Sleep-Away Camp Challenges

Q: My 12-year-old daughter is in sleep-away camp this summer, and she seems to be having “teenage” issues, even though she is still only a pre-teen.

She has decided that she doesn’t want to listen to her counselor’s instructions, and chooses not to attend certain camp activities. Instead, she’ll spend the time talking with her bunkmate in the bunk house or walking around the camp grounds.

My daughter doesn’t behave this way in school at all. True, she might give a sharp answer to a teacher that might border on chutzpah — but teachers in this day and age seem to be satisfied if the student is paying attention.

My daughter claims that a lot of the activities at camp are “babyish” and didn’t take much thought to create them. Happily, there are times when she participates well and seems to be more a part of camp life.

My daughter’s counselor called me to complain about her. She is afraid that my daughter is setting a bad example for others and that they, too, will soon start to ignore her instructions.

The director always sides with the camp staff. (I’ve dealt with her before with other daughters). She seems so intent on maintaining her camp’s reputation that I don’t think she listens well enough to the parents and their side of things.

My daughter is not such a problem that they want to throw her out of camp, but you never know how problems can escalate in a short time with a stubborn 12-year-old. Any ideas?

A: One difficulty with children this age is their lack of life experience. An older stubborn teenager is a common phenomenon, but they’ve seen peers around them suffer consequences from problematic behavior. A teenager may begrudgingly admit that a particular behavior (whatever it may be) did cause problems for their friend.

A 12-year-old, at least in our society, might have played with dolls not so long ago, and might not have a clear understanding of answering to an authority figure — besides her teacher, which mainly involves studying for tests and behaving in the classroom.

The role of a teacher is quite clear, but a camp counselor is neither an adult nor an older sister, and the relationship is tenuous and short-lived.

Perhaps the simplest way to respond to this situation (since the camp director may not be helpful in this matter) is to problem-solve with your daughter.

In an open-ended manner, pose the question: “What are your options? Perhaps you don’t want to come back to this camp next summer. But two and a half weeks remain in this camp session. How can you make the best of the situation? There are parts of camp that you seem to like. What are ways that you can work with the parts that are less enjoyable?”

Does she dislike her counselor in general, or is it only in the area of participating in certain camp activities? If she dislikes the counselor, you can give her ways to better appreciate her counselor’s style — whether she is disorganized or too rigid.

Helping your daughter be empathetic or tolerant towards other types of people is a lifetime learning tool that is helpful to all people. However, if the counselor is truly being harsh towards your daughter, the camp director needs to be contacted.

If your daughter says that she’d rather go home than be “bossed around” by this counselor, the idea of someone having authority needs to be discussed. If your daughter suggests a local day camp as an alternative, the possibility of a similar type of counselor leading her bunk there needs to be considered. Strict counselors are not uncommon in any camp setting.

Learning how to live with “boring” activities is another life skill that needs to be acquired in order to achieve a quality-filled life. Problem-solving on how to deal with this reality — with the monotonous daily details — can be a helpful verbal interchange with one’s child.

If this is actually only a power struggle with your daughter’s counselor, which it may well be, issues of compromise and better understanding the counselor’s position need to be stressed.