telling, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, senior advisor for policy, research, and education at SADD, and associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University. For more information about Stephen’s work, visit Copyright Summit Communications Management Corporation 2013 All Rights Reserved

Photo courtesy of Copley Family YMCA, San Diego, California