What You Learn About Boys From Running a Summer Camp

What You Learn About Boys From Running A Summer Camp

 by Bill McMahon, Co-Director

After twenty plus years of running a residential summer camp you learn a thing or two about boys. Here are some of the golden rules my wife and I have learned about how they learn and grow, all of which informs how we run Camp Moosilauke.

1) Peer culture drives everything.
Judith Rich Harris makes it very clear in her book The Nurture Assumption that the most powerful non-nature factor influencing how kids learn and grow is peer culture. Peer culture does not push, it pulls, and its pull is magnetic. Even though peer culture trumps the influence of adults, adults who work with kids can make a difference. One key way is to influence the norms of a peer culture.And of course a key role of parents, especially those with teenagers, is to help place their kids in positive and healthy peer cultures, via where they live, the schools they choose, the activities and organizations they affiliate with—and the camps they select.

2) If you want to get to the heart of a peer culture, watch how a group treats the slowest learners, the least talented kids, or the least socially adept.
As you can imagine, there is a wide range of skills and confidence levels at every camp. A great camp is one where there is no one definition of success; where what’s cool is to be your best self. A place where kids are good to each other, no matter how talented and “cool” they are.

3) Self-esteem is the key to success and happiness. The trick is that self-esteem can’t be given; it has to be earned. No matter how much, and how correctly* a parent praises a child, that is the necessary but not sufficient condition. Self-esteem has to be earned by a child by stepping out and taking a positive risk within one’s peer culture. (*See another web article on “Mindset” that discusses how not all praise is positive.)

4) Michael Thompson is right when he states that deep down “boys judge everything they do by one criteria: will it make me look weak?”
Given this, there is obvious tension between the need for positive risk-taking to build self-esteem and the core worry about looking weak. Thus . . .

5) The key is for boys to live and grow within peer cultures that support them to take positive risks and ultimately build self-esteem. Here is our take on how a camp or school can build such a culture:

  • You create a program that requires positive risk taking. At Moosilauke our focus on multiple program areas—land sports, waterfront, outdoor adventure, wood shop/arts & crafts—ensures that all campers come to camp having areas they are skilled and confident in and multiple areas where they will be starting from scratch. Many times the boy with strong eye hand coordination who is confident in team sports may not have skills and experience in areas like swimming, sailing, backpacking, or rock climbing, and vice-a-versa.
  • You find the right balance between structure and choice. At Moose, we have three periods in the morning that assign boys to one of 18 activity areas to ensure they are trying new things; then, in the afternoon they have two periods where they can sign up for what they want (on a daily basis). We have a similar approach to trips: all boys will go on at least one required hike and overnight, and then the majority of the extended trips are voluntary. And competition versus other camps is also voluntary.
  • Most importantly, you create and maintain a supportive, tolerant culture. We ensure this through a number of steps, including: hiring not just skilled staff, but caring staff; training our counselors during our 8 day orientation in the core philosophy described in this piece; closely supervising our staff to be sure they are being vigilant about teasing; setting the bar high with the campers–we talk with them openly and routinely about our zero tolerance for teasing; and creating public forums, like after meals, where the tradition is to support and praise positive behavior. Moosilauke’s exceptionally high return rate for campers and counselors is also an essential ingredient in creating a positive culture year-to-year.

We have found there is real power in having a clear and meaningful philosophy about how boys learn and grow best, and then taking every opportunity to put that philosophy into play, and to continually remind campers and counselors about what we are doing and why.

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