One of the challenges with camp is framing the experience for the campers. Children do not simply have experiences, but they also think about them and process them multiple times after the experience is over.
Here is an example. I have a friend named Shawn Achor, who wrote the book “The Happiness Advantage”. I have mentioned him in previous blogs so I will not go into much detail. Simply know that he is considered an expert in Positive Psychology and has even been used by PBS as part of their fund-raising drives.
He loves to tell the following story about processing experiences. When he was 8 or 9, his parents asked him to watch his younger sister who was 4-5 five during a dinner party. While they were playing on a top bunk, his sister rolled off and fell to the ground, landing hard on her hands and knees.
He looked down at her face after this painful fall. He could see the rising tears of pain and indignation. She was about to explode and he would soon be in trouble.
At that moment, he had an inspiration. He is fond of saying that he “peaked at age 9” with this words that he then uttered.
“Amy, did you see how you just landed? No human could land like that. Only a BABY UNICORN could land so gracefully!”
Amy’s greatest wish in life was to have the world recognize her inner unicorn.
At this moment, her face froze. She could choose to be angry and indignant about the painful fall OR she could embrace her status as a unicorn.
She smiled, wiped away the tears that had come forth and celebrated her unicorn-ness for the rest of the evening.
Neurological research has shown that our minds are single processor units. We can only do one thing at a time. In other words, Amy could be sad or be a unicorn, but she was cognitively incapable of being both.
I love this story because it shows the power of the mind to reframe an experience – even one as undeniably unpleasant as a 5 foot fall onto a hard floor. I have also found myself thinking about this story a great deal in the last 4-5 years since I first heard it. As a camp director, I find amazing power in the following ideas:
- With the right frame, campers can see almost any experience as a potentially positive one. A skilled counselor can help a child find the “teachable moment” in any circumstance.
- (And this is the biggie) we can help teach children that this it true so that they can choose their own interpretation of events in the future. This is a true and life-affirming power. It is hard to see yourself as a victim if you can always see grow or positivity in experiences.
I like to tell the Senior Campers that time in 2001 when Susie Ma’am and were founders of a camp-related Internet company. It was essentially the predecessor to CampMinder. We raised a lot of money and hired over 60 people when the Internet bubble burst. Without additional funds (we were still in the development phase), we had to close our doors. We had to let our employees go, tell our investors we had lost their money, explain to our vendors we could only pay them a fraction of our payables and let our camps know we could not serve them that summer.
None of that was fun.
But we had a partner that said the following once we learned that we could not raise any additional funds, “We did not make our vision work, but we are not failures. In fact, we have been given an opportunity to go out with our heads held high. We will finish strong and everyone will notice. Most importantly, our own children will notice. It will be a wonderful message to them that failure in an endeavor cannot keep us down! Let’s finish strong!”
After that, we each work up and came to the office with a sense of purpose. Sure we would be delivering bad news to someone, but we could do so in a way that showed compassion and dignity. We even began to think we had a new mission – to show everyone that we came in contact with that we were not defeated. In fact, we had several vendors ask us why we even called them and paid them anything. We told them about “finishing strong” and they were really taken aback. It have never occurred to them that someone could find a sense of purpose in an awful situation. One guy (who work for the US Post Office) ended up in a long chat with one of us and ended up resolving that he would not feel so helpless at work any more.
I certainly hope that I never have another experience like that (and I tell the Senior Campers that), but I find it wonderfully liberating to know that we could handle it if it were to happen again.
When camp is at its best, it helps campers learn that they can control their interpretation of their experiences. Of course, it helps that most experiences are really, really fun and require no re-framing. But there are inevitably teachable moments. It is not always fun to clean the cabin (though some have found a way to do even that). Being homesick is not fun. Having a conflict with a cabinmate is not fun. Overcoming a fear of heights and climbing the Wall or Pirate Ship is a powerful, but challenging experience. The Lake Swim and kilometers are also great opportunities to see the positive in a challenge.
Some campers’ initial instincts is to go to a more negative space. “I don’t like swimming in the lake and I am now tired. I wish I had not done that.” Our job is to help them re-write that story in their head. “I am not an enthusiastic swimmer and I find the lake a little intimidating. Because of that, this swim was a bigger triumph for me than for most kids. I am proud of myself because I am stronger and more capable now.”
This is were we talk about the Warrior versus the Worrier. We remind them that there are different dialogues going on in their minds and that they can choose to feed their strong voice and starve the inner victim.
Let me assure you that the campers do not see this “heavy” stuff. We are not talking about cognitive interpretation in front of them. But I thought you might enjoy reading a little about some of the goals we have for our campers.
I look forward to seeing many of you on Saturday!