In the Trenches
by Bob Ditter
A counselor takes a nap in her cabin during her time off.
She leaves her cell phone on the cubby next to her (cell phones are not
permitted in camp). While the counselor is sleeping, a camper comes into
the cabin, spies the phone, and takes it into the bathroom to call home.
Another camper comes in to use the loo, hears her friend talking, and
asks what's going on. The first camper tells her about the cell
phone and allows her to use it as well.
The on-duty counselor realizes
that the two bathroom users have been gone an inordinate length of time,
so she goes to investigate. She finds them together in a stall on the
phone. Needless to say, they hang up!
My question to you, Bob, is who
gets the consequences—the off-duty counselor; girl A, girl B, or
both girls; or all three?
Wish I could see your smile!!!
— Carole Segal
at Lower Girls Camp, Lokanda Glen Spey, New York
for your e-mail. The only thing that would make this situation even more
2007- like would be if the counselor herself, realizing she'd messed
up, had sent me a text to ask, "Ok, Bob, I've messed up.
What should I do?! "
In all seriousness, let me give you my answer
today, which may be different than my answer a year from now.
your counselor made the original blunder and broke a camp rule—a
rule I assume the campers know about—she needs to apologize to
all her campers for breaking the rule. Later, with you present, she also
needs to privately apologize specifically to the two girls. After all,
had she kept her cell phone where it should have been, they wouldn't
have gotten into trouble.
As far as consequences for the counselor, this
infraction is not a "show stopper"— meaning, it doesn't
merit her being fired for it. Other camp professionals may disagree,
but in my opinion the camp can't realistically take her phone away
from her for private use for the entire summer. Maybe she gets an extra
OD or two or gives up one of her nights off or performs some other appropriate
service for the camp.
Let's now turn our attention to the campers.
The girls each need to take responsibility for her part in this little
play and have some consequences of her own. They should apologize in
writing to the counselor for taking her phone even if the counselor shouldn't
have had it out. (Having the girls write out their apology takes more
effort and sinks in a bit more). As the campers' parents were probably
delighted to hear from them, having the girls tell their parents what
they did is of no consequence at all, so the two campers may have to
"earn back" some trust by performing some extra task around the cabin—maybe
taking a special lead in clean-up for a day or two.
The reason I say
my answer may be different in the future is that cell phones are becoming
so much an expected and usual part of life that camp professionals may
simply be fighting a losing battle on this issue. At this point, however,
I still stand by what I've written before as a message to parents,
which is as follows:
The fundamental issue with parents giving campers
cell phones to take to camp is trust. When children come to camp they—and
you as their parents—are making a leap of faith, temporarily
transferring their primary care from you 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 child develops greater resilience and
selfreliance. 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 their being away from you and in our care.
It may even cause some children to worry that they can never solve
their own problems without always involving their parents.
Unfortunately, many parents today, so keen on
their children having immediate access to them, simply say, "If
they need me, I want them to call me!"
Is it our imagination
or are parents getting even more difficult to work with these days? This
summer when we called parents to tell them of some misbehavior at camp,
we often got responses that ranged from, "Why are you telling us
this? It's not our problem!" to "Something or someone
must be upsetting our child, because we've never heard of her doing
anything like this!" I know this is a big question, but will it
ever get better?
— Concerned in California
I received more calls from camp professionals that had to do with parent
anxiety and worry than ever before. A friend and colleague of mine, Jodi
Rudnick, who helps organizations tailor their marketing messages to specific
generations, points out that most of today's parents were the "latchkey
kids" of the 1970s. These were children who came home after school
to an empty house because both parents were out working and the network
of the extended family had long since moved to the Sun Belt. Jodi's
contention is that latchkey parents want to make sure their children
have a firm connection to them—almost as a way of compensating
for their own experience.
Whether true or not, it is clear parents are
more "attached" to their children and, when it comes to camp,
want to be kept informed of their child's behavior and performance
to a degree not heard of ten years ago. Given all that parents hear on
the news about trusted adults abusing children or of bullying and other
issues of personal safety, it's no wonder some of their concerns
border on the irrational.
So what to do? There isn't enough space
here to do this topic justice, but I have several suggestions, as follows:
- Make it a policy, stated in all of your materials to parents,
just how much contact you intend to have with parents while their children
are at camp. This should include when you will and will not call parents
regarding visits to the health center and when you will and will not
call parents about discipline or adjustment problems.
- Try having
your trusted senior staff make pre-emptive calls that are positive.
("Just wanted to call to let you know how great David's been doing!
He's trying out for the camp play, has made two new friends and…")
- Tell parents that if there is an adjustment or discipline problem
at camp, you may well call just to let them know what's going on
and perhaps to get ideas from them about how they may have handled
situations like this in the past. Good language to use here would be,
"After all, Mr. or Mrs. Camper Parent, you certainly know your child
best! We'd like to put our heads together with you and see if we can
come up with some better ideas working together than we could working
- When you call parents, tell them at the beginning
of the conversation just what you want from them, even if it is only
to listen and be informed. It is also important to tell the truth,
no matter how uncomfortable it may make you or them. The worst thing
is for parents to find out after the fact that you withheld something
- When you are conveying misbehavior, state it as a concern
rather than a problem or worry. Try to put the behavior in context.
("We find that many children try out a new "role" when they are with
a new group of people, so we aren't surprised that you've never heard
of this behavior in your child before. Let's see what we can do about
- With parents you know better, when describing unacceptable
behavior, you may be able to say, "I know this isn't how
you raised her, so I know you'll be surprised and concerned about
what I have to say."
The more you can reach out to parents, including
creating a small "parent council" to share ideas with and
adding a specific link to your Web site for parent information or parenting
tips, the better your overall relationship with parents will be. Two
truths emerge from what I've heard about camp parents this summer:
1) communicating effectively with parents takes more time and work than
ever before; and 2) no matter how hard you try, there will always be
those parents who will be unreasonable and irrational.
As a camper parent
in Chicago told me last year, "We as parents in the community know
who the kooky parents are. They've probably been that way since
their child first entered school, and they're going to be that
way with you as a camp, too! When you as a camp professional take a reasonable
stand with such parents, the rest of us are quietly cheering you on!"
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 November/December
issue of Camping Magazine.