In the Trenches: Clarifying the Rules in Your House

by Bob Ditter


Dear Bob,
At our coed day camp this summer, we had a six-year-old female camper whose parents insisted that she be allowed to swim in our camp pool without wearing a top. Their position was that there is nothing for her to hide at her age and — since six-year-old boys routinely swim without wearing a top — by asking her to wear one we were enforcing a policy that was unfair to her simply because she is a girl. These are parents who are very concerned about any practice or attitude that might imply that boys are in some way superior to girls, thereby raising the possibility that she might develop a feeling of being inferior simply because she is female. While we are also very concerned about treating boys and girls the same, we are not ready to allow little girls to swim topless. The parents said they would feel obliged to pull their child from our camp if we made her wear a bathing suit top. What are your thoughts, Bob? We were clear about maintaining our policy, but not sure how to respond to these parents.

— Perplexed at the Pool

Dear Perplexed,
I can certainly empathize with the concern of parents who want to raise their daughters to feel as valued and to have the same rights and privileges as boys. The parents you refer to have great intentions. I wonder about their proposed solution.

While boys and girls should be treated with equal fairness and should have the same privileges, responsibilities, opportunities and restraints, they are not anatomically or emotionally the same. Acting as if they are does a disservice to each gender. How stimulating or discomforting would it be for other children — boys or girls — to have prepubescent girls swimming topless? At what age does the policy change? What about girls who develop at different ages? For example, if a girl at age eleven has not developed breasts, should she be allowed to swim topless?

However, interesting as this question may be, it is not the one you asked me. You did not ask me about the merits of allowing younger girls to swim as their boy counterparts do. If I were to say that I think younger girls could swim topless, or that we routinely see two- and three-year olds swimming that way, so why not five- and six-year olds? — that is not the issue. However, it’s not my camp, it’s yours — and you’ve decided to stick to your policy. Given that, the question you asked is, "What do I say to these parents?"

What you simply say is — kids are well aware that different households have different rules or tolerances. Kids know that when you go visit a friend, you abide by the rules and tolerances of that household. If you don’t, you may be asked to leave and/or you may not be invited back. If you disagree with the values or rules in your friend’s house, then maybe your friend comes to your house instead. For example, in some households watching certain television shows or playing with certain interactive games are okay; while in others it is not. In some households there is a high level of supervision; while in others there is not. In some households there is a high tolerance for noise; in others, not.

Your camp is your "household." In it, you make and maintain rules for the good of everyone there. While you may agree with an individual parent’s opinion or perspective on a particular issue, you must maintain an environment that is comfortable for or fair to everyone. When children come to your "house," they are expected to abide by the policies and rules and procedures that you have established. If they disagree, they don’t have to come.

On the issue of allowing girls to swim topless, many parents allow girls to do so up to a certain age. Roughly speaking, somewhere around age three or four, society in general seems to expect that practice to change. Indeed, there are camps where children and even entire families can go and be nude — camps where such nudity is not considered sexual or provocative or over-stimulating. From what you say, your camp is not one of them.

If other camp professionals, especially female leaders of all-girls’ camps, have an opinion about allowing younger girls to swim topless, I would like to hear your opinions.

Dear Bob,
This summer we had an incident where some of our seventh grade boys had possession of some Playboy-type magazines, which they were caught reading during rest hour. When confronted, the three boys we caught claimed the magazines were not theirs, but were being "leased" for a fee from some older boys. After a long and bumpy process, we finally determined the owner of the magazines, who eventually admitted to running his "business" throughout the upper boys’ camp. We confiscated the magazines from the boys who had them and made them call their parents, which seemed like a fitting and satisfactory response. For the boy who ran the "business," however, we felt something a little stronger was in order, since he not only brought the contraband into camp, but was exploiting others — neither of which fit the values of our camp. We therefore decided to have him go home for three days (he lives about three hours from camp).

His parents were outraged that we would send him home and actually refused to come pick him up! They told us that they had checked in with other parents who all agreed that our consequence for their son was too harsh. What do you think?

— Pickled by Parents

Dear Pickled,
I would ask the parents of this boy whether, when they decide on a consequence for their son when he is at home, they poll the neighborhood and put their decisions as parents to a vote! As long as you are clear beforehand that certain items are not to be brought to camp and as long as you have internally thought things through, then it is important for you to maintain what you have decided is fair. This can be a tough stance to take, especially if parents threaten to withdraw their business or try to drag other parents into their situation. However, I know that many other parents will be relieved that you are keeping standards they can count on. One of the reasons parents send their children to camp — aside from the friendships and social and emotional growth their children experience — is to have them in an environment where there are standards and where there is supervision — in many cases, a level of supervision that exceeds what they know they themselves can provide at home. Be pleasant, but be firm. If you don’t keep the rules in your "house," then how do you expect your staff or campers to respect those same rules?

To Directors: This summer, while visiting camps across the United States, I heard about many instances where gambling, specifically poker playing among adolescent boys, was not only prevalent, but in some cases presented a challenge. Given the popularity of poker and the high profile it is currently receiving, I would like to hear from you if poker playing among campers was prevalent at your camp to a greater degree than in past years, and whether any challenges or problems arose as a result, such as large sums of money being wagered or fights breaking out, etc. You may e-mail your thoughts to Thanks in advance for sharing. I will write about poker playing at camp in a future "In the Trenches" column.

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

Originally published in the 2004 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.