Each year, we are asked to make presentations at national camp conferences about our high school leadership program. We call it the Senior Camper program and it serves teens finishing 9th, 10th and 11th grades. Here is an overview of the program. I hope you can see why it has become an nationally recognized!
The teenage years are particularly challenging ones for parents. Once a child turns 13 or 14, peers and other adults often become more influential than parents. Susie Ma’am and I saw this happen with our own college students when they were in high school. They still loved us, but they were preparing themselves for a time when they would be in college and we would not be there. This is a necessary and important developmental milestone, but it is also a scary one. We parents like being in control and we worry about who the other influences will be.
Knowing this, we have spent a huge amount of time designing a leadership program for teens to provide a powerful positive influence and foster leadership, integrity, and interpersonal skills. In short, we want a program that sets our campers up to be leaders in high school and thrive in college.
The teenage years are commonly, among adults, viewed as “damage control” years. We, however, believe that these years are a positive opportunity waiting to be seized.
In fact, I realized several years ago that society often underestimates the capability of our teens. 400 years ago, teens were parents, soldiers, and workers with real responsibilities. Please do not get me wrong, I am delighted that my teens are not raising children or fighting wars. But I also know that our teens are not physically or intellectually inferior to their predecessors even though we generally treat them like they are. We want them to “make good grades and stay out of trouble.” While I am 100% supportive of these two goals, we should expect more from them. Our Senior Camper program is designed to provide extra challenge and responsibility in an acknowledgment of their capability.
We also realized that this age group strongly desires to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
A key component of the program is to provide regular opportunities for growth and skill-development. For example, we teach leadership in a very effective way. They are assigned to cabins of younger campers (1st through 5th grade) to “adopt.” They will get chances to lead them during and between activities. Imagine herding 10 eight-year-olds around camp while keeping them amused – that, my friends, is a leadership challenge. They are not always successful at first, but they improve under our encouragement, instruction, and the ever-valuable phenomenon of experience.
[Here is an article I wrote for Psychology Today that talks about teaching teens to lead.]
Briefly, a few more aspects of the Senior Camper program.
Each group of high schoolers comes to our house twice a week for special talks. In these sessions, we share ideas and research about what makes people more successful and content. For example, we have learned a great deal about the importance of sleep for teens. We review ways to communicate clearly and effectively. We talk about the legacies that we want to leave at camp and in the world.
They receive customized trainings, from how to manage campers, to how to get into the best colleges, to how to foster a servant’s heart.
They have daily tasks around camp. They work hard and they play hard. We give them an opportunity to consciously contribute to the camp community and they embrace it.
The program has grown and improved every year. These young people want to be challenged and to earn respect. They want to contribute.
The campers who graduate from all three years of the program are then eligible to be counselors a year earlier than other people. They help bring their love to the camp environment.
As I have seen the Senior Camper program improve each year, my thoughts about my own children entering their teen years has changed. I worry less. I get excited about seeing them challenged and watching them contribute to the community. I realize that there will still be some rebellion (remember, establishing one’s own identity is developmentally appropriate for teenagers), but I am happy knowing that this program is be an ally in our efforts to help them grow into champions!