A Sample of Issues from Camp 2018

Bob Ditter
November 2018
on the beach at sunset

I spend time with camp professionals from May to August consulting with directors on the more perplexing and complicated issues they face with campers, staff, or parents during the camp season. This year I met with or heard from 61 camp directors from around the country. Some of the issues I encountered included a heightened level of anxiety in both campers and staff. Many camp directors reported that they had several staff members who could not complete the season because of anxiety.

Other directors had concerns about the less helpful side effects of social media. For example, campers who are accustomed to sharing intimate details of their various life experiences in their online posts had fewer "filters" and often shared things with cabin mates that were inappropriate for camp. The lack of a sense of modesty extended to counselors, some of whom posted inappropriate photos or comments online about campers or other staff. The popular online game Fortnite, released by Epic Games in 2017, figured into the 2018 camp scene as well. Some boys, many of whom play for very long hours at a time (up to 14 hours at a time, according to some parents), actually had withdrawal symptoms at camp. Some were restless, bored, and had a much harder time connecting in more authentic ways with their counselors and peers than ever before. And while those of us who are familiar with all the great things that a quality camp experience can do for a child know, perhaps the greatest appeal of camp to parents these days is that it is largely tech-free.

This year I decided to share some of the things I have heard from camp directors with you. Enjoy!


Mike Cohen, Director, Camp Timberlane for Boys
Woodruff, Wisconsin

We've seen some positive trends with campers and parents. Campers are developing more tolerance of the perceived faults of other campers, like bed-wetting, speech impediments, etc. While this is not universally true, overall, we see kids accepting others more readily. We have also found parents are more receptive to guidance from camp. For example, while some parents still panic if they receive a sad letter from their son, they are willing to hear a voice of reason from us. They tend to respect our direction to be patient, to write a supportive and empathetic reply, and to expect a positive outcome.

Our biggest concern is a tendency for parents to diagnose and label behaviors of their own kids and others without fully understanding those labels. This behavior is "bullying" or that behavior is "ADHD." Parents seem to feel more comfortable if they can categorize a behavior, although, in so doing, they may reduce the effort to actually understand that behavior. Our approach is to decipher the behavior, moving parents away from the labeling venture and helping them gain a more productive perspective and better understand how to adjust or respond to that behavior.


Jay Jacobs, Executive Director, TLC Family of Camps
Glen Cove, New York

We spend a great deal of time talking about things like grit and resilience. However, it seems to me that campers have a lot less grit and much lower resilience than ever before. The connection between parent and child, coupled with parents' complete loss of ability to endure even the slightest bit of emotional discomfort or social unhappiness in their children, has made our jobs a lot more difficult. Parents want to hear and know everything about every minute of their children's lives. And, children want to tell their parents about everything, with no regard to the consequences of embellishment or exaggeration. Parents want to be their children's friend more than their parent. The good news in all of this: We have lots of work to do, and my job as a camp director will not become obsolete or useless anytime soon!


Jane Kagan, Owner/Director, Lake Bryn Mawr Camp for Girls
Honesdale, Pennsylvania

We've seen much more anxiety in campers than ever before. It gets to the point with some girls that they completely shut down and seem almost paralyzed. Parents don't know whom to turn to, as they see higher levels of anxiety in their children at home as well. It has me thinking that we need to establish a "quiet room," where campers can go to regroup and calm down. We have also seen higher levels of anxiety and depression in some staff, many more of whom come to camp on their own medications.


Alphonse Litz, Founder/Director, Boston Explorers — A Coed Urban Day Camp 
Boston, Massachusetts

I can't tell you how many times during the summer I hear parents say how grateful they are that their kids come home so wonderfully tired that they are in bed by 8:30, without time or interest to get online and "play those stupid games" that have otherwise consumed them!


Laurie Strayhorn, Owner/Director, Illahee Camp for Girls
Brevard, North Carolina

We have seen a greater level of anxiety in some of our eight- to ten-year-old first-time campers, whose parents call us worried that their girls aren't sleeping or eating or are showing other signs of anxiety about going away to camp. Luckily, we have been able to partner with most parents and help them tolerate the fear in their kids and help them through the adjustment to camp. Some of our first-timers make that adjustment in as few as three days. Not a surprise to us, but often a pleasant surprise to worried parents!


Catriona Logan Sangster, Co-Owner/Director, Camp Wawenock for Girls
Raymond, ME

The majority of our staff perform very well, probably as a result of the fact that we have a long-standing relationship with them. Many grew up here as campers and therefore have been with us for four to eight years or more. When we do get a staff member who is suffering from more pronounced depression or anxiety, it puts us into an uncomfortable dilemma where we have to balance an empathic understanding of her struggle with a need for her to perform in her job. When we discover a staff member who may be grappling with the after effects of some earlier abuse, or who may have a more severe form of anxiety or depression, often giving them feedback about their performance doesn't really change their behavior. We have to ask the question, in an empathic way, "Can you really be here? Is camp really the best place for you right now?"


Brooke Cheley, Codirector, Cheley Colorado Camps
Estes Park, Colorado

Every fall I am challenged to try and explain how my summer was to people outside of the industry. Those of us who run camps know there is hardly ever a dull moment. Our summers are filled with challenges and lessons, right alongside some beautiful moments with the young people we work with.

Opening the conversation of sexual assault, which is an issue our college-age staff are grappling with, has been a positive development. The fact that young people are being encouraged to speak up if they are not treated with respect is a constructive change. Learning more about these issues from our 20-something staff has pushed me to run a better camp. We took an active role during staff training to talk more about consent and about empowering bystanders. As a result, we made better decisions and had clearer consequences for offenses committed during time off or on camp property. In addition, our staff was more likely to come forward when an incident did occur. That said, it is still easier for them to tell us after the fact than deal with it in real time. We would like to see more of our young adults speak up in the moment and tell an offender, "I'm not comfortable with this!" or remove themselves from the situation rather than wait and tell us about it later.

On another topic, I am frustrated with our staff members' inability to think critically. Siri does not have the answer for you in the wilderness! Our staff have grown up spending considerably less time in the outdoors, so their comfort level is not as high there. They second-guess their decisions because, in the "real world," a second opinion is just a finger tap away.

It also seems hard for campers and staff to be accountable for their mistakes. Could this be a result of parents finding ways for their children to deflect anything negative onto someone else? We let a large group of counselors go for getting together and drinking on property when they were supposed to be on duty. Their response was that we had not "given them enough time to hang out as a group." What?


Rob Hammond, Owner/Director, Camp Laney for Boys
Mentone, Alabama

Since camps have been in existence, campers have said things to each other that have caused hurt feelings. In some cases, it might be considered bullying, but more often it is a comment that doesn't rise to the level of what we truly consider bullying. On more than one occasion when this has happened, parents felt our staff should have done more to prevent it or should have intervened sooner. Our staff is well trained (by Bob Ditter, Chris Thurber, and Jerry Jennings), and they certainly aren't going to ignore these things. We preach being kind to each other to our campers from day one. Hopefully, camp can teach children how to cope with the slights they encounter and get help from staff if they need it. We should consider addressing this issue specifically with parents in our precamp communications.


Amy Woods, Director, Roughing It Day Camp
Lafayette, California 

We continue to be concerned by the increase in mental health issues that some staff come to camp with that end up interfering with them being able to do their jobs and complete the season. We seem to have more staff with anxiety, depression, ADHD, or a combo of all of the above each summer. Some work out well, but this past summer we had six out of 60 staff who were not able to finish the summer. Our overall concern is what we can do to manage this while they are at camp. We learn about some of their diagnoses from their health forms or employment physicals. We follow up by having their doctor complete a staff mental, emotional, and social health (MESH) form and verifying that they will continue their current medication. However, we find that most mental health care providers are clearly not aware of the stresses involved in working at camp. While we do our best to support and coach them, some of our young adult staff members lack the coping and organizational skills to manage the basics of the job. Many of our program heads who are young supervisors don't have the skills to deal with the kind of demands staff like this impose on them. We are looking for ways to better handle this since we are a day camp and don't have a therapist on staff, even though I feel like we need someone with professional training to help out with these situations. We do the best we can and, luckily, the majority of our staff are awesome and truly amazing!


Amy Woods, Owner/Director, Roughing It Day Camp
Lafayette, California 

We have established a better screening process for prospective campers so we are better able to identify campers who will not benefit from our structured program. This has allowed us to have camper groups where everyone can come together, learn to respect and trust one another, work together to be a part of our camp culture, and follow the camp rules. Parents seem so appreciative that we are providing a full outdoor, "unplugged" environment where kids can be active, busy, challenged, and happy.

Bob's Closing Note: As you can see, directors face a myriad of issues in any given summer. No surprises there! As a friend of mine once said, "When you go into the ‘white water of life' with people, you are bound to get a little wet!"

I will address the issue of anxiety, which continues to be on the rise in both campers and staff, in the next issue of Camping Magazine.


Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit BobDitter.com.

Photo courtesy of Camp Gallagher. Lakebay, WA.