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What Parents Want to Know that Camp Counselors Should Know
As a camp counselor, you are about to assume an important role. Parents are going to give you their children to take care of for the length of their stay at camp. The term used to describe this relationship is in loco parentis, which literally translates from Latin to “in place of a parent.” Although you cannot replace parents, you will need to assume this in loco parentis role and be clear about parent concerns and camp policies.
Consider Howe’s (2010) “classification” of today’s parents. Whereas parents used to be considered helicopter parents, they can now be described as stealth-fighter parents. They are often not only protective, but they are also prone to intervene to assure that their children are treated fairly. Therefore, parents are likely to have many questions not only before they sign their children up for camp, but when they arrive at camp. These questions, no matter how trite they may seem sometimes, must be seriously considered.
You must be prepared to answer these concerns, many of which relate to the safety of camps both physically and psychologically (e.g., homesickness, bullying) and how parents will maintain communication with their children.
The information for this article came from responses to a single open-ended inquiry — “Please identify the three most frequently asked questions that you received from parents/guardians this past summer” — that was sent to camp administrators regarding their perceptions of emerging issues at camp.
Five major categories of parent/guardian questions emerged from the qualitative data based on the relative frequency of the responses included. The number one concern was staff qualifications and supervision. Parents seem to recognize that staff will be taking on their parent roles and they are highly concerned that camp counselors have the skills and qualifications to be entrusted with their most precious children. In addition, however, parents and guardians are also concerned about the way that staff can facilitate camper health and safety, opportunities for communication with children, camper expectations and behaviors, and camp program logistics, which included transportation, weather, costs, and registration. Table 1 provides an overview of some of the typical questions asked.
Staff Qualifications and Supervision
Most parents do not know the staff working at camp. Therefore, they asked questions about both the qualifications of staff as well as how staff supervises children. Questions about qualifications included: Are staff backgrounds checked? What are the counselors’ ages? How are staff members chosen? Some questions were also raised about how supervision occurred at camps, such as: What is the camper-to-staff ratio? What kind of supervision do campers get from staff?
Camp directors also indicated on the survey that they did provide particular types of staff training. For example, specific camper behavior issues were addressed in staff training. Over 90 percent of the camps indicated that bullying was “somewhat” to “very significant” as an area of training for staff.
As camp staff, you should be able to communicate and instill confidence with parents that you have the skills and experience to be a camp counselor. You should know why you were chosen and what your goals are for the summer related to ensuring a positive experience for campers. You should feel as comfortable speaking with parents about the mission of the camp as you are about what the daily schedule looks like for their child.
Camper Health and Safety
A second major category of questions that directors were most frequently asked pertained to health and safety management at camp. These concerns related to the health care available as well as questions about food service and overall safety. Examples of questions included: What happens if my child gets sick? How do you handle campers’ meds? Parents were also interested in food questions such as: Do you serve organic food? How do you handle food allergies? Safety issues related to whether or not the camp had twenty-four-hour security as well as how safe particular activities were, such as those activities around water areas.
Camp directors indicated in the quantitative part of the survey that they were addressing some of these questions. For example, over 70 percent of all camps said they tried to accommodate the specific dietary needs/allergies associated with peanut/nut allergies, vegetarian preferences, lactose intolerance, and gluten-free needs.
As staff, you must be aware of all the policies in place regarding the protection of the health and safety of campers. These policies should be clearly covered in your precamp training, but you should be familiar enough with them that you can respond confidently to these types of safety and dietary questions from your campers’ parents.
Technology and Opportunities for Communication with Children
A third major area of questions from parents related to technology and communication, especially camper to parent communication. Common questions were asked about visitor policies and whether parents could spend time with children during camp sessions. Several parents asked about campers bringing a cell phone to camp so that campers could stay connected to their parents at all times. Other questions related to the availability of e-mail as well as whether other forms of social media were available, such as camp Web cameras.
Technology and communication are consequential to parents, just as they are to you. Many camps have policies regarding these issues that you must know not only for yourself but for the peace of mind of the parents with whom you may interact. In the 2011 survey, two-thirds of all camp respondents said they did NOT allow campers to use any personal electronic devices at any time at camp (e.g., cell phones, hand-held games). Camp directors, however, did indicate that the camp used social media outlets such as Facebook (87 percent), Twitter (39 percent), and YouTube (46 percent) for communication and marketing purposes. E-mail exchanges between campers and parents as well as Web sites with photos were allowed in almost three-quarters of the camps. Each camp may have slightly different policies regarding the use of technology and social media (even after you leave camp), so you must be aware of what they are —not only for your own convenience and protection — but also so you can aid in the communication that parents expect.
Camper Expectations and Behaviors
Questions about what campers could expect around procedures and specific behavior issues were frequently asked by parents. Concerns were expressed about how campers were placed in units/cabins and whether or not a child could be with a specific friend. The return rate of campers was inquired as well as what might be the other characteristics of campers. Although not a new issue, how homesickness was handled was also the concern of several parents, as was the discipline policy of staff.
Several parents again raised questions on how bullying was handled in the camp. As noted previously, staff should receive training regarding bullying. In addition, four out of fi ve camps had written policies regarding bullying and two-thirds indicated that they communicated those policies to parents. As camp staff, you must be completely familiar with not only the policies but your role in confronting and managing any type of bullying that might occur in camp.
Camp Program Logistics
Some parents just want to know more about the logistics of camp such as: What activities are offered? How much time do campers spend outside? Related to this category of logistics were questions that we termed as other, including transportation, weather, costs, and registration.
Many of these questions are asked prior to coming to camp and a camp counselor may not have to address them. However, you should be aware that these questions are examples of the concerns parents have to assure that their son or daughter is getting a quality experience.
Specific Suggestions for Camp Counselors
Understanding something about the nature of parent questions can enable a staff member to do a better job of interacting with parents when and if that occurs. A common time when counselors may interact with parents is when they drop off their children at camp. They may have last minute or confirmatory questions at that time. Counselors must be responsive to parents’ last minute questions to assist in easing their concerns, and to be sure parents are aware of policies and logistics. Specifically, camp counselors may want to consider several issues in any interaction with parents:
- Communicate confidently and professionally with parents when they drop off their children at camp. You may be able to lessen concern about your skills and qualifications if you shake parents’ hands and look them in the eye while conversing. Parents must feel that you are able to be in loco parentis.
- Know your camp’s medication policy, how to work with the camp nurse, and which of your campers require prescription medication. You will want to refer parents to the camp nurse for questions you cannot answer. Although the camp nurse may be the primary health care provider, you need to know what issues might exist among your campers and transmit that caring attitude to parents.
- Know and understand the reason behind your camp’s communication and technology policies for campers. Knowing your camp’s communication and technology policies will help you reinforce the policies and rationalize them to parents if needed. You must understand the reasons behind the camp policies and enforce them whether or not you agree with them.
- Be familiar with how your camp determines cabin and activity groupings. Knowing how your supervisor creates groupings can help you explain cabin and activity assignments to parents.
- Know and enforce your camps’ homesickness and bullying policies. Both homesickness and bullying can be serious issues at camp and you should know as much as possible about how to address both issues. Remember that you can always contact your camp supervisor or the health care director if you have any questions or concerns.
- Know the daily schedule and how it is determined. You then can tell parents what both they and their children can expect.
- Direct parents to your camp director (or other designated staff member) and follow up with questions you cannot answer. As a camp counselor, you may not be able to anticipate and answer all the questions parents might ask you. The important aspect is to be responsive and honest. Parents must be assured that you always have the best interests of their children at heart.
Being a camp staff member can be tons of fun, but it is also a huge responsibility. Putting yourself in parents’ shoes and being able to anticipate their concerns will ease their minds and likely make the whole summer more positive for you and your campers.
Howe, N. (2010). A new parent generation: Meet Mr. and Mrs. X. Education Digest, 75(9), 4-12.
Karla A. Henderson, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University. She currently serves as the chair of ACA’s Committee to Advance Research and Evaluation (CARE). She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Kelly McFadden is a graduate student at North Carolina State University. She is interested in outdoor leadership and has served as a staff member for North Carolina Outward Bound Schools.
M. Deborah Bialeschki, PhD, is director of research for the American Camp Association. She can be contacted at dbialeschki@ACAcamps.org.
Originally published in the 2012 May/June Camping Magazine.