As I write this, I've just returned from volunteering for a week at an overnight camp for Greek Orthodox Christians like myself (well, except younger than me). I wanted to give back to this camp because it has always been very special to me. I was a camper there for seven years, then starting in summer 2014 when I was too old to be a camper any longer, I became a counselor. However, I had a vastly different experience this time from my first time as a counselor there. (This was only my second time as a staff member because last summer I couldn't make it.) We have three weeks of camp every summer, one week for younger kids aged 7-12 and two weeks for older kids aged 12-18. In 2014, I volunteered during one of the weeks for the older kids. This week, I worked with the younger kids. The first time, the group of girls I was in charge of were all about 13. This time, I had campers around ages 8 and 9. Although in some ways I preferred working with the teenagers due to the fact that I can relate to them on deeper levels, I realized just how rewarding spending time around small children can be. I definitely have a lot of previous experience with kids of younger ages; I've babysat many different families since age 13, had childcare jobs, and volunteered or worked at various other summer camps, so this isn't the first time I've been around several children at once. But it was the first time I've spent an entire week straight with them 24/7. And it got me thinking, more than any of my past work with children has, about all the ways young kids can boost our mental health, without even trying.
1. They're always happy to be around you.
Almost all the small kids (as in kids under middle-school age) I've worked with in some way have always gotten so easily attached to me. Kids are very impressionable. The moment you're nice to them once, they look up to you for life. They're like puppies; they're always very excited to see people they look up to. And when they're excited to see you, they love to tell you many things that will very likely uplift your mood, such as that they love you or want you to play games with them or that you're their favorite counselor/babysitter/teacher/etc.
2. They require so much attention.
Spending time around children definitely keeps you on your toes. When caring for young kids, especially ones under age 7 or so, you always have to be on guard because you never know the next minute they could need your attention. The moment you turn your back for a minute, that is a minute in which kids can fall and get hurt, start throwing things at each other, or get a hold of your phone and go through your text messages (yes, this has happened before!). Therefore, being around kids is a good distraction from any stressful issues that might be on your mind. You have to be thinking about attending to the kids so constantly that you don't really have time to think about anything else.
3. They wear you out with their energy.
Somehow, kids constantly have a seemingly never-ending supply of energy; they seem like they can run around for hours on end. I don't know how they do it, especially without coffee. When kids have this much energy, you are forced to keep up with them all the time, which is very exhausting, physically and mentally. But I've found this still benefits mental health, no matter how draining it can be, because it makes you tired in a positive, accomplished feeling kind of way, not in an anxiety kind of way. When you exhaust yourself from keeping up with kids' stamina, you get so tired that you don't really have any mental energy to devote to being stressed or anxious anymore, at least not for quite a while.
4. They're very cuddly and affectionate.
Young children tend to get more physically clingy to older people than adolescents/teens do. If you're around little kids chances are they will often want to hug you, sit on your lap, hold your hand, cuddle with you, or otherwise cling to you in some way. Cuddling or people clinging to you can be decent stress relief because it's like, "wow, someone really loves me." Sure, it's great when it comes platonically from friends our own age or romantically from someone we might be dating. But it's different when kids show this type of affection. The fact that someone shows they look up to you so much is really a confidence booster because it can make you feel great about yourself that you've made such an impression on someone you're looking after.
5. Helping them makes you feel good, too.
Helping anyone in any way can cause you to feel good about yourself, whether you've done community service, gone the extra mile at your job, or simply done a favor for a loved one. The feeling you get knowing you've made someone's day better in some way is truly rewarding. But I think it feels a bit different when it comes to helping children. It's because children are young, innocent and impressionable. Anything you do for them will cause them to look up to you that much more. It's so much easier to make them happy than anyone else. Few things bring me more joy than the feeling of knowing I've somehow helped make a kid's day better after I've worked a birthday party for them, sat with them during a meal, danced with them or bonded with them over Pokemon. It's literally that simple to brighten a child's day and it is certainly a confidence booster.
So, in that case, I encourage everyone reading this to try out some form of working with kids at least once in their life. Sometimes just being in their presence can be all you need to cheer yourself up.
And to my group of girls from Cabin 9 at Camp Good Shepherd (who inspired me to write this article) as well as any other children I've worked with in the past: I love you guys!