Cell Phone Deception—and Other Tales From the Summer

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

Dear Bob,
Our coed resident camp is in a fairly remote area, but last year's "progress" found us, and we now have cell service in camp. Even before this blessing, we discovered campers had been smuggling cell phones into camp to use on trips out of camp. (We have a clearly stated "no-cell-phones-in-camp" policy.) How amazing that our resourceful campers have already determined just which places in camp have the best signals for each service company!

So for the past three years we have what we call "cell phone amnesty day"—a moment at the beginning of the session where we ask campers to give up their contraband phones in keeping with camp policy. Here's the new twist. Last summer one parent gave her daughter two phones: a decoy, which the mother instructed her daughter to turn in when asked; and a true working model which she was instructed to "tuck away" and use to call home. A suspecting division leader noticed the decoy was an old, non-working phone, and with further investigation, uncovered the deception. We feel our response should be to the parent, but we'd like to know what your thoughts are and what it is you would say.

— Thought We'd Seen It All, Pennsylvania

Dear Seen It All,
I actually encountered this same cell phone trick while visiting two other camps last summer. Obviously, it is disturbing when parents instruct their children to disregard camp rules. Unfortunately, the need for this kind of "parent education" is not new. One day in the summer of 1974, while working as a counselor at a former boys' resident sailing camp on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I ran into something similar. At the time the camp had a "no-candy-or-gum-in-camp" policy. In addition, when a camper received a package, he went with one of his counselors to the office during rest hour, where he had to open it in front of that counselor for inspection. On this fateful day, I had gone with one of my eleven-year-old aspiring pirates to retrieve a package his father had sent him. The boy removed the packing to reveal a smart, new soccer ball. A very heavy smart, new soccer ball! The boy's eyes lit up and off he ran! It turns out his father had previously alerted him that such a wondrous package might arrive. The father had very carefully removed one of the panels of the soccer ball, filled the orb with all sorts of candy, and sewn the panel back in place. A clever deception!

The father viewed his action as an innocent little "camp prank." I gave him an A+ for creativity, then explained to him the camp's counterpoint of view and promptly apprehended the contraband goods. (The candy was at least a better thought than the fireworks another dad had hidden in his son's trunk to be set off while at camp on the Fourth of July!) The good news is that, upsetting as these deceptions are, they are still practiced by only a minority of parents. In my experience, most parents play by the rules and are upset when other parents don't. The bad news is that it can be an exasperating minority!

The central issue in the cell phone deception you describe is trust. What this parent is actually doing, perhaps without realizing it, is suggesting to her daughter that she cannot trust the camp staff and that only she, her mother, can be counted on to "be there" for her. Obviously, if a camper has a problem at camp and calls her parents rather than coming to you or your staff, your ability to intervene effectively is dramatically reduced. What this parent is saying to her daughter, wittingly or not, is, "When there's a problem, trust me, not camp!" What she is saying to you, in effect, is, "I don't trust you to handle situations that might arise with my child." I would ask the parent if this is what she really believes, because if it is, she hasn't truly been able to entrust her child to your care! Maybe she needs to re-think if she is ready for her daughter to be at camp! And if she doesn't trust you, why would she think her daughter would?

One caution: take care not to "make the parent wrong" with her daughter. What I would say to the camper is simply, "Well, we know you're mother gave you this phone and told you what she did because she loves you. You and I both know it is breaking a camp rule. Besides, there are plenty of other ways your mother can stay in touch with you. What concerns me even more is that, if you were to have a problem and you told your mother about it and not us, we wouldn't really be able to help." Then reassure her that you will straighten it out with her mother.

Obviously the real communication is with the mother. Her daughter is simply being dutiful and doing what mother has asked her to do. In the case of the other camps where I heard about this, one mother denied it while the other mother meekly laughed it off. (They also did not object when the camp confiscated the phone and held it until the end of the session.) Remember that as crazy as we may think some parents are, many parents are simply frightened by all they hear about kidnapping and child abuse and so on. I wouldn't be heavy handed or angry in my response—just clear about setting a limit! Who knows, maybe asking what the mother had been thinking when she gave her daughter the phone will allow her to share a concern she hasn't previously voiced. If so, you'd be strengthening the trust between you and her and turning this episode into an opportunity for greater understanding. If you sound angry or disapproving, you may miss an opportunity for greater openness. You can just as firmly and convincingly set your limit and enforce your camp policy if you approach this with care and an air of openness.

A Precamp Communication With Parents

With speed-of-light advances in technology and the Internet come fresh challenges for camp professionals of which cell phones are only one example. Other issues include things like cyber-bullying and post-camp contact between campers and staff via texting, cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging, or social-networking sites. As a way of helping camp professionals educate parents about not only camp rules, but also a broader range of ways to help insure their children's online safety, I have written a comprehensive "letter-to-parents" that addresses these issues. The following is an excerpt:

Dear Parents,
We have always taken the safety and well-being of our campers—your children—very seriously. After all, giving your children over to the care of other people is perhaps the greatest act of trust you as a parent can engage in. We aim to do everything we humanly can to earn and keep that trust. We also know we cannot do this without your help. We are writing to invoke the partnership we feel we have with you to help us make sure your children continue to have the safest, most wholesome experience with us possible.

Given certain developments in our culture, including the increased use of the Internet, cell phones, and text messaging, we appeal to you as parents—our partners—to help us maintain as safe an environment for your children at camp as we can. Please read our letter carefully so you may understand the challenges facing us regarding the continued safety and health of our camp community. Then, take time to review and then read to your child the enclosed policies regarding the Internet, social networking sites, and exchanging contact information with their counselors. As always we urge you to call us if you have any questions, concerns, or ideas about any of these issues.

I then go on to explain cell phone policy as follows:

As you know we have a "no-cell phone" policy at camp. Aside from the fact that cell phones are expensive and can get lost or stolen and that the physical camp environment is not kind to such items, there is a fundamental problem with campers having cell phones at camp, and that is trust. When children come to camp they—and you—are making a leap of faith, transferring their
primary care from you as their parents to us and their counselors. This is one of the growth-producing, yet challenging aspects
of camp. As children learn to trust other caring adults, they grow and learn, little by little, to solve some of their own challenges. We believe this emerging independence is one of the greatest benefits of camp. It is one important way your children learn to become resilient. Contacting you by phone essentially means they have not made this transition. It prevents us from getting to problems that may arise and addressing them quickly. Sending a cell phone to camp is like saying to your child that you as the parent haven't truly come to peace with the notion of them being in our care.

We agree to tell you if your child is experiencing a challenge in their adjustment to camp. You can help by talking with your child before they leave for camp and telling them that there is always someone they can reach out to, whether it is their counselor, a trusted activity leader, the head counselor, or even the director or camp health care provider. We are all here to help, but if you don't trust us, they certainly won't.

My recent experience with many children in the United States is that they are not resilient. They are smart, clever, verbal, and often believe they can do just about anything they put their minds to. And they often have poor coping skills. The cell phone umbilical cord is just one way parents unintentionally undermine the development of resilience in their children. Camp offers a tremendous opportunity for children to practice coping skills they will need for what is sure to be a challenging future. How well we communicate this opportunity to parents is crucial for them, their children, and the future of camp. For a complete, electronic copy of my letter to parents, e-mail me at bobditter1@aol.com.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for Bunk1.com and can be reached via e-mail at BobDitter1@aol.com or by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2007 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

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