What We Talk About When We Talk About Cabin Bonding

I hope everyone at home had as a great 4th of July as we had up here in the Northwoods. After a very special traditional breakfast of red-white-and-blue waffles with strawberries, blueberries, and whipped cream, the campers decorated their cabins and had one epic, all-camp, no-holds-barred frosting fight! A few hours (and many showers) later, we all headed over to Camp North Star for our annual holiday celebration and social. Camp has resumed its normal pace of activities, trips, and fun in the sun—I just can’t believe how fast the summer is flying by!

Last night I told bedtime stories to cabins M-4 and M-5, and dropped one of our camp dogs, Brooklyn, off for a sleepover with cabin M-3. We have three dogs in camp this summer, all friendly, well-trained dogs who LOVE all the attention they get from the camp community. The Chernov family has always loved having dogs around at camp because we find that the bond between child and animal is really beneficial during these important years of development. Having a dog to pet, take care of, and play with is great for kids who miss their dogs back at home; very often, campers miss their pets almost as much as they miss their friends and family. And for the campers who can’t have pets at home because of siblings or parents with allergies, having surrogate pets at camp gives them the chance to experience a bit of the responsibilities and rewards of caring for an animal. It works out pretty well for the dogs here, too—with 200 kids to play with, a lake to swim in and a very giving cook this place is dog heaven! And after the cookout last night, I noticed Brooklyn eating a whole hamburger patty that someone had dropped on the ground. So, all in all, being a camp dog turns out to be a pretty good deal!

At this point in the session, campers can begin focusing on some of the bigger picture aspects of camp, now that they are comfortably nestled into the camp routine. Now that each cabin group has passed the honeymoon stage, minor conflicts often arise. Camp is designed to offer kids the opportunity to practice making decisions as a group. We think that these times are when they receive the most important dividends of the camp experience—learning archery is great, but learning how to get along with others is essential.

Camp life is, by design, pretty different from life at home for most of our campers. It is in that special home-away-from-home atmosphere that children grow and mature, learning new things in a decidedly neutral and safe setting. But as we all know, not every part of growing up and learning new things is comfortable; more often than not, we need to experience the unfamiliar in order to learn how to cope with adversity. When campers must come together as a group in order to make a decision, they must do so through effective communication. Minor conflicts might in the process, but through some special guidance from counselors and a healthy dose of experiential education (learning by doing), we find that these minor conflicts evolve into major bonding experiences.

Of course we want the campers to work through conflicts and come out the other side having learned something, but we also want them to know that conflict resolution can take place calmly and effectively; conflict is very often a necessary component of relationships and need not be feared. Problems don’t go away if you ignore them–in fact usually they get worse. It’s a good idea to face problems and get them sorted out as soon as you can. Learning how to deal with all those problems that crop up is a big part of growing up and an essential life skill. The key point is that not only must your child learn how to solve problems, but do so in a peaceful, calm way so that all the kids involved feel like they’ve won.

Birch Trail campers are taught that the emotions that come with the territory when working through a disagreement are normal and healthy. Sometimes we all get pretty angry. We may feel that something is unfair, something has been taken or broken that we value, someone is being mean, we’re not getting a fair share, etc. So what do we do? Well, we could throw a huge tantrum, get really upset, or be mean to everybody, but would any of these things solve the problem? I don’t think so! Staff members at BT are trained to help resolve conflicts both large and small by following several important steps. First, everyone involved needs to understand what the conflict or argument is about. To do this, everyone needs to say what they feel about it (without interruptions), listen to what other people have to say about their feelings (without interrupting them), and try to put themselves in the other person’s shoes and try to understand their point of view.

Because mean-girl behavior is not tolerated at Birch Trail, this means that there are a few important rules that must be followed during cabin meetings or duct-tape time (a special hour devoted to giving kids an opportunity to talk about their feelings, and address any lingering issues in the cabin, as well as checking in and seeing how well their cabin rules are working). Of course, screaming and shouting are not allowed; there are to be no mean, nasty remarks that will hurt people’s feelings–no personal remarks about a person’s looks, their ‘secrets’ or things that have happened in the past.

In an effort to encourage people to work together, we teach campers the difference between and “I” statement or a “you” statement. You never clean up the cabin is a “you” statement. “You” statements tend to escalate or make conflicts worse. “When you don’t clean up the cabin, I feel sad because we all agreed that we would clean the cabin together” is an “I” statement. “I” statements identify a problem to be solved rather than attacking the other person. We find that our campers have greater success in resolving a conflict when they all feel heard and no one is placing blame. When our campers begin to learn to say what they feel without blaming the other person, conflict resolution becomes much easier.

Another important element of healthy communication that we strongly encourage is active listening. To practice this, campers are instructed to look at the person who is speaking, and suspend other things they are doing. They should listen not merely to the words, but the feeling content, and also be sincerely interested in what the other person is talking about. It can be helpful to then restate what the person said. Also, campers learn to effectively ask clarification questions when needed. All the while, we help the kids to be aware of their own feelings and strong opinions. And when it is time to state their views, we encourage them to voice those opinions only after the other person has finished speaking.

Conflict resolution is not easy. It takes everyone involved to work together willingly and to accept and carry out what has been decided. With all these chances to practice honing good communication skills, the campers learn crucial, fundamental tools to help them grow and adapt to new things as they grow—all the while having a genuinely good time. As we move forward into the session, I look forward to continuing to enjoy watching each cabin group evolve and connect on deeper, more meaningful levels. In this way, the temporary living arrangement at camp becomes a truly holistic, immersive learning environment. And even though Brooklyn the dog needed a lengthy nap today after having so much fun with last night’s slumber party-mates from M-3, she seemed pretty happy in her temporary living environment, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *