"I Just Want My Kid to Be Happy!"

Bob Ditter
January 2019

Dear Bob,

We had a 14-year-old returning male camper last year in our two-week resident camp who is generally a great kid but who presented with some behavior last summer that caused us to send him home. His parents were extremely upset given that they have had two other children in our camp for many years. They felt that we “owed them” more, that kids make mistakes and we should have figured out a way to let him stay. Another reason for their displeasure was that the boy was in his last year as a regular camper and would have been eligible for our LIT program next year.

We believe we made the right decision, but the parents are relentless and are also well connected with other families, with whom they are sharing their anger and judgment about us. Any thoughts about what we can do to state our case with other parents without implicating or further angering these parents?

Blasted at Camp

Dear Blasted,

First of all, my condolences to you! Welcome to the age of social media, which parents certainly use for better and for worse. There are many camp directors out there who can relate to your plight.

You never said what it was the boy did that caused you to send him home, so I am going to assume it was egregious enough to warrant your decision. From what you say, it sounds like the parents also recognize that their son “made a mistake.” You also didn't indicate what you have already said to the boy's parents, so if I am repeating what you have already communicated to them, at least our readers will benefit from my answer.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Send an email (you want there to be a written record of this) to the parents. In it you are going to:
    1. a. First, validate their upset — that you can only imagine how upsetting this must be, especially because they have not raised their son to behave this way and they have been loyal camp supporters for many years. You might add something about how it must be especially upsetting given that it was the boy's last summer at camp as a regular camper.
    2. Briefly share your own grief about having to make this decision (because you care about the boy and you have a long relationship with his family). Mention that you never make a decision like this lightly. Reiterate that you know their son is essentially a great kid. (Note: Remember, you always want to “make people right” by validating their genuine reactions and feelings before you state your case, or redirect their anger.)
    3. Say also that you recognize their upset as their desire to do what is best for their son. I might even add that he is lucky to have parents who are willing to advocate so strongly for him. You just want them to direct that desire in a way that will help him learn and grow from his mistake.
    4. This is where you join with the boy's parents. “Looking out for (state the boy's name here) is exactly why we made the decision we did — we want him to learn that in the real world, as at camp, our actions have a real impact on others. Sometimes, even if we didn't mean to hurt someone else, hurt them we did! When that happens, the lesson we hopefully learn, which can be a painful one, is there are consequences to the choices we make, even if that choice is made in a split second when you are 14 years old.”
    5. Continue: “We want what you want, which is for your son to be happy and to be a responsible citizen, not just at camp, but after he leaves camp and takes with him the values we teach here. That said, we want him to be happy not just in the short term, but in the long term.”
  2. What you also have not said is whether you offered a way for the boy to make amends. For example, can he write a letter of apology to the camper or campers he offended? Can he write a separate letter to the parents of the campers he offended? Can he come back to camp after a year off, provided he can show he has learned from his mistake and can supply some references that can attest to what he did during his year off? Obviously, because I don't know the nature of the offense, it is not clear if it is possible for him to come back at some point, but my recommendation is that whenever we can offer some way for a camper to make amends, it helps strengthen the case that, as camp professionals, we are all about teaching values and having campers take responsibility for their actions.
  3. Finally, let's address the wider challenge of your “trial by social media.” We all know that people react more to impressions than to facts, so:
    1. Your first line of defense is always the goodwill you build up with parents over time. That goodwill is the result of your yearlong efforts to steward your parents. What I mean by that is you should be sending short videos and pictures to parents that show your happy campers both during camp and out-of-camp time. Your communication (on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) should continue all year long. The images you send should be brief and should depict the kind of values camp stands for — meaningful connection, happy engagement, responsibility, and so on.
    2. I would also suggest sending out a general message to parents of your oldest campers (send it to all parents of your campers who just graduated and those about to be the oldest campers) reiterating the values you teach. Remind parents — without making any reference to the boy you had to send home — that this final year of camp and your LIT program are both opportunities for their children to experience an environment that lives from those values, and parents can count on you to do what is right for the entire community, which is what they have trusted you to do.
    3. I also recommend that you have a meeting in the early spring for parents of the kids who have been chosen to be in your LIT program. If your campers come from a geographically wide area, try doing a webinar-type broadcast. Many platforms now allow you to reach people electronically while recording at the same time, so you can make the recording available to parents who might not be able to make the time of the original webcast. This is an opportunity for you to restate the values you are teaching to their children and to answer any questions they might have about camp policy and your LIT program. Remember, you build your credibility with parents over time through real interactions and experiences. Shape your message and maybe even include a camper who has successfully graduated from your LIT program. It is the campers who make the best case for the value of the camp experience.

Good luck!

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.