Tough and Tender: An Optimistic Trend in Male Staff

Bob Ditter
September 2018

I was at the end of a full day of training 300 group leaders (GLs) at the San Diego YMCA in early May 2018. I ended with a story that I hoped would portray a deeper sense of friendship that campers can develop in the emotionally safe, tech-free space of a typical camp. I was also trying to give those eager GLs a glimpse of the kind of impact they could have on some of the over 10,000 campers who would be coming through the San Diego County Y day and resident camp programs in the next several months. My story was about a 13-year-old boy I called “Brad,” who had an embarrassing behavior at camp that he couldn’t help and that he was afraid to divulge to his friends. After meeting with him with his two counselors, I suggested that he might not “be letting his friends be his friends.”

“After all,” I continued, “you’ve known most of these guys here at camp for four or five years. I bet if you told them, they would understand, and you wouldn’t feel so afraid about their discovering your secret and misunderstanding what was going on.”

Brad wasn’t buying it. “You don’t know these guys,” he countered. “We tease each other every chance we get. I’ve even done it. If they knew about what was going on with me, they’d never let me live it down!”

I decided to give Brad an out. “You don’t need to tell them,” I said. “I just think you should think about it. I mean, if they knew how serious this was for you and that you can’t help the situation you’re in, I bet they’d cut you a lot of slack. I just think you aren’t giving them the chance to be there for you. At the same time, I get how risky it is for you. It’s not like telling them is a requirement.”

Two weeks later I was back at Brad’s camp in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains during parent visiting day. At one point, Brad came running up to me to announce that he had, indeed, told his friends about the awkward habit he had that about which he was so ashamed. I told him how incredibly impressed I was with his courage, at which point he said, “My friends already knew about it. They had figured it out, and they never brought it up because they didn’t want to embarrass me!”

Every time I tell that story my eyes tear up at the thought of boys caring so deeply about their friends. So, as I ended my day with the GLs from the San Diego Y by sharing Brad’s story, one of the young men in the audience, a guy in his early 20s, rushed up to shake my hand and tell me how much he had learned and how much he appreciated what I had shared with the group. And then he added, “And maybe what was the best thing was that you were modeling for us something that you never mentioned but just did; you showed us that you can be strong and clear and vulnerable at the same time!”

I am not sure there is a better compliment you could give me. People who know me know that I am not shy about showing my emotion and vulnerability in front of others — something that ex-Watitoh Camp Director Billy Hoch once called, “having a ‘Bob Ditter’ moment!” My ability to show my emotion openly was not always easy for me. Like many men, I was embarrassed about my more vulnerable, nurturing side. I fell for the false dichotomy between strength and vulnerability: that having one of those characteristics somehow negates the other. I am happy to say that not only have I overcome this illusory myth, but I have seen a trend in many camps — both coed and single-gender male camps — where this is changing significantly in the young men who give their summer to the service of the campers in their care.

Significant Change

Take this past spring and early summer. I have been to many camps in the South, West, and Northeast where the male staff are increasingly able to do the five things that in years past were often tough for guys to do:

  1. Ask for help
  2. Admit what they didn’t know
  3. Be playful and “silly” with younger boys (getting down on their level)
  4. Admit their mistakes
  5. Show their nurturing side in an open and comfortable way

The fact that campers — all campers, not just boys — need a mix of firmness and nurturing is not new. We know that children grow in a more balanced way when they are held to high standards, are dealt with firmly, and are given the support and nurturing they need to flourish. The challenge is to be firm in a way that is also kind and helpful, not punitive and shaming. For many men steeped in a culture that has traditionally encouraged demonstrations of strength and discouraged demonstrations of tenderness or nurturance, holding these two seemingly disparate tendencies at the same time has been tricky.

New and Inspiring

What is new and inspiring is the trend I have seen developing in male staff over the past several years. I now see male staff who are equally able to demonstrate both their strength and their nurturance to campers in a hopeful sign that maybe, just maybe, we are entering a phase where some men at least know that their strength does not need to be one-sided or come at the expense of others. This new generation of men is increasingly comfortable showing equal parts strength and nurturance.

To be clear, I have not done any quantitative research in this arena. I can only tell you that what I have witnessed in the audiences of camp conferences and at staff trainings around the country seems encouraging. Let me give you a typical camp example. In a mountain biking activity led by two male staff members, a group of 11-year-old boys is out biking on a trail. Some of the boys have much less experience riding bikes than others, and as a result, two of the boys aren’t in as good shape as their buddies. Instead of belittling these boys, one of the male leaders encourages them and, as they fall somewhat behind the rest of the group, stays with them rather than shaming or embarrassing them in front of their peers.

Meanwhile, in the group ahead, another boy takes some dare-devil turns on the trail, falls off his bike, and scrapes his arm. The male leader with his group is both kind and caring, all the while being clear that the boy did not keep the agreement to stay with the group as promised. In both instances, each male staff member is able to be clear, firm, and caring at the same time. Their nurturing sides do not seem to them like an exposure of some weakness, and all of the boys benefit.

Tough and Tender

This concept of being tough and tender — of being strong and nurturing — is something many parents, let alone camp counselors, are still learning to master. In a world where so many leaders confuse vulnerability with weakness and demean other men for their nurturing sides as being “not masculine,” it is refreshing to see this trend in children’s summer camps. While it is unclear as to what might be contributing to this trend, one factor seems to be a change in the style of leadership among some camp directors (see “Camp Leadership for the 21st Century” in the January/February 2016 issue of Camping Magazine).

There are now many camp directors — men and women — who display many of the characteristics of what I call “transformative leadership;” that is, leadership where the progress, success, and growth of the people being led is as important as the strength and ability of the people leading them. Transformative leaders are good listeners and they are reflective, receptive to the suggestions and ideas of others, self-regulated, vulnerable, share power rather than hoard power, and do not see the contributions of others as threatening or somehow a reflection of any deficit in themselves.

Leaders with qualities like those just mentioned are looking for staff who have similar abilities. To me, the great news is that, increasingly, they are finding them. To be clear, what I am seeing in my limited experience with male staff does not detract in any way from the abilities of female camp staff. Then again, camp has traditionally been a place where woman could always be in touch with their feelings and be strong; and men could more likely be strong and nurturing. However, in a world where there is a surfeit of men acting badly and abusing their power, what I have seen in camps across America is a heartening trend.

Photo courtesy of YMCA Camp Shady Brook, Deckers, Colorado.

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