My first actual grownup career was in summer camping. After working at overnight and day camp during college, I spent six summers and four full years on the staff of a girls' sleepaway camp in Pennsylvania that has been open for a century (and that is still my most loyal client) and seven years on the leadership staff of a one-week camp for kids who lost a family member in the September 11 attacks, which sounds sad but was actually the most fun I've ever had in my entire life.
(A hilarious question that people love to ask when they find out someone has a full-time, year-round job at a summer camp is "what do you do all year?" Because, of course, just like music festivals and Mardi Gras and the Olympics, summer camps with hundreds of campers and staff members and thousands of individual working parts just spontaneously open one day with no preparation whatsoever.)
My career in camping prepared me for all my various subsequent careers in some surprising ways. What is somewhat less surprising is how effectively working at camp prepared me for Safering At Home. Here's how.
Getting dressed doesn't have to be fun.
The girls' camp I worked at for six years is a full uniform camp, every day, for campers and staff. Sounds like a drag until you get to the end of the summer, have to pick out an outfit for the first time, and have a total mental breakdown because you've gotten so used to the absolute lack of mental labor that accompanies having your wardrobe narrowed down to a selection of navy and white shorts and T-shirts every single day for two months. Sometimes picking out clothes in the morning is just one or twelve decisions too many, especially when you've got eleventy hundred other things to worry about. Sweatpants again? Yes please.
Flexibility, especially in the face of disappointment.
Sometimes rain forces you to move Carnival indoors. Sometimes global pandemic cancels everything. There's not much you can personally do to stop either of these things from happening; the only thing you can control is how you respond.
Checking the radar.
When we eventually got halfway-decent Internet at camp, one of the things we quickly learned to do was get online and check the NOAA radar when the skies looked iffy. So yesterday that's exactly what I did before I went to the trouble of making chalk paint for my kids to use on the sidewalk outside our house. Guess what? Rain was minutes away. Spared myself some effort (or at least postponed it for a day when it will actually be useful).
The importance of routine.
It used to be hard to get my kindergartener out of bed early on school mornings. You know what's even harder? Managing a couple of small children whose entire daily routine has imploded. At camp, similarly, getting campers out of bed and to activities was sometimes challenging. Then, one summer, it rained for a million days straight. They were so tired of bingo and bunk time and movies that anytime the sun came out, they'd race to go do something that involved some actual engagement. Our routine at home right now isn't super structured, but we at least try to have consistent bedtimes and some general rules (like daily chores and no screens before lunch). Having absolutely no structure means having nothing to disrupt when you want to do something fun.
It's OK for traditions to change.
Tradition is a super huge, very big deal at summer camp. AND... traditions change. And when we're talking about kids, traditions can evolve relatively quickly. I attended a session once at a youth development conference at which the presenter talked about doing new things in group settings. The first time you do something new, it's revolutionary. The second time, it's routine. The third time, it's tradition. And I've seen this hold pretty true at camp. The year that you change the rules to say that Carnival costumes have to be made at camp instead of brought from home, everyone loses their minds, and by two years later, they're acting like themed cabin costumes made in arts and crafts have been the norm since the dawn of time. This is true at home as well. For example, perhaps your family has a tradition of leaving the house in the mornings, and now that tradition is a little bit different. That's OK! Your tradition can evolve to reflect the new normal and everyone can grow to enjoy it in a different way.
How to maintain a veneer of calm when everything is actually terrible.
My camp career overlapped with the September 11 attacks and their aftermath, and occasionally that shadow would rear its head (even at non-9/11 camp). One year, on the last night of the summer, when we were preparing to send 350 campers back to their parents in the greater New York City DMA, a freak blackout knocked out power to the entirety of New York City. This was also the one night of the year that campers in one bunk decided to listen to the radio while getting ready for dinner (why? The iPod was already invented, so I don't know what they were thinking except that everybody must have already packed their speakers to go home). Luckily they were smart and responsible and quickly came to me and told me what they knew, so we were able to shift gears from "let's not tell the kids until we absolutely have to so they won't worry" to "let's tell the kids calmly before dinner so all of these children who live in communities that are still processing a major terror attack that happened just two years ago will be able to get through the night without having panic attacks." Another year, we learned the day before departure that TSA had just banned carrying liquids onto airplanes, and we had to figure out how to communicate to our campers who would be flying home that they needed to empty their water bottles, but without making them think they needed to be afraid of another attack. Things like this were really excellent practice for talking to my children about the coronavirus pandemic: Tell them as much of the truth as you can without making them anxious, and do it in a way that emphasizes the solution, not the problem.
Unplugging is healthy.
Camp tends to be a no-phone zone, a policy I generally support. Obviously real life is different for a lot of reasons, but there are still real mental benefits to not being online all the time. I have a time limit set up on my social media apps, and I have to manually override it... which, OK, I do, all the time, but at least I know I'll get the invitation to disconnect every day, and it makes it easier to walk away when someone is being extremely wrong on the Internet (which someone always f**king is).
Rumors cause problems.
At camp, the problems were usually things like somebody hearing something about somebody else's counselor and she told her friend who told her older sister who told her mom who then called me outraged about something that may or may not have been true. The rumor problems we have now are similar except that they lead to people wondering whether they should inject themselves with toxic disinfectants and doing hate crimes. In either case, this is neither cool nor fine. A little fact-checking makes a big difference.
Some motherf**king patience.
Have you ever spent five hours going back and forth between two coach buses, supervising 70 teenage girls, five of whom are fighting, two of whom have motion sickness, and one of whom is panicking about having left her summer reading back at camp, just to get to New England, where they will spend 15 percent of the time complaining about their motel room assignments, 25 percent of the time whining about going to another museum, and 30 percent of the time asking when we can go to the gift shop? I have. I once spent an entire afternoon at Naumkeag, an exquisite Gilded Age property in the Berkshires, mediating a hysterical argument between five twelve-year-olds. (I've also been on WAY more trips that were both successful and fun, but they can't all be winners.) It turns out that patience is a muscle, and the more you work it, the stronger it is. And working with teenagers is CrossFit for patience. Life right now is basically an extremely extended version of that day at Naumkeag. I'm stuck here. I can't do anything about it. I didn't set the schedule, but I'm in charge of the personalities, and the only thing I can do is keep taking deep breaths, exercise my patience for the benefit of the people in my care, and try to appreciate the pleasantness of the setting until we finally make it to the gift shop.
Snacks are not the solution to every problem, but it very rarely hurts to try.
I can count on one hand the number of situations I've been in at camp or in COVID times that couldn't have been at least minimally improved by an ice cream sandwich.