In the Trenches: Sensitive Issues

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

DEAR BOB,

I am a director at a Christian camp in California. This summer one of my counselors
was challenged with a cabin of ten thirteen-year-old boys who were very interested
in talking about and asking questions about sex and girls - not unusual for
boys this age, obviously. As you know, however, my camp is a Christian organization,
and we generally do not consider sex and sexuality the kind of discussion
that our staff would bring up to the campers. I also know enough about thirteen-year-old
boys to know that they will invariably bring the topic up with a counselor.

I have several staff and parents who disagree about what a counselor
should do in this situation. Some think he should never discuss it or
just answer it in very simple terms and move on. One parent thinks if
his child asks a question in front of a group, the counselor should answer
it in front of the other campers. Another parent thinks we should change
the subject and avoid the topic altogether. What are your thoughts?

One last thing is that some of the boys started to get a bit out of
hand and tried to shock the counselor by asking explicit, graphic sexual
questions.

Thanks in advance for your consideration of this delicate and puzzling
issue.

D. M.

Challenged in California

DEAR CHALLENGED,

Your question is as perplexing to directors of non-Christian or secular
camps as it is to you. I have heard from many camp directors about issues
pertaining to sexual curiosity and camper sexual behavior this summer.
Your question is tough to answer in a general way because how one responds
to talk about sex depends on many variables. However, it only seems fair
to try to come up with some guidelines for counselors who are, after
all, faced with camper situations like these "in the trenches" on a daily
basis.

Guideline 1: Staff do not initiate discussions
of sexuality.

Campers are certainly stimulated enough by elements in our society without
having counselors add to it. This is another way of saying, "If it's
not an issue, don't make it one!" As you said in your letter, sex is
not a topic counselors should bring up.

Guideline 2: Preempt talk about sex with
talk about relationships.

One of the most basic tenets of behavior management is that children
have an easier time refraining from unwanted behavior if we give them
something else to do in its place. Teens and preteens, for example, are
almost as curious about relationships as they are about sex. Counselors
could easily have informal group discussions to talk about the qualities
of healthy relationships. Doing so would help set expectations about
what is appropriate to talk about publicly at camp by modeling it. The
following issues are usually compelling ones for teens:

  • how you can tell if a girl/boy likes you;
  • what it means to respect the person you care about;
  • having your own likes and dislikes separate from the one you care
    about;
  • caring about someone does not mean being joined at the hip;
  • a true loving relationship enhances the rest of your life and does
    not take you away from other people, your own interests, or aspects
    of your life;
  • sex and love and love and affection are not synonymous; and
  • seeing the person you care about for who they are and not who you
    need them to be.

I am certain that once such age-appropriate group discussions were started
that other relevant topics would surface. If, in the course of such a
discussion, some campers became provocative, and with some teens this
is always a possibility when talking about heterosexual relationships,
counselors would use guideline #4 below to handle it.

Guideline 3: Determine whether campers
are being sincere or provocative.

How counselors respond to campers when it comes to talk about sex will
largely be determined by this test. If, as you state in your letter,
campers are trying to "shock the counselor" or are getting over-stimulated
(e.g., silly or provocative), it is important to stop the discussion
immediately. The first line of defense is to say, as calmly as possible, "You
know that kind of talk is not okay here at camp." I stress the word "calmly" here
because the more irate or defensive a counselor gets, the more satisfying
it is to the camper provoking him (or her) and the more the camper will
persist. If a camper says, as some have, that they talk this way all
the time with their friends, the response should be, "What you talk about
with your friends in private is your business, but here at camp it's
not okay." If campers still cannot control their own behavior, the second
step is to remove them from their audience or their audience from them.
If they are still being provocative, arrange for them to call their parent
(or, worse, their grandparent) and have them say over the phone what
it was they were doing or saying. This technique has a deeply sobering
effect on most campers. Obviously, such a call must be arranged with
the knowledge and direction of the director.

Guideline 4: Provocative or graphic sex
talk is simply unacceptable.

Allowing campers to continue being provocative or suggestive is not
good for anyone involved. The quieter, less assertive campers become
embarrassed, uncomfortable, and feel unsafe in the presence of such behavior,
while the more provocative campers become increasingly unmanageable.
It is also important for counselors to be made aware of the fact that
persistent, provocative sexualized talk on the part of a particular camper
may be a call for help. Children who have been a witness to or victim
of inappropriate sexual behavior often signal their distress by being
provocative. Likewise, children who are in danger of acting out sexually
may signal their need for help by dropping hints through explicit sexual
conversation. In either case, if counselors have any concerns about a
camper, they should discuss them with a director who is in a better position
to affect a helpful intervention.

Guideline 5: Counselors should not share
their own experience when it comes to sex.

One of the most common problems at camp is related to its very success.
When counselors live in close quarters with campers and a trusting environment
is created, there is a risk that the boundary between counselors and
campers may become blurred. One way the boundary is blurred is when counselors
share details of their own private romantic exploits with campers. There
have been times at camp when campers have actually waited up for their
counselor to come back from a day or night off out of their sheer curiosity.
Again, staff need to be alerted and then supported throughout the summer
regarding this understandable, yet unacceptable danger.

In some ways, camp may be the perfect place for children to get their
information about relationships, of which sex is "the icing on the cake." Unfortunately,
as Lynn Ponton points out in her book, The Sex Lives of Teenagers (Penguin
Books, 2000), we are of two minds about sex in this country - on the
one hand, it pervades our society; on the other hand, we sometimes pretend
it's not there. Neither approach is helpful to children. At least at
camp, they figure they might get to talk about it in a sensitive, respectful,
non-prurient way.

DEAR BOB,

I would like your opinion on the subject of male campers sitting on the laps
of female counselors, and female campers sitting on the laps of male counselors.
Should this be forbidden? Is it developmentally dangerous? I welcome your
guidance.

O.D.

DEAR O.D.,

First of all, let's talk about counselors of either gender having campers
of either gender sit on their laps, since the potential for this to be
over-stimulating or inappropriate is equal no matter which combination
we are talking about. On the one hand, such behavior is the natural outcome
of children feeling safe and comfortable with young adults they trust.
On the other hand, I would, for the sake of maintaining that safety,
have strict guidelines around lap sitting. First, it should always occur
in the company of other adults. Second, the age of the camper is significant.
Girls or boys under the age of nine sitting on the lap of a counselor
of the opposite sex is acceptable. Girls or boys under the age of eleven
sitting on the lap of a counselor of the same sex is acceptable. Third,
except for certain special situations that are deliberately discussed
with and decided on by a supervisor, I would discourage counselors from
allowing campers who are not in their primary care (those from other
cabins, bunks, or groups) to sit on their laps. There is more danger
that lap-sitting can become over-stimulating than there is any developmental
danger, like extending or encouraging dependency in a child instead of
encouraging independence. Hope this helps!

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 InTheTrenches@bunk1.com or
by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American
Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2002 November/December
issue of Camping Magazine.

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