This is the first of a several-part series about working with Teenagers. Mike spoke to a former camper of his who has been tasked with starting teen programs at her Y. Their conversation sparked a number of ideas that simply could not fit into one article.
I received a message from a former camper of mine who is now in college and is working at a Y. Her boss had asked her to start teen programming at the Y, and she didn’t know where to start. So, she asked me for advice.
That tells me right there that she will be a pretty good program director. Although she is now leadership staff at the summer camp she attended — the one I worked at — and has dealt with high school students as camp counselors and CITs, she did not feel super confident about starting a program for teenagers at her branch. So, she called someone she knew had the experience — me.
I told her that working with teenagers is a difficult thing. Too many times directors or advisors want to be friends with the teens and this can backfire down the road when you need to show authority. On the other hand, sometimes people come on too strong with the power trip and demand too much respect from the get-go. When it comes time for a teen to open up about their life, they won’t because they are too afraid of the repercussions. I told her there is a small window I call “The Fine Line of Working With Teens” that you have to walk that straddles between being their buddy and being their Mom or Dad.
What was great about this conversation was that I could point to things I had done almost ten years ago that walked this fine line. I asked her if she remembered a prank that my teen boys had pulled on the teen girls while she was one of those teen girls. She did, as it was very memorable to most who were involved.
Apparently, before I ever worked at this camp, pranks were a common occurrence. But these pranks usually involved damage to camp property, hurt feelings, lost sleep and the reprimanding of the counselor who allowed it. When I came to the camp, the director had installed a strict no pranks policy for that year. My cabin of teens — about 25 of them — were very upset because they had waited a very long time to pull some of the classic pranks that were pulled on them like “shutter bangs” and “sock ambushes” — which had in the past caused broken shutters and broken noses.
My teen campers thought I was no fun because I actually listened to our camp director and wouldn’t allow them to pull any pranks. I did however challenge them by telling them to come up with a prank that does not break any rules, or does not hurt anyone — physically or emotionally. If they did that, we would pull the prank.
They responded by saying it was impossible. They said that a prank that falls within camp rules wouldn’t be funny or fun to pull off. But, a few of them decided to take on the challenge.
Several hours later they proposed an idea that truly was genius. They wanted to transport sand from the lake’s waterfront to the porch of the teen girl cabin — several hundred yards away — in order to make a beach. Once we had enough sand we would set up a badminton court, lie out towels, put tiki torches out, and build sand castles. We figured that it would confuse everyone at camp, but not upset anyone.
It was impressive, and it didn’t break any rules. We woke up early — instead of sneaking out after curfew — and worked for several hours on the project in the dark. We headed back to our cabin and got ready for morning assembly — which was right next to the girls’ new porch beach. When we arrived, the entire cabin of girls were enjoying the beach we had made for them — they didn’t know it was us at the time — by laying out on the towels we provided, playing badminton and building sand castles. Most of the camp had surrounded the porch and was amazed to see what someone had done. They were in awe. No one knew who had done it, and no one knew how it was done.
At breakfast I was called into the camp director’s office. He asked me, “Was it your cabin that pulled this prank?”
I said yes. He reminded me about his no prank policy and I cut him off mid-sentence.
I said, “If you can tell me one rule that we broke, then we will accept any punishment you give me and my guys. But, I’m pretty sure we didn’t break any rules.”
He told me to leave the office and asked me to meet him “on the beach” in 30-minutes. When I met him, he said the following statement that will always stick with me, “This is amazing. Make sure you clean it up by lunchtime.”
We cleaned it up, but it is still etched into the mind of anyone who saw it. More importantly, it taught my teens a very valuable lesson. You can still have fun without breaking the rules. You just need to get creative.
The same goes for working with teens and with camp staff. Don’t try to be their friend, but don’t try to be their parent. There is a very fine-line that you need to walk.
More of “The Fine Line of Working With Teens” in the coming days and weeks.