Boys Will Be Boys, Girls Are Just Mean

Suzanne Rhulen Loughlin
May 2019

So you are working at a children's camp this summer. Your role as a counselor is perhaps the most important role at camp. Not only are you there to ensure the kids have a great time, but also to keep them safe.

What does "keep safe" mean? It means to protect from danger, care for their well-being. You already know the obvious safety risks posed by swimming, boating, transportation, and food/water contamination.

The safety risk I would like you to consider is one posed by one camper to another camper. While certain conduct may not leave physical marks on a child, it could cause emotional harm for a lifetime. You've heard these terms before. Bullying. Hazing. Sexual assault. Mean-girl phenomenon.

The impact of this type of behavior can lead to depression and, in extreme cases, even to suicide. It can also lead the victim to seek retribution and cause harm to others. Did you know 80 percent of school shooters are victims of bullying?

So, what does this have to do with you — the camp counselor?

You may observe behavioral conduct that falls into these categories. You will be the first line of defense on behalf of the child being bullied, ostracized, or abused. You will hear the spreading of rumors and hurtful comments. You will see inappropriate conduct. You will have a choice to make every time you see such behavior. You will have to ask yourself, "Do I attribute it to ‘boys will be boys' and ‘girls are just mean,' or do I intervene to stop it?"

Every year our company is called in to assist camp owners who learn of terrible things that happened to campers at their camps. Things they didn't learn about in real time. Sometimes it's years later when a victim finally has the courage to come forward, or when a lawsuit is filed. These incidents range from a camper sexually assaulting another camper outright or surreptitiously — while sleeping, wrestling, exercising, etc. — to conduct performed for purposes of humiliation, such as pantsing (pulling down trousers). Depending on the age of the victim, he or she may not understand what is happening and may go along with it or be afraid to come forward and report it.

But make no mistake — this is child-on-child sexual misconduct. Child-on-child humiliation. It may rise to the level of a crime. While this conduct often goes on outside of adult supervision, sometimes it is seen by adults who dismiss it as harmless. Adults like you.

As a counselor, it's time to put the little voices in your head to the side, those that say: "They are just horsing around." "It was just a joke." "Boys are being boys." "Girls can be mean." When a joke is at someone's expense, it is never OK. When unwanted conduct is for sexual gratification, it is never OK. When conduct is vicious and controlling, it is never OK. When conduct elicits fear, shame, and confusion, it is never OK. Being "mean" should never be part of "normal" behavior.

When viewing the conduct, don't just focus on the victim and make a judgment as to whether they should be able to tolerate the behavior. Focus on the perpetrator. Think through what their motivation is. For example, mean girls (and boys) are easy to spot. They are controlling, in charge, envious, surrounded by drama. Close attention should be paid to clique behavior and who is excluded. You know bullying behavior when you see it. Perhaps you experienced it yourself growing up. The bully blames others, is verbally and maybe physically aggressive, is competitive, and doesn't accept responsibility.

This all leads back to you and your responsibility to keep your campers safe.

  • Take your responsibility seriously. View it as an opportunity to change the trajectory of the life of the victim (and the perpetrator).
  • Don't write off bad behavior. Report it to your supervisor. Immediately. Don't think you can fix it yourself. You can't. It is often deeply rooted and requires professional intervention.
  • Pay attention to your campers — who they are friends with, who they are no longer friends with; where they choose to sleep or not to sleep; what changes they are asking for in activity schedules, or teams/groups. Wonder why they are asking. Pay attention to changes in behavior in general. A kid who is happy-go-lucky the first days of camp shouldn't become isolated and withdrawn. Homesickness? Maybe. But before you draw that conclusion, think through whether there is another root cause.
  • Lead with kindness. You are a role model for these campers. Set the example.
  • Don't view your role as limited to your own campers. If you spot behavior involving campers in another bunk or group, report it. Never presume someone else has it covered.

My last recommendation is follow your gut — if something doesn't feel right, act on it. Could you be wrong? Sure, that's always a risk. By telling your supervisor, he or she will bring the necessary experience and resources to bear to determine if there is a situation that requires a response. If you are right, you will have accomplished something very important — stopping harm and minimizing the damage to another human being. What could be better than that?

Have a great summer. If any of you have thoughts on this topic to share with me, I would welcome hearing from you. You can reach me at sloughlin@crisisrisk.com.


Suzanne Rhulen Loughlin is a founder of and general counsel for CrisisRisk Strategies, LLC. CrisisRisk™ works with leaders and boards of directors to identify strategic emerging threats and vulnerabilities that put critical assets — people, reputation, brand, key relationships, and financials — at risk. CrisisRisk develops strategies for mitigating those risks and prepares leadership teams to make decisions, take action, and effectively communicate when they materialize.