An international staff member had obviously seen the film The Village before beginning his first camp experience in the United States. He told his group of ten-year-old boys a saga of a creature that lived in the woods surrounding the camp. This story was replete with ample blood and gore. To punctuate the story, he even bribed two staff members to lurk in the forest outside his unit and pretend to be the monster in question. These counselors did an outstanding job in utterly terrifying the children.
Of course in this case the camp director could be partially excused because he had never met the counselor in question prior to his arrival at camp. The director had based his hiring decision on the international staffing agency application as well as brief communication with the applicant via e-mail. Counselors often undergo multiple interviews, background clearances, and reference checks. How could staff members behave so cruelly?
The mistreatment of campers is not a new phenomenon. Common examples include bullying, verbal harassment, mean-spirited pranks, and frightening children. However, it often takes a back seat to child-on-child aggression. For example, the May/June 2004 edition of Camping Magazine ran an article on youth bullying. Rarely though do you encounter needed information on adult bullying. Camp directors are inundated with valuable information on child molestation by staff members but rarely have such input in regards to adult bullying, a likely more common experience than outright sexual molestation.
Logically such behaviors are often expected from individuals that are particularly immature or even sociopathic (or to the use a more appropriate clinical term “psychopathic”). Logic also dictates that if we hired only mature staff and screened out those individuals at risk of harm to others, problem behaviors could easily be defeated. The research literature clearly shows challenges in predicting who will be a perpetrator of antisocial behavior. As one example, Forensic Evaluation of Juveniles (Grisso 1998), a text written for the juvenile justice field, directs clinicians to evaluate all these factors in determining an individual’s risk for violent behaviors: chronicity, recency, severity and frequency of past violent behaviors, substance use, peers, history of family conflict, neglect, abuse, history of family legal involvement, personality traits, and mental disorders. How many employment interviews are capable of coming close to such a thorough evaluation of potentially problematic individuals? Most employers are unable to attain a detailed history from each person who interviews for a position, especially since staffers know better than to present such details. We may only learn about the caliber of our staff members after problems arise.
Positive Versus Negative Culture
There is good news however. Even those individuals with antisocial characteristics can, in many cases, be contained if the camp’s overall culture is unaccepting of negative behaviors. The flip side of this though is that staff members may be negatively influenced if the culture is tolerant of such activity. In short, bullying and outright aggressive behaviors could occur if there is a culture that is accepting of such activity. In terms of camps, the general culture of the camp will determine the amount of bullying and mistreatment that occurs.
Origins of Aggression
To begin creating a positive camp culture, we must first acknowledge that every person alive is capable of aggressive behavior. This includes campers, staff members, our administrative coworkers, and, yes, ourselves. One of the longstanding dogmas centering on human existence is that humans are basically born as “blank slates.” In other words, our minds are completely malleable to experience in our early childhood years. Thus, the argument goes, a child born in a loving, supportive, and overall positive family will grow up to become a positive, loving, and overall good person. In essence, we can mold children into model citizens that do not partake of aggressive acts. The reality of science paints a starkly different picture. Infants instead, come equipped with numerous inborn characteristics that negate the idea of a blank slate. Some of these characteristics include temperament (consult any parent of more than one child and he or she will tell you that children almost leave the womb with their own temperaments), protective instincts, sensory abilities, and the ability to experience and exhibit emotions.
Psychology, biology, neuroscience, and sociology have all agreed that humans are born with a specific set of emotional “hardware.” And aggressiveness is part of our “hardware.” Indeed, aggressive ability is passed on through our very genes. If our ancestors had not been able to exhibit aggression, they most likely would have failed in competition for scarce resources. Thus the current human population has evolved from a gene pool that, on occasion, placed much value on the use of aggression.
In sum, aggression is seen in inhabitants of every part of the world. Due to effects of culture, family upbringing, biological differences, and triggering circumstances, individuals may differ in how quickly they respond to a particular trigger with aggression, but all individuals have the potential to exhibit aggression.
The Camp Environment: A Powerful Influence
This article has already referred to the concept of culture. Let’s be clear about what this means. The camp environment is not simply a passive background for events that occur during a camp season. It has a powerful and continuous influence on camp life. Consider the plight of a camp director who had to endure a new housing development adjoining the boundaries of her camp. The once-private enclave surrounded by acres of wooded area was soon surrounded by family homes. Suddenly the director was besieged with complaints about noise from the camp during the height of the season. “Intruders” from the development constantly entered the camp grounds. The night sky was no longer visible thanks to the bright lights of the planned community. The sounds of radio and television filled the night where once there had been silence and an occasional animal cry.
In this example, the housing development clearly brought unpleasant changes to the physical camp environment, but “environment” can be broadened to include the whole atmosphere of the camp. Such an encompassing perspective looks at the rules and regulations of the camp, its history, customs, rituals, values, and norms. A two-week camp for children with disabilities will have vastly different customs, rituals, values, and norms than a for-profit camp that offers services throughout the entire year.
When we look at the overall experience of camp for staff and campers, we are actually examining its culture. The concept of culture is borrowed from the field of anthropology. Anthropologists study what life is like in other civilizations. Business researchers compare the corporate cultures of specific companies. Each camp, too, has its own unique culture.
So as our employees arrive on the first day of staff training, how do we go about creating a camp culture that is safe and secure for all participants? The very foundation for the creation of a safe camp culture is that camp administrators should continually appraise their camp’s culture to gain the most realistic view possible. In a telling example, in the process of writing this article I was also moving into a new office. As I pulled out drawers from filing cabinets that hadn’t been opened in at least a decade, I found a folder of complaint letters from parents that the previous director had filed. What intrigued me about the contents of this folder was that all of the letters were received after the camp had closed for the season. I am confident that if the director had been aware of the myriad of problems described in these letters, he would have taken corrective action. Unfortunately, camp administrators may not likely learn of a problem until it has become severe or is too late to easily solve.
Preventing a Destructive Culture
As stated earlier in this article, researchers have found commonalities in cultures that experience mistreatment of other human beings. The following commonalities include possible interventions to keep in mind as you evaluate your own camp’s culture:
The final and likely most challenging precaution we can take is to openly dialogue with parents about our concerns. Many parents buy into the image of camps as idyllic islands of safety in which, for a short period of time, children are protected from the dangers of the world. Unfortunately the same problems that occur in our schools, our neighborhoods, and even in some of our homes occur too in camps. Bullying, prejudice, territoriality, drugs, weapons, and physical and sexual violence could all arise in camp settings as they could in any other environment. Camps are collections of diverse individuals and thus can have the same problems that are encountered in all such groups. We can alert parents to our staff hiring protocol, our training schedule, and monitoring approach but, in addition, request their assistance in suggestions for training and in opening better channels of communication for early problem detection.
In conclusion, while it may be necessary to terminate those individuals that bring strong antisocial qualities into camp — including campers and staff — we should not rely on this as the sole intervention to resolve inappropriate staff behaviors. We must lay the foundations for a safe camp culture, otherwise we risk harm to our participants, often at the hands of the very staff that we ourselves hired.
Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T., is a consultant, trainer, and the director of Camp William Penn, a camp owned by the City of Philadelphia Department of Recreation. He is the author of Coaching the Camp Coach and Secret Encounters: Addressing Sexual Behaviors in Group Settings. Shelton can be reached via his Web site: www.meshelton.com .
Originally published in the 2005 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.