If you’re familiar with Longacre, you know that everything we do is supported by our “four pillars” of Decision-Making, Responsibility, Passion, and Direct Communication. You can check out our about page for a paragraph or two on why each is important to us, but we thought it would be fun to go a little deeper and discuss why these pillars are fundamental to the Longacre summer camp experience.
Today, I’m going to dive into why we are so passionate about empowering our summer campers to make as many decisions for themselves as is feasible. I didn’t always feel this way, and I’d love to share why I changed my mind.
A little background on my summer camp experience might be helpful, here. I grew up at a camp that ran according to a “small group” camping model, which is camp-speak for a community where campers are put in small “family” groups that then stick together for all of their activities throughout their time at camp. Counselors would schedule most of the camp activities at the beginning of a session, and the kids were expected to go along with what was planned for them.
For the most part, this worked pretty well. The counselors did their best to plan fun and engaging activities that spanned different types of interests, and the kids were happy to be making new friends and sleeping away from home. Sounds pretty good right? I thought so. I had the time of my life at camp. I ultimately became a counselor, and then an area director, and ultimately the Program Director. And as you can probably tell, kids at that camp made almost no decisions for themselves. So why did I have such a change of heart?
Well, the truth is that making decisions for other people is a pretty difficult thing to do. As a camper I only saw things through the lens of my experience. I loved the social aspect of camp, and the rest of it was just scenery. Sure, I didn’t love every single activity, but for me camp wasn’t really about the activities. I could goof off with my friends during Arts and Crafts, or make excuses to get out of swimming lessons, or whatever. In a lot of ways camp was like school but with better classes and more recess. And it was definitely better than sitting around at home and being worried that I was getting left out of whatever the “cooler” kids were doing.
As I gained more responsibility at that camp, though, I made a disquieting observation: this model of camp was really not working for everyone. Sure, most kids were doing fine. But when you’re in charge it doesn’t take long to notice just how many kids aren’t doing fine. At first I wanted to write off their concerns – “Boring? What do you mean? I had so much fun at camp…”. So we buckled down and tried to come up with more fun things to do, but it still wasn’t totally working.
And it makes sense, right? As an adult it’s pretty easy for me to see that I wouldn’t want some well-meaning authority figure forcing me to do activities that they thought would be engaging or enriching for me. I’d resent the times where I felt bored, and would experience a lot less joy from the fun activities as well.
We’ve arrived at reason #1 for making space for people to make their own decisions: Having other people make your decisions for you is less fun than making them for yourself.
But should all of life be about just having fun? What about helping campers grow as well?
MAKING YOUR OWN DECISIONS ISN’T ALWAYS FUN AND GAMES
First things first – at the first stop in my camping career, I never actually figured out that kids would have more fun if they made decisions for themselves. It didn’t even occur to me, in fact, until I made the next stop in my camping journey, when I took over as the Executive Director of a small non-profit camp in Upstate New York. This camp had a choice-based schedule much like Longacre’s, where kids chose most of their own activities from a set of pre-planned options.
Right away I could tell the kids were having more fun, but I’ll admit that I was a little concerned: were these kids going to grow as much as the kids at the camp where I grew up without getting exposure to a diverse and carefully cultivated set of activities?
It turns out that yes, they most certainly did. But they didn’t grow in the same ways.
You see, the growth from making one’s own decisions can be painful sometimes. It means sometimes missing out on an activity that could have been a lot of fun. It means sometimes making a decision that you’ll later regret. It can mean not following your instincts when you wished you would have, or being lazy when you know you should have worked harder, or letting someone down when you wished you wouldn’t have.
That sounds kind of awful, so why would we want that at camp?
Well, it turns out that at some point everyone is going to have to make their own decisions. And like a lot of things, in my experience, practicing making decisions at a younger age can lead to better decision making as the stakes increase. I remember getting to college after a couple of summers working at sleepaway camp and seeing a lot of my peers, many of whom excelled in environments where their decisions were made for them, use their newfound freedom to disastrous results.
While some of our campers will make bad decisions, the downside of making them at summer camp is a heck of a lot less than it will be elsewhere. And when campers are trying to process the results of their decisions, our expertly trained staff help them reflect upon their decisions and try to prepare to make better ones next time.
While this might sound hard for our campers, I actually think it’s wildly empowering. When a camper knows that they are responsible for how things are going for them, they also understand that they have the power to change their circumstances. I think that many people are frustrated with their lot in life because they feel powerless to change it. For many young people, this is literally true. At Longacre? Not so much. Our campers know from the moment they arrive that they’ll be writing their own story here, and they know we’ll support them if it feels like it’s getting off-track. We also feel confident, based on countless feedback we’ve received, that many of our past campers have taken this new outlook on life with them after they’ve left.
DECISION MAKING AT LONGACRE AND BEYOND
As I get more experience working with young people, I can’t help but wonder if our priorities in helping them develop skills are misplaced. Our schools spend more than a decade trying to teach them math, and English, and whatever else – but what if we spent some of that time trying to equip them with the decision making ability to determine what’s important to them? Isn’t better decision making sort of a super power that unlocks so much of the beauty and fulfillment that life has to offer?
We don’t have the opportunity to work with kids as long as schools do, but we do have the chance to help them practice for 3-6 weeks at a time. We relish the opportunity to create this sacred space for decision making, and feel honored to be a part of whatever reflection happens afterward.
Hope to see you for more good, bad, and ugly decision making this summer!