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Building self-esteem.

Through the camp experience

Like many youth-serving institutions, camps are trying to strengthen and better explain the contributions they make in young people's lives. Our outcome-oriented society challenges camps to interpret for parents and others how they help meet children's basic developmental needs. For camps to create developmentally appropriate programs for youth, camp directors need to understand child and youth development.

Understanding human development, including the terminology and concepts developmental scientists and educators use, is a basic professional and ethical responsibility for adults who work with youth. Human development is a complex and multifaceted process. Camp professionals often identify self-esteem as a significant contribution camps can make.

The nature of self-esteem

Most child development experts and scientists agree that high self-esteem can be the most important developmental task in childhood. Camp staff are aware of self-esteem's importance; however, information about the essential characteristics and determinants of positive self-esteem is less well known.

Child-development experts generally categorize self-esteem within the emotional/social domain of development. This domain includes feelings, beliefs, temperament, relationships with others, self-concept, gender identity, and moral development. Young people's levels of social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development interact with their environmental experiences and messages to shape self-esteem.

Self-concept is generally considered the cognitive, non-judgmental part of a child's basic sense of self. Children develop this self-description as they mature. A child's self-concept could include awareness of being a girl, having brown skin, or being the oldest in a large family.

Self-esteem consists of the evaluative judgments children make about their characteristics and qualities, including their attitude about themselves and their sense of worthiness. According to Stanley Coopersmith, a well-known early researcher, self-esteem reflects the extent to which people believe themselves to be capable, significant, successful, and worthy. Their self-esteem could include self-judgments, such as being a poor student, a good baseball player, a homely child, or a trustworthy friend.

Parents, beginning professionals, and camp staff often confuse self-confidence and self-esteem. Self-confidence involves the child's belief that the he can successfully carry out a behavior or a task that produces a desired result. Campers could be self-confident about activities they know well, but still have overall low self-esteem. In contrast, campers with high self-esteem might have less self-confidence accomplishing a task they dislike or know little about.

Characteristics of positive self-esteem

* Display initiative, independence, curiosity, confidence.

* Show pride in their work.

* Trust their ideas

* Set goals independently.

* Explore and ask questions.

* Initiate activities with confidence.

* Adapt to change or stress.

* Handle teasing and criticism.

* Tolerate frustration.

* Are comfortable with transitions.

* Can adjust to change.

* Describe self in positive terms.

* Have a cheerful mood.

Characteristics of low self-esteem

* Do not display initiative, independence, curiosity, or confidence.

* Do not trust their ideas.

* Do not show pride in their work.

* Lack confidence to initiate or approach activities.

* Lack curiosity.

* Do not explore.

* Hang back or withdraw, sit apart.

* Have difficulty reacting to change or stress.

* Show immature behavior when facing stress.

* Give up easily when frustrated.

* React inappropriately to accidents.

* Describe self in negative terms.

* Display a depressed mood.

Differences between children with high and low self-esteem extend beyond personal or behavioral characteristics. Coopersmith points out "pervasive and significant differences in the experiential worlds and social behaviors" of children with differing levels of self-esteem. Those with positive self-esteem attract favorable adult attention and reinforcement. These children are more appealing than those with negative or low self-esteem, who may be less responsive and more difficult to work With. Children with high self-esteem usually receive supportive feedback that further enhances their self-esteem. Adults and peers often find children with low self-esteem difficult to be around. These children receive mostly negative feedback on which to base their self-evaluations.

Changes in self-esteem as children develop

Around age eight, children begin developing the cognitive and social skills needed to evaluate themselves in general terms. This middle-childhood group can describe themselves as clumsy, smart, athletic, helpful, truthful, hyper, talkative, or as good students. Their descriptors include more abstract characteristics compared to the individual, concrete, observable behaviors and attributes preschoolers use.

Children receive considerable feedback and information from adults and peers after they enter school. They have the cognitive and social skills to accurately compare themselves with peers and others. Partly due to this group's newly emerged capacity for self-evaluation and the vast feedback they receive, developmentalists recognize these middle years as very important in developing self-esteem.

Like most aspects of self-concept and identity, self-esteem undergoes major revision and reorganization during adolescence. As teenagers start thinking abstractly, most can consider multiple characteristics and make more integrated judgments about their personal traits. For example, adolescents can translate groups of traits, such as organizational ability, being a good listener, high motivation, and goal orientation, into an evaluation of themselves as a leader.

The feedback children receive from their world is critically important in shaping their self-esteem. A child's self-esteem usually cannot be significantly changed by short-term experiences or events, but the relationships and environments encountered can be constructed to offer the best possible opportunities for developing positive self-esteem.

Dimensions of self-esteem

Developmentalists and researchers believe that different dimensions make up self-esteem. Coopersmith suggests four primary dimensions: competence, control, acceptance, and moral self-approval. Experts do not consider self-esteem's dimensions additive. A child lacking acceptance from people around her will not necessarily have positive self-esteem if she is fortunate enough to experience a high sense of competence due to other life experiences.


Camps most often serve - to 11-year-olds. These campers' feelings of adequacy or competence become the critical dimension that helps shape their self-esteem. They spend much of their time learning the basic skills, rules, routines, and values of their culture. Developing essential competence in these life skills is an organizing focus in children's lives as they move away from their family into the wider world. This development frequently occurs through formal schooling and community activities.

Harter describes several types of competence as potentially important to a child's self-evaluation: scholastic competence, athletic competence, peer acceptance, physical appearance, and behavioral conduct. Typical competencies for school-aged children include traditional life skills, such as reading, writing, getting good grades, managing time and money, and preparing to earn a living. They also include interpersonal skills and the ability to control their behavior, follow rules, and interpret social situations.

Recent studies suggest that some areas of competence contribute more significantly than others to self-esteem. Physical appearance and social acceptance have the greatest impact on 8- to 15-year-olds' self-esteem. Cognitive competence and behavioral conduct are also very important to this group's positive self-evaluation; however, self-esteem is most strongly affected in children who highly value physical appearance and social acceptability but feel inadequate or incompetent in those areas.

Success or competence in skills or areas not important to the child do not contribute significantly to their overall self-esteem. Many adults who work with youth incorrectly assume the value of some skills because they have not identified which skills are important to the child. Parents who encourage their child in specialized activities, and camps that believe they are strengthening campers' self-esteem by helping them develop skills in all program activities, should learn what skills the child thinks are important.


The degree to which children feel that significant others acknowledge their personal worth, including showing positive regard and emotional support, are aspects of self-esteem's acceptance dimension. Coopersmith uses significance to describe how family and friends accept children through attention, affection, concern, and acceptance. According to Coopersmith, the more people who display interest and affection toward a child, and the more often they express these feelings, the more likely that the child builds positive self-esteem.

Some studies show that 8- 12-year-olds see acceptance as more important in their self-evaluations than competence in areas such as athletics or school achievement. Physical appearance and social acceptance strongly influence this age group's self-esteem. While many youth workers downplay these interactional factors, they are extremely important to the child and will not be neutralized by adult rationalizations.

Adults who care about children may be distressed to realize that physical appearance has such impact on self-worth. While camp experiences may do little to affect a child's appearance, camp professionals can intentionally build opportunities into the camp experience to help campers develop better social relationships, experience competency in other areas, and live in an environment of acceptance and positive regard.

Using self-esteem concepts

Supporting and building campers' positive self-esteem is a goal of most camps. However, self-esteem develops slowly through childhood. A single camp session or season will not create or demolish self-esteem. Camp can offer a unique environment and experiences that let children participate in situations that promote feelings of competence and acceptance. Building self-esteem is a realistic and attainable goal for camps that make a commitment to put forth the necessary efforts.

Camps that want to create experiences that promote feelings of competence and acceptance should:

* Make it a mission.

* Invest considerable time and effort in the planning process.

* Apply child development concepts in each planned, intentional experience.


Intentionality is the conscious process of designing, organizing, and using all the camp's resources, as well as time and space, to promote specific aspects of positive development. It directs all efforts, from administration to simple acts of daily living and communicating, toward a developmental focus. Little is left to chance.

Elements involving peer and adult interaction, physical and mental activities, and the physical environment can be purposefully combined in unique ways to create developmentally appropriate camp experiences. Given an environment that incorporates high levels of these experiences, camp can be the most developmentally impactful setting to touch young people's lives.

Development outcomes

An important first step in developing camp experiences that promote self-esteem is to write goals for camper achievement. Goals are observable indicators that serve as guidelines to focus and direct camp practices.

Observable indicators of campers' competence and acceptance include:

* when the camper asks or shows excitement to do new things.

* when the camper verbalizes or writes positive statements about herself, such as "I like myself," or "I am a good soccer player."

* when the camper restates positive comments and feedback made by cabin mates and counselors, such as, "He asked me to help" or "He told me that my being there was important."

Intentional activities

Every act and each aspect of camp affects campers' growth and development. Camps may have to adapt or eliminate some activities and traditions that have a potentially negative or merely neutral impact on camper competence or acceptance. For example, if a new camper does not know a particular method for passing cups at the table and errs, that camper will not experience acceptance if told, "We don't do that at Camp Moon and Stars." If all daily living tasks - setting tables, cleaning cabins, and picking up litter - are carried out by paid staff, campers miss out on building pride and competence in these essential skills. When adults plan all the activities, campers miss making decisions about what is significant to them.

To create a developmentally-appropriate camp activity:

* Identify and analyze the developmental focus.

* Assess and adapt the activity so that the components promoting the specific development are embodied in how the activity is conducted.

* Identify key self-esteem promoting leadership strategies.

* Obtain required organizational resources needed from the camp administration.

Leadership strategies and behaviors

Staff, regardless of how much time they spend with campers, need skills that help them enhance campers' self-esteem.

Studies of parents who have raised children with high self-esteem can give camp directors information about important role model characteristics. These parents generally use an authoritative approach. They are both democratic and strict; combine love and acceptance with strong demands for academic performance and good behavior; show respect for and allow individual expression within clearly defined and firmly enforced limits: reward more than they punish: and set clear, consistent rules - letting children know about expectations.

To promote self-esteem, camps must select, train, observe, supervise, and evaluate staff based on their roles as contributors to campers' positive self-evaluation. This responsibility, along with staff's role in providing developmentally appropriate camp experiences, should be incorporated in job descriptions under "responsibilities." Camp directors also need to cover these responsibilities in precamp and in-service staff training sessions, supervisory observations and conferences, and all criteria used in performance appraisals.

Beyond the camp experience

Camp's impact on youth development can be heightened when camp collaborates with other members of the child-raising community - family, school, church, and youth agencies. By intentionally investing time and effort to create a steady flow of developmentally-appropriate camp experiences, and by building upon other institutions' contributions to child development, camp exercises a dynamic role in promoting positive growth and development.

Self-esteem Promoting Behaviors

* Treat, and help others treat, campers as respected, valued people.

* Establish realistic expectations, such as the developmentally appropriate requirement that 8-year-olds not sit still for more than 10 minutes.

* Structure situations to help campers be successful.

* Communicate confidence in campers.

* Effectively praise campers and help others to do likewise.

* Listen effectively and be open with "I" feelings.

* Avoid using judgmental or "you are ..." statements.

* Develop new or adapted experiences that are relevant and important to campers.

* Develop and use positive interactions and strategies for changing undesired or inappropriate behaviors.

* Engage campers in problem-solving techniques and situations.

* Be aware of and express interest in campers' activities and daily events.

* Talk with campers frequently.

* Promote responsibility.


Coopersmith, S. (1967). The antecedents of self esteem. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

Garbarino, J. &. Stott, F. (1989). What children can tell us: eliciting, interpreting, and evaluating information from children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Harter, S. (1985). Competence as a dimension of self-evaluation: Toward a comprehensive model of self-worth. In R. Leahy (Ed.). The development of the self Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Harter, S. (1990). Causes, correlates, and the functional role of global self-worth. In R. Sternberg & J. Kolligian (Eds.). Competence considered. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Papalia, D. & Olds, S. (1996). A child's world: Infancy through adolescence (7th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Sieving, R. & Zirbel-Donisch, S. (1990). Development and enhancement of self-esteem in children. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 4, 290-296.

Kris Lishner, D.N.S., R.N., is an associate professor of child health nursing at the Intercollegiate Center for Nursing Education in Spokane, Wash. She is the coauthor of Creating a Healthy Camp Community.

Judy Myers, Ph.D., CCD, is executive director of Holy Names Music Center in Spokane, Wash. She has been a frequent Camp Director Institute dean.
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Camping Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:camps
Author:Myers, Judy
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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