In this episode, I’m chatting with Dr. Chris Thurber, a legendary trainer in the camp industry and a clinical psychologist who works at Phillips Exeter Academy, about how important it for parents to connect with their teens. Chris has developed online training programs for educators and youth leaders around the world and many of the best practices and concepts he teaches apply to parents. We also discuss how the skills kids learn at camp can help them to thrive in life.
Even one summer working at a summer camp can be so valuable for the experience gained and training in relational, leadership, and communication skills.
Much of the training camp counselors receive is helpful for teachers and parents.
Thurber’s Tic-Tac advice: Expend as little energy as possible, “no more energy than a Tic-Tac.” Take a break from lecturing or nagging and instead use the low-energy responses of a look, a point, or just saying the child’s name.
In our society today, it is harder than ever to be an adolescent. One big reason is the competitiveness of education. Colleges are getting more applications from students around the world as high school graduation rates continue to climb.
Parents and students should consider alternatives to college such as apprenticeships and vocational training.
Parents need to have more conversations with their kids–girls and especially boys–about their emotions. Expressing empathy helps to alleviate the pressure that kids are feeling these days. When parents minimize or downplay their feelings, kids do not feel connected.
Chris: “The reason I think Happy Campers is a brilliant book is you’ve taken the lessons that we get to practice in a very intense way as camp professionals for, you know, seven, eight, nine weeks with constant feedback about whether it works or not. And I don’t mean that kids were filling our questionnaires. I mean, they’re either listening or they’re not, or they’re being compliant or they’re not…It’s a wonderful laboratory and classroom for parenting.”
Chris: “We have an untapped resource in a sense at camp. Everyone who is lucky enough to be a staff member at a camp is going to be that much better as a parent. The rest of the world can benefit from what we’ve understood about child development and behavior management, leadership, supervision, physical and emotional safety.”
Chris: “Instead of having high school graduates who are excited about going to college or university, they’re starting to feel the pressure, even in elementary school or early middle school, to set themselves apart from the crowd, to develop a unique talent, to begin preparing their resume for college.”
Chris: “It’s creating a tremendous amount of pressure for adolescents and that’s a problem. They’re more anxious, more depressed. It’s taking an emotional toll. Also, we’re not thinking creatively as adults about education broadly construed. You don’t necessarily need a college degree.”
Chris: “Apprenticeship is the model we use at summer camp. We have younger leaders apprenticing with older leaders or younger counselors with older counselors so you’re learning on the job. We should be applying that to more things.”
Chris: “It’s awesome if you get a bachelor’s degree in English literature or physics or computer science, but not everyone wants that, needs that or has that as a career path. And I think we have, as a society, fallen victim to the perceived prestige of a college or university degree and completely overlooked expanded opportunities for vocational training and apprenticeships.”
Audrey: “You know that what makes a thriving adult is not a test score or even a degree from us particular place. It’s these character traits and these interpersonal skills and this emotional depth and all these things that actually can be counter to when we’re so focused on these specific metrics.”
Audrey: “What do you want to be building and growing in yourself and in the kids you work with? You want people who are going to be great friends, who are going to stop and help someone who needs help. When you’re so busy climbing your way up to something, you make decisions and sometimes you’re not your best self.”
Chris: “I recommend camp because it’s the ideal complement to a traditional or non-traditional classroom setting. You take kids from being mostly inside and bring them outside. You take kids from mostly sitting to mostly running around. You take kids from doing things that have a lot of numbers, quantitative marks associated with them and put them in less structured, less evaluative circumstances.”
Chris: “It’s a way of stretching your brain and building resilience that will not only relieve stress and boost your mood, but also make you more resilient to future challenges. Camp is not the panacea, but it’s a huge part of robust youth development.”
Chris: “Ask better questions. Students here, like students at a lot of schools, are really sick of parents asking, what were your grades? Or if we want to steer clear of performance markers, what’d you do today? How was school? Those are well-intentioned questions. They’re benign but they’re not nurturing a relationship.”
Chris: “There are many students here with wonderful relationships with their parents. And I think a big key to that is taking an interest in your child as a person and how are they unique and how are they evolving, developing rather than continuing to try to fit them into some mold.”
Chris: “Kids need, people need room to be creative and be themselves. I want parents to encourage, to say that it’s okay, who knows what it will lead to, but it doesn’t need to lead to anything if it feeds your soul. The most authentically happy people in the world are the ones who tap into one of their signature strengths in service to other people.”
Audrey: “I think there’s a lot of value in adults and parents showing kids what it’s like to tap into those things even if it’s different. If they see you doing something you enjoy, they learn that adults do things they enjoy and they’re having fun and they meet other friends that way. So that modeling is really important.”
Chris: “Model this kind of humility and show your kids, not tell them, how to live. Show them what it is to balance work and play and sleep and get a little exercise and model what it’s like to bounce back from failure. If you say something that you realize didn’t have the intended effect or was the wrong thing to say, don’t move on and pretend like nobody heard it. Talk about it, fix it. If you’re enraged, that’s not the time to debrief it, but you can always circle back.”
Chris: “Talk with your kids about what your vulnerabilities are. It’s such an important thing to be able to do. For well-intentioned parents who make missteps, you shouldn’t view your kids as fragile. They can bounce back from something you said or didn’t say or forgot. They need to see you trying hard. They need to see you learning from mistakes.”
Chris: “Provide empathy but when you get to the end of your empathic statements, full stop, let it sink in. Let your kid respond. Let them just process the fact that you acknowledged some of the dimensions of their emotional experience. We are all tempted to immediately follow our empathic statement with problem-solving. But when someone is in distress, whether it’s they didn’t like the news they heard from a college or the grade they got on a test or the fact that you know their significant other just broke up with him by text message, or whatever it might be, they don’t want to hear the solution right now and they probably know what the solution is anyway.”
About Dr. Chris Thurber
Dr. Christopher Thurber enjoys creating and sharing original content for business leaders, independent educators, and youth development professionals. He is a board-certified clinical psychologist, educator, author, and father. Chris earned his BA from Harvard University in 1991 and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from UCLA in 1997.
A dedicated teacher from a young age, Chris has more than 30 years of experience working with camps and independent schools. He has written numerous book chapters and scholarly articles on leadership, homesickness, and youth development. An award-winning contributor to Camping Magazine and Camp Business, Chris has also shared his opinions and expertise on national and international radio, television, print media, podcasts, and webinars, including The Today Show, Martha Stewart, and CNN.
In 1999, after a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Washington School of Medicine, Chris accepted a position as psychologist and instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational, independent school in seacoast New Hampshire. Combining his love of research, teaching, and clinical work, Chris’s work at Exeter has grown to include publications and presentations for The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) the British Boarding Schools Association (BSA) and the Australian Boarding Schools Association (ABSA).
Chris has keynoted conferences for all three associations and has delivered guest lectures on the differences between Chinese and American public education, as well as the complementary nature of schools and camps at schools in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Wenzhou.
In 2000, Chris and his lifelong friend, Dr. Jon Malinowski, co-authored the critically acclaimed Summer Camp Handbook, hailed by psychologist and parent, Dr. John Weisz, as “a remarkable accomplishment…the best in its field…required reading for every camper’s family…the most comprehensive and scientifically sound coverage of the camp experience available.”
The Summer Camp Handbook has since sold tens of thousands of copies, won a Parenting Press Gold Award, and been translated into Chinese. As part of his lifelong effort to enhance the camp experience for young people, Chris has been a guest on The Today Show, Martha Stewart, CNN, Fox, CBS Morning News, and NPR.
Chris is the Founder and CEO of CampSpirit, LLC, which provides consultation and training to professional educators and youth leaders around the world. As he traveled across five continents to present in-person staff training workshops, Chris realized that no directors of summer youth programs had enough time with their employees to provide all the necessary training prior to opening day. The increased complexity of health regulations and accreditation standards, as well as heightened awareness of child abuse and risk management, made training demands higher than ever, especially for seasonal employees and volunteers. But with a fixed period of time during which to conduct on-site training, an innovative educational solution was imperative.