In the Trenches — Telephone Roulette: When to Call Parents!

November 2013

Dear Bob,

Camps are in full swing now and I need some advice. We have had an incident where one young man grabbed another younger boy by the neck leaving a mark. I don’t know if it was horseplay or something more serious. Staff talked with the two and watched them closely during camp since they were lodged in the same cabin. Mom was not happy that she did not receive a phone call about the incident. Is there some type of standard protocol that should be used in these situations? We have protocol for medical emergencies and intruders but nothing for this type of incident. I would appreciate your thoughts.

Mystified in Missouri

Dear Mystified,

When I first received your e-mail about the important question of calling parents back in early June, I thought, “Oh, a few remarks can address this fairly well!” Then summer 2013 happened! After spending most of my summer at camp once again seeing first-hand all the fresh examples of camper-related situations camp professionals deal with in a typical summer, I realize this is a critical topic. While I don’t know of a formal protocol for contacting parents, I would like to mention at least some main points.

Let me start with day camp. Many day camps enroll children as young as three or four years old. Parents of these youngsters are obviously more nervous about their dependent little ones partly because of how young they are, but also because many parents of very young children have not yet established a “track record” and greater trust based on actual experience with the camp. Because of both of these factors, my advice to day camp professionals is to err on the side of over-calling parents. You can always ask a parent if the contact you are having is too much, but even when a child has a small bruise or gets a scrape, where you might not call the parent of a nine- or ten-year-old, I suggest you do so with these youngest of campers.

My experience is that parents of younger children appreciate this contact. First of all, when a concerned camp professional calls a parent of a younger child, it is reassuring to that parent. When they receive communication from a camp, parents tend to feel that the camp is “on top of things” with their little one. It is also a great way to build more of a partnership with parents of younger children. Again, I suggest that day camp professionals simply ask parents whether this type of call is something they want or if it is too much contact. Parents will tell you!

Another rule of thumb is to ask all parents what form of contact they would like you to use. Some parents want you to contact them on their cell phone, some their home phone first, some at work, some not at work, some by text or e-mail. Adding this to your health form or emergency card is a simple matter and signals parents that you are willing to “customize” your manner of reaching out to them to fit their preference.

Whenever you call a parent, obviously your first statement, after stating who you are, is to reassure a parent that his or her child is okay. You can probably imagine that when most parents see that it is the camp calling, their heart skips a beat. It is best to reassure parents at the outset that even if your call is about an injury, it is probably not about their worst fear. Not making this statement may result in a parent not really being able to take in what you are saying because his or her anxiety might get in the way!

I also suggest that all camp professionals calling any parent think first about the true purpose of their call and then state that purpose clearly to the parent at the beginning of the call. “I am calling you about Cherise because she’s had a little scrape, and she’s fine, but we didn’t want you to wonder what had happened when she came home.” Or, “I am calling you about Jayden because he’s been having a little bit of a hard time adjusting to camp and making friends, and I just wanted to let you know how we have been working with him.” The purpose of your call can simply be to keep parents informed of what behavior their child may be displaying and what you are doing about it, or it may be to confer with parents and ask them what they may have done at home or in school when the child may have exhibited such behavior there. Once you explain to parents why you are calling, they know better how to listen and respond.

A critical point to remember is that if you have been working with a camper and you have not kept parents in the loop, and there comes a time when you have to take more drastic action, uninformed parents are going to feel ambushed by the news. Surprises are for birthdays, not parents!

We all know how quickly time flies at camp. You and your staff may be working with a camper or group of campers and after several days find that what you have been doing isn’t working. When you call parents and bring them into the loop, what is old news for you is new for them. The most commonly heard com¬ment from parents in a situation like this is, “Why are we just hearing about this now?” It’s like having a meeting in school in April to find out that your child hasn’t been learning all year or has been exhibiting challenging behavior since last fall.

As much as you as a camp professional want to give your campers an experience at camp that is separate from their parents, when a child is exhibiting inappropriate or challenging behavior, it is best to call a parent sooner than later, even if it is to say, “Look, we have campers who exhibit all kinds of behavior. Your kid isn’t the only one. Give us some time to work with him or her and we’ll keep you posted.” By erring on the side of more information, you not only signal parents that there may be an adjustment or behavioral problem with their child, you make it clear that you are willing to go above and beyond to help their child succeed.

In the case that you mention in your e-mail, any time a child is hurt — purposely or by “accident” (horseplay) — and a mark is left, it is best to inform parents. Besides wanting to know if their child is okay, they will of course want to know if this was provoked or if the offender did it purposely. If it was intentional, most parents want to know what consequences there might be for the offender. (Parents are always keen about justice on behalf of their children!) Certainly, the last thing you need is any camper going home with a mark, bruise, or injury that is unexplained. Parents then think you have something to hide.

I know of a camp in the western part of the United States that last year did not inform parents of a prank perpetrated by one camper against another that went awry. The camp figured that because it started out as “good natured” horseplay (even though the camper who was the object of the prank had not consented) they didn’t need to call the parents. However, as you might imagine, the parents were very upset when they found this out after the fact. In cases of horseplay, harassment, bullying, or retaliation, if a child is hurt physically or emotionally, parents should be told.

I hope this helps! In the future I’ll offer more examples of behavioral issues at camp that are best shared with parents.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit “In the Trenches” is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2013 November/December Camping Magazine