The middle and high school years are filled with challenges, change, and promise. Perhaps more than anything else, parents hope that their children will be prepared to be productive and successful young men and women of good character. I call this “readiness.” They also want their children to avoid risky behavior that might very well interfere with healthy development.

Camps play a critical role in promoting readiness and reducing risk by helping children build four essential pillars of success:
1.Sense of Self
2.Rites of Passage
3.Positive Risk Taking
4.Mentoring Relationships

Each has been linked with positive youth outcomes and risk reduction related to such behaviors as underage drinking, other drug use, and early intimate sexual behavior. They also relate to overall mental health.

While I have shared these concepts in prior Camping Magazine articles, this piece reflects the aggregation of activities related to each that promotes forward movement in youth development and decision making.

Sense of Self

Sense of self is an original construct developed to measure, quantitatively, a young person’s progress on three important developmental tasks: identity formation, independence, and peer relationships.

For both boys and girls, at the most basic level, the sense of self informs and directs their outward behavior while, at the same time, affecting overall mood and physical/ mental health. In other words, a young person who “feels good” about himself is less likely to make poor choices. This is not so much because he’s having a good day as opposed to a bad one, but rather because he feels some sense of accomplishment in rising to the developmental challenges that face him without resorting to risky behavior to feel more grown up, more independent, or more in control.

Unlike self-concept (a fairly objective description of oneself, such as “I am short”) or self-esteem (a more subjective evaluation of that description, such as “being short is bad”), sense of self — as I have defined it in my research — is a more global term that captures young people’s assessments of their own progress on the developmental continuum of figuring out “who” they are when it comes to things such as personality, sociability, sexuality, and eventually, employability; achieving an appropriate degree of separation from their parents, including developing an internal locus of control (self-directed) as opposed to relying on an external one (other-directed); and establishing more adult-like relationships with their peer group that may appear qualitatively different than those from early childhood in terms of depth and longevity.

Such successes lead to more positive feelings about their place in the world, family, and peer group. For example, high sense of self youth tend to describe themselves as smart, successful, responsible, and confident.

Fourteen-year-old Christopher tells me he is “energetic, smart, kind, and easy to get along with.” He also rates himself on the high end of a scale measuring such traits as happiness, optimism, success, and resiliency. Similarly, thirteen-year-old Tonya describes herself as happy, capable, and successful, saying, “I have a nice personality and people like being around me.” Those are important considerations because when it comes to decision making, the data make clear that high sense of self kids feel better, make better decisions, and enjoy interpersonal relationships more than their low sense of self peers do (Teens Today, March 2004). They are also more resistant to negative pressure from friends and are more inclined to feel positive about their relationships with parents.

On the other side of the coin, low sense of self kids are more likely to drink alcohol, to use other drugs to escape from or forget about problems, to have friends who use drugs (an important risk factor), to cite boredom and depression as reasons to have sex, and to feel strongly that it is OK to drive after drinking or using other drugs.

This last point is of increasing concern as new research from the SADD organization (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance, as reported last April, reveals that roughly one quarter of young drivers (23 percent) say they drive under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs (2013).

What Camps Can Do

It will not come as a surprise to camp directors that their counselors hold tremendous power to positively affect the campers. This is certainly the case when it comes to promoting a positive sense of self. For example, they can:
•Encourage campers to pursue a wide range of interests and a sampling of activities.
•Support campers as they adjust to separation from their parents and learn to solve problems on their own or to seek help from their counselors.
•Teach and role model appropriate social skills that will aid them in establishing and maintaining friendships within the camp community.

Rites of Passage

As young people hurtle toward maturity, they actively seek confirmation that they are successfully passing important milestones. Yet unlike earlier generations, today’s youth seem to have few opportunities to celebrate their growing independence.

In earlier American culture, movement toward adulthood was often accompanied by ritualistic, meaningful celebrations of more independence and responsibility to family and community. These often included joining dad in work (farming, for example, or at the family store) for boys and learning homemaking (such as cooking and sewing) for girls.

Without a reasonable recognition of milestones — such as puberty, school change, receiving a driver’s permit or license, or even receiving a first set of house keys — young people may seek alternative routes to “maturity,” including engaging in destructive, or potentially destructive, behaviors. In doing so they are figuratively shouting, “Hey, look at me. I’m growing up!”

An example of this can be found in recent data from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University (CARE/SADD, 2012). Its study of risk behavior by high school students staying overnight on college campuses as part of their school selection process revealed that many engage in certain “adult” activities for the first time. For example, more than half who reported drinking or engaging in some type of sexual activity during the visit had not done so before.

Other research from SADD (Teens Today, 2005) showed that young people whose parents pay the least attention to significant transition periods are more likely than those whose parents pay the most attention to engage in high-risk behaviors. Perhaps not surprising, they also seem more prone to depression and more likely to report daily stress in their lives.

Physically and socially, kids today experience a shorter childhood and an elongated adolescence. Many struggle through this vast, vague period of human development, and it is during this time, more than ever before, that they seek initiations that demonstrate their approach to adulthood. When we honor their wishes, spoken or not, we aid young people in building sturdy bridges between who they were, who they are, and who they are becoming. In turn, those connections help them with their search for meaning and purpose, all the while preparing them to be productive, contributing members of their families, schools, communities, and society.

It is important to remember that there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to what young people perceive as an important step on the road to adulthood. Some may be obvious, like a graduation, while others may be more subtle and difficult to discern.

I recall the disappointment described by a young woman who, when she proudly brought home her first paycheck, was greeted with an admonition that it was going straight into a college fund. She saw the check as an important sign of a new level of maturity and responsibility. Her parents, on the other hand, viewed it simply as a practical means to help fund her college education.

Fifteen-year-old Kevin describes his important milestones as “getting a defined vision of who I am, having my first real girlfriend, being exposed to alcohol, and making my own decisions.”

What Camps Can Do

Camp counselors have important opportunities to recognize key milestones in the lives of their tween and teen campers and are well advised to:
•Tune into the things that seem important in their life at camp, such as friends, sports, and awards.
•Ask how they feel about transitions at school and at home.
•Talk about the importance of their own personal milestones (when appropriate).
•Watch for signs of happiness, joy, stress, anxiety, or depression around recent or impending change.

Of course, summer camps are often built around structured activities with goal-oriented outcomes and recognition. They may also be infused with long-imbedded traditions that mark growth and achievement. In that sense, we’ve already “set the table” for our staff to engage the campers in casual dialogue about, or formal reward for, significant growth.

Positive Risk Taking

Two long-held tenets of education are that young people, particularly tweens and teens, are 1. hardwired to take risks, and 2. if we can steer them toward positive risk taking they’ll be less likely to take negative risks (Teens Today, November 2004).

The second is important because it recognizes that positive risks exist. Many adults automatically link risk taking with negative outcomes, while the majority of youth (52 percent) default to the belief that risk taking refers to positive activities (Teens Today, November 2004).

In truth, there are good risks and bad risks. Negative risks and positive risks. Risks that thwart healthy development and leave children susceptible to physical, emotional, social, and legal harm and risks that actually promote well-being, satisfaction, and advancement. After all, it is quite possible that whatever sense of maturity, independence, or social status young people might find in getting drunk they might also find by learning to sail, shoot an arrow, or pass a hard-to-reach swim level.

When we sort risk taking by type, we see the keys to helping young people succeed. For example, those who seek out positive risks are 20 percent more likely than those who don’t to avoid alcohol and other drugs and to cite concern for academic performance. They are also more likely than kids who avoid taking positive risks to describe themselves as responsible, confident, successful, and optimistic; to report feeling happy; and to consider potential negative outcomes of destructive behaviors (Teens Today, November 2004).

As you might guess, these young people are also less likely to suffer from boredom and depression. Why? Likely because they are engaged in meaningful activity and challenged in meaningful ways.

With risk taking, as with rites of passage, a positive risk for one child may be a “walk in the park” for another, thus not representing a risk at all. A shy, introverted child probably finds that just coming to camp is a significant risk while a popular extrovert may find it an obvious choice. Other young people may have no problem trying out for the camp play but may be terrified of signing up for the soccer game. Thus, it is important for counselors to adequately gauge what represents risk for each child and then encourage each of them to engage in activities that truly represent steps outside of their personal comfort zone.

Positive risk taking by young people includes social risks (such as going to camp); emotional risks (such as asking a girl to dance or sharing personal feelings); and physical risks (such as trying waterskiing for the first time).

What Camps Can Do

Summer camps are rife with opportunities for young people to take positive risks. And in my experience, they often feel “safer” doing so at camp than at school.

There are a number of ways we can help our campers take positive risks:
•Model socially inclusive behavior.
•Identify and discuss emotional reactions to issues or events.
•Encourage consideration of higher-level (harder) activities.
•Support involvement in new activities (such as arts for the athletes and ath¬letics for the artists).

In these ways, young people may begin to internalize the value inherent in “pushing the envelope” in positive, healthy directions while satisfying their natural curiosity about, and propensity for, testing their own limits in a safe and supervised environment.

Mentoring Relationships

The fourth pillar of success is perhaps the most important: mentors. A review of available data points to evidence of positive effects of mentoring. For example, it has been shown to:
•Enhance school performance.
•Improve relationships with parents and peers.
•Reduce initiation of drug and alco¬hol use.
•Decrease incidents of youth violence.

We also know that mentoring is closely linked with other important psychological/sociological constructs, such as positive youth development, resiliency, and risk/protective factors.

While this data reflects formal or “matched” mentoring, similarly positive results were revealed (Wallace, 2010) in my study of informal mentors — individuals whom young people get to know and rely on in their everyday lives — teachers, coaches, neighbors, aunts, uncles . . . and camp staff!

Here’s what I found:
•Young people who identify at least one influential, “natural” mentor in their lives report that they have a higher sense of self and are more likely to take risks that affect their lives positively.
•Young people with mentors are significantly more likely than those without to also report frequently feeling happy and less likely to report regularly feel¬ing depressed or bored.

Notably, more than half of teens themselves (56 percent) say the absence of a mentor would negatively affect them (Teens Today, 2006)!

So, what are kids looking for in a mentor? Here are the characteristics identified by more than 3,000 kids: trustworthy, caring, understanding, respectful, helpful, dependable, fun, compassionate, and responsible. They also want someone who is a good listener and offers good advice (Teens Today, 2006).

What Camps Can Do

Plain and simple, we can encourage our counselors to be intentional about establishing supportive, mentoring relation¬ships with our campers. One good way to do that is to point out the efficacy of such relationships in producing positive youth outcomes. Another is to share with them the characteristics kids identified as important in successful mentors.

Risk Reduction

So, when it comes to risk reduction, does camp make a difference? The data say yes! As I have reported before, young people who participate in camp are significantly more likely to report being highly mentored (37 percent versus 23 percent), taking positive risks (48 percent versus 30 percent), and having a high sense of self (53 percent versus 40 percent) (Wallace, 2013).

In the aggregate, young people who have not spent time at a summer camp are twice as likely as those who have to report that they are repeaters, as opposed to avoiders, of destructive behaviors (8 percent versus 16 percent) (Wallace, 2010).

Ready, Set, Go!

In the final analysis, our counselors can best help to ready children for success by being truly present in their lives, during the summer and long after.

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2012). AAP study documents early puberty onset in boys. Retrieved from

CARE/Susquehanna University and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). (2012). CARE/SADD survey investigates risky behaviors by teens on college visits. Retrieved from

Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). (2013). One in four teens admits to driving under the influence and many believe it does not impact their safety. Retrieved from

Teens Today. (2006). New study shows teens with “natural” mentors have higher sense of self and take more positive risks. Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and Liberty Mutual Insurance. Retrieved from

Teens Today. (2005). Teens report parental inattention to their important “rites of passage” has high price tag. Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and Liberty Mutual Insurance. Retrieved from

Teens Today. (March 2004). National study links teens’ “sense of self” to alcohol, drug use and sex. Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and Liberty Mutual Insurance. Retrieved from

Wallace, Stephen. (2013). Camp or college? Families face a Hobson’s choice. Camping Magazine 86(1).

Wallace, Stephen. (2008). Reality gap — Alcohol, drugs and sex: What parents don’t know and teens aren’t telling. New York: New York. Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing Company.

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, author of the book Reality Gap — Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex: What Parents Don’t Know and Teens Aren’t Telling, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, senior advisor for policy, research, and education at SADD, and associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University. For more information about Stephen’s work, visit Copyright Summit Communications Management Corporation 2013 All Rights Reserved

Photo courtesy of  Pali Adventures, Running Springs, CA.

Originally published in the 2013 November/December Camping Magazine