Campers Are Not Your Friends
Repeat that a couple times out loud.
There are social boundaries that must be maintained if you want to be a successful staff member. Regardless of how close in age you are to the older campers, you are paid to be there and they are paying to be there. You are the staff and they are the customer.
This line is a huge advantage to you! Campers, regardless of age, are coming from a school environment where there is a firm structure in place that separates staff from student. You can use that convention to create a stable and disciplined camp area that will keep surprises low and productivity high. Or you can break that convention and have to do a great deal more work to keep the same results.
Staff members fall into this trap for a number of reasons. One is because there are campers who are in their late teens. One is because there are campers who share similar interests to the staff members. The most common and dangerous, however, is because some staff members confuse being liked with being successful.
What are the fundamental goals of any camp? Safety is always at the top of the list - including physical and emotional. Education is around number two, or else they would not spend so much time and talent developing activities. Somewhere around three we can say customer happiness - including campers and parents.
Safety is always going to be number one. Keeping a camper safe means having to, every now and again, stop them from putting themselves into a dangerous situation. Remember, they are the customer. They are paying you to make sure they do not need to worry about being safe. That's your job. This means that every instant of every day you must be evaluating the risk factors that are taking place and using that information as the base of your decisions.
Ok. Simply, you must always be looking out for your campers. This comes in conflict with friendship because in order to remove risk sometimes you have to tell them to stop. Sometimes you have to spoil the fun. Sometimes you have to be the disciplinarian.
Your friends decide it would be funny to have Mentos and drink Diet Coke. You stand and watch as they do this, laughing especially hard when they vomit all over the place. Funny, right?
When this happened at my camp, the first question from the parents was, "Where was a staff member?" You see, you could have tried to stop your friends - and perhaps they would have listened. More likely, they would brush you off because they are responsible for their personal well being and you are not. At camp, however, you are directly responsible for the well being of campers and allowing something like this to happen is not acceptable.
"But I want the campers to think I'm cool."
Guess what? You are cool. You will not be employed long, though, if you fail to produce positive results.
Sure, being the cool staff member does not mean that you are unsuccessful. But making that your focus is a great way to sabotage your ability to make good choices.
Again, staff members sometimes need to be able to disagree with the will of the campers. Campers want to do something unsafe and someone needs to redirect them.
"Why do you need to impress a bunch of people who are younger than you in the first place?"
You are not running for Prom royalty. You are not going to get a special prize for popularity. But sometimes staff members start day one like they are afraid of being voted off of the island!
The campers need to respect your authority. Otherwise, they will put you in situations that compromise your safety. They will tell you things that are vastly inappropriate. They will make you choose between being fair and being a friend - and they will exploit your favors. They will chop away at the boundaries that you provided and take as much as they can get.
They will make it very difficult for you.
The campers do not need to fear you. They do not need to hate you. They do not need to like you. While you are at camp, you represent safety and authority, respect and professionalism. Do not sacrifice your chance at success by confusing your role with that of a camper.