In the Trenches: Camp in the Shadow of September 11

by Bob Ditter


Concerned Camp Director

Dear Bob,
With all that has changed as a result of the events of September 11, 2001, I am wondering what specific impact you think this might have on camp. Do you have any tips or suggestions for camp directors as to what we should be doing to respond?
Concerned Camp Director

Dear Concerned,

What affect September 11 will have come May or June depends, in part, on what else does or doesn't happen between now and then. By that I mean both whether or not other terrorist attacks occur as well as how the economy fares. Because of the lag time between writing and publishing, my greatest concern was that we get through the holidays - Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years, and the heavy travel associated with them - without further incident or greater damage to the economy. With this caveat in mind, let me share what I see as some of the areas that camp professionals will need to look at and some steps you might take.

In times of such great uncertainty, people often experience their anxiety in a general rather than in a specific way. In other words, it is not that most people actually expect to get anthrax or expect that the camp mail might become contaminated - or that some group of terrorists might scheme to kidnap a group of unsuspecting campers on their way to a tennis tournament or baseball game. It is more that people feel their nervousness where they are most vulnerable. For many parents, that vulnerability is the feeling of not always being able to protect their children. As a result, parents may barrage you with a ton of questions about things like - Do you have a fence around the perimeter of camp? Do you have a security guard (and is he/she trustworthy)? Or, will you have Ciprol in the infirmary? If you find yourself confronted with this level of interrogation, it would be more productive to note their concern and invite them to speak about it. Slowing the conversation down and allowing parents the opportunity to verbalize their anxiety can avoid a lot of awkwardness and offer relief to any unspoken sense of powerlessness. Moving the conversation in this direction will be more fruitful for both parties.

By now every camp should have sent out a letter to every camp family that is enrolled or thinking about enrolling. This letter should acknowledge the understandable concern parents may have and should list all of the things you probably already do and have always done in regard to security. Before September 11, this kind of letter would have put people to sleep. Now it will be pinned to the refrigerator door!

Camp directors are also going to have to think about even more ways to reassure parents about their child's well-being during the camp season. I have been saying for years that the old "give-us-your-child-and get-out-of-our-way" attitude doesn't cut it anymore - and that camp professionals need to partner with parents in order to provide a more successful experience for the child. This will be even truer this summer. Again, it is not that parents have a rational concern that their children are actually in danger. It is just that in times when we perceive that our survival and civilization are being attacked (and they are!), people naturally want to be close to the ones they love. For the same reason, I wanted to be home after the attacks on September 11 - not because I was afraid of flying - but because I wanted to be near my family.

I would suggest that if you don't already have a daily Web site photo gallery (whether you are a day or resident camp) that you seriously consider developing one. Except for being with the child in person, there is nothing more reassuring to a parent than seeing a photo of their son or daughter happily swept up in pursuits of camp. For resident camps, I would also investigate one-way e-mail, both as a way of cutting down on your incoming USPS mail (simultaneously making a gesture toward the notion of reducing any risk associated with the mail) and allowing parents the convenience of sending a note whenever they have a moment. There are Internet services that can help you set this up so that the e-mails all get delivered during down time (the middle of the night) and get printed and sorted by cabin, etc. Camps with these services have found that parents log on in great numbers (from work as well as at home) and find them extremely valuable. These and other methods of increasing contact with parents while preserving the integrity of your camp program should be explored.

Extending this further, families can be expected to take fewer overseas vacations (possibly good news for camp enrollments), but more "here-in-the-States" driving vacations (possibly bad news for camps with 7- or 8-week sessions). Furthermore, lower income folks who send their children to camp will continue to do so, as will upper income folks. Families with new (dot-com) money or those in the service-related industries may feel the economic pinch and may not be able to afford camp in 2002 as they did in 2001. Parents who fly their children to camps over some distance may be reluctant to do so this summer. Likewise, many parents may be less than comfortable with their teens in travel programs and may look to more traditional camp programs, both day and resident.

This is just a partial summary of how recent events might impact camp. You can find a more in-depth review and the answers to a score more questions in BunkChat, my new newsletter at

Hesitant Camper

Dear Bob,
Every spring when we start to enroll campers I have at least a half dozen moms tell me their campers do not want to return to camp. The interesting thing is that these campers loved camp the summer before . . . and now for some mysterious reason they do not want to return. Both the moms and I are confused. Do you have any advice I can give them? Should I sign them up and just hope they like it again? Thanks for your thoughts on this.
Sarah Horner
Tom Sawyer Camps
Altadena, CA

Dear Sarah,

Many kids have second-year hesitations when it comes to camp. I hear about this from both resident and day camps alike, all around the country. You might share this with your parents, as it might help them worry less that their child is exhibiting something highly unusual or "abnormal." (Remember that it is almost always a relief to parents to know that their child's behavior is within the range of what is considered "normal.")

There are several explanations for this display of sudden hesitation. Some children worry that the coming year won't be as good as their first year, while others are just having a little bout of the ambivalent blues. (You know, "I love it; I hate it.") The most probable explanation comes from understanding that children, especially younger children, are very much "creatures of the immediate moment." When they are at home, contemplating another separation from Mom and Dad and the safe surroundings of the familiar, they can't, in that moment, imagine leaving and being at camp. Once there, caught up in the fun and friendship of the camp experience, they can't remember, in that moment, a time when they ever didn't want to be here. This phenomenon is observed every day by pre-school and kindergarten teachers who must reassure nervous parents that, indeed, while their child is screaming bloody murder right now, literally two minutes after the parent leaves, that same child will act as if there never really was a big deal about being left at school!

I would suggest that the parents use what I call the "feel, felt, found" approach. Have them tell their children it is normal to feel the way they do; lots of kids have felt that way and have had second thoughts and worry it won't be as fun as last year; but what we have found is that once kids get there and start doing all the fun things, they love it all over again! See how that works. It usually does.

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 2002 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.