Camp Director Takes on the Tories!

This article originally appeared in The Globe & Mail on Monday, April 22, 2013.

The Tory attack ads on Justin Trudeau made a few mistakes. The pundits don’t know yet how (badly) the ads will backfire, but we know one thing: Putting Trudeau’s work as a camp counselor first on the list of jobs that render him unsuitable to be PM was not smart.

Especially since more than four million parents in Canada are getting ready to send their children to summer camp, where they will place their children, that which they value most in the world (we hope) into the hands of others for weeks or months. Many in wilderness situations where outside help is inaccessible.

Ask those parents if being a camp counselor is an important and high-skill job.

Consider the attributes of a successful camp counselor. Not that I’m on the stump for Justin, but in order to serve justice, let’s understand how hard – and important – a job that is. It may indeed be a job that builds competencies well suited to running a large and fractious country.

Put 10 young kids in a cabin for a week or a month. It can be a powder keg. Sure, camp is fun and 99% of children adore it; but there are inevitable – and sometimes intransigent – conflicts. Where else in life do leaders learn to mediate conflicts in a group and help sparring individuals find their way to peace so they can live together in harmony? A PM looking to mediate among the provinces – or perhaps even the Middle East – might do well to have some of the camp counselor’s mediation skills.

Sometimes there’s a bully in the cabin. This too the camp counselor has to address. Intervening to stop bullying is a sophisticated skill. Having the guts to stand up and the skill to do it effectively are pre-requisites for a camp counselor. Would that our political leaders were as deft with bad actors on the international stage. They could learn something from the best camp counselors, who know how to sit down with bullies, find out what’s eating them, and both support and require them to fix their behaviour. Bullying is always a relationship problem; would that political leaders had better relationship counseling skills. We might have fewer wars.

Camp counselors have to listen carefully to various stakeholders and balance competing interests. That’s what happens when 10 kids want to do 10 different things at free time. Or when they’re playing a game and they can’t agree on the rules, or on who’s out and who’s in. Or when the kids in the group are at different developmental stages and they have trouble finding common ground. That stuff happens most days, and a good counselor knows to listen respectfully to everyone’s point of view and find the middle ground, the acceptable and respectful compromise in situations of diversity.

When we really think about parenting, we understand that it takes place in the minutiae of daily life – the peanut butter sandwiches and the driving all over town. These temporary summer parents face similar challenges: From early morning till bedtime they have to get children to do things – get up on time, brush teeth, set the table in the dining hall, clear it, make your bed and do your cabin clean-up chore. And this only in the first hour of ever day.

Maintaining order and discipline without descending to authoritarianism requires walking a fine line. How do two counselors put 10 children to bed, teeth brushed, faces washed, kindness reigning, all in under an hour? And without anyone feeling ordered around? Mr. Harper might learn something from camp counselors on this one.

But most important of all, a camp counselor is an optimist. They work ridiculously long hours: They rise before the children at 7:30 a.m. and their work is not done when the children go to sleep. There is Night Duty, there are staff meetings, and sometimes a crying or sick child to attend to in the middle of the night. All this they must do with a smile – for they know the children are watching. Working long hours with scarce resources, little time off and incessant demands on one’s attention is hard – for camp counselors and for Prime Ministers. Camp counselors learn to maintain their positive energy 24/7. Especially when the going gets rough, the people they lead need to see their optimism, else they will not follow the leader.


About Joanne Kates

Joanne is the third generation Kates to run Camp Arowhon, which her grandmother started in 1934. Joanne grew up at Arowhon and has been Director of camp since 1989. As a mom Joanne wanted the same thing for every child at Arowhon that she wanted for her own children – to be safe on the outside AND on the inside. Joanne serves on the Board of Directors of PrevNet, Canada’s national anti-bullying organization. She writes a monthly parenting column for Post City Magazine, and also trains schools and other camp directors to use camp's anti-bullying and social safety program.
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