In the Trenches: Working with Camper Parents

Bob Ditter
May 2003

Dear Bob,
I had a run in with a camper parent last summer that made me very uncomfortable. We have a visiting day for parents once each session, which, as you might imagine, is a stressful day for campers, parents, and staff all around. During the early afternoon, I was accosted by a parent who was demanding to know why her fifteen-year-old son wanted to go home. I tried to reason with her, but she caught me off guard, and I felt awkward discussing this in the open with other parents and campers around.

Part of her complaint was, she had told me, her son had trouble making friends and he needed a lot of support to come to camp and be with boys his own age — boys who were essentially strangers to him. I repeated to her what I had said when we first spoke about “Jared” (not his real name) before camp. I told her that while we would do everything we could to help Jared find activities that he liked and help him get to know his new cabin mates, part of the work was up to him. His mother did not seem to hear what I was saying. It was as if she had her complaint, and nothing I said registered.

It seems to me, Bob, some parents want camp to make up for all the deficiencies or inabilities their children may have had for years. Help!

— Simply Frustrated

Dear Frustrated,

The noise you just heard was the sigh coming from hundreds of camp directors around the country who can relate only too well to your letter. Whereas staff issues used to be highest on the list of camp director concerns, parents are coming up fast! The topic of camper parents is too big to cover adequately in this column, but there are some general trends and pointers that may be useful. Let me talk a little about parents in general; then give you my thoughts about the situation you describe.

Though there are parents who are entitled and out to get whatever they can for their children with no regard to the rules or needs of others, most parents are, to borrow from you, “simply overwhelmed.” Parents of a fifteen-year-old boy said to me in my office just last night, “So much has changed since we were teenagers! We’re sure Kieran (their son—also not his real name) has seen X-rated videos; we know he’s looking at pornography on the Internet; he tells us that his friend, Jon, is sleeping with his girlfriend; and though we do not allow him to watch things like the Sopranos or Sex in the City, we discovered that his friends tape it for him. Not only that, but some of his best friends from camp were in town last weekend and Kieran came in smelling like pot. We love that he finally has these friends—he’s been a loner for so long—but we’re not happy about his smoking dope. We don’t know what to do.”

What Kieran’s parents shared with me is both typical and the tip of the iceberg. Some parents do worry too much about their children. On the other hand, reading the news today, many parents feel helpless about protecting their children from the dangers of the world. I would say that an increasing number of parents send their children to camp partly as a way of getting them out of mainstream culture and into a place where they are sheltered and well supervised. Indeed, one of the reasons parents react so strongly to any news that suggests their child isn’t doing well at camp is because they have their heart set on camp being that refuge and safe place. This is a tall order for directors to fill.

That having been said, minimizing parent concerns or trying to speak rationally before we have addressed the feelings involved does not work. Let’s take the situation you describe. Realizing that you were taken off balance by the sudden outburst of this parent, the first goal should be to regain your footing. The best thing would be to say to this parent, “Look, this is important. Let’s go someplace where we can sit down and really talk about what’s going on. I want to be able to give this my full attention.”

Making this move does several things at once. First, it creates a break in the action. This will allow you to regain your footing and this mother to calm down. Second, it takes the discussion into a private place where you both will be less distracted, and you can be more thoughtful about your responses.

Given that I was not present for your conversation, I cannot tell what you said and what you did not say. If you are like most directors when they are confronted by upset parents, you probably fall immediately into explaining or defending. What might be more effective is simply to acknowledge how concerned or worried she is about her son’s difficulties and how tough it must be to watch him struggle. As I have often said to camp professionals, parents lead with their solution or complaint. This means they come across as demanding or angry, when underneath it all they are probably frightened and concerned. If we respond too quickly to their complaint or proposed solution, we may miss the opportunity to establish a more meaningful conversation about their child. Once parents have had their deeper concerns acknowledged, they are often more inclined to hear your ideas about what might or might not work.

Your letter reminds me of a somewhat different situation that a camp director in New York once told me about concerning a fifteen-year-old boy who had a tendency to let his parents and other adults take more responsibility for his life than he seemed willing to do. During parent visiting day, the boy’s mother came up to the camp director complaining about how her son’s bunk was such a mess and his stuff so disorganized that he kept losing his things that were then costing her money. The camp director became defensive, talking about all they had tried to do to help “Jake” keep track of his things.

I suggested a different approach. I told the director to make himself “wrong.” It might sound like, “You know, you’re right. I think we did make a mistake. I don’t think we realized how big a problem Josh has taking responsibility for his own stuff. We’ve all been working so hard at helping him keep track of his things that we’re not giving him a chance to step up to the plate or suffer any consequences from being so messy. Let’s talk about how we can change that right now!”

While it might sound as if all you are saying is, “Jake needs to take more responsibility,” saying it by making yourself “wrong” and making the parent “right” actually creates greater listening on the part of the parent. This allows you to get more of your message across.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for Bunk1.com and can be reached via e-mail at InTheTrenches@bunk1.com or by fax at 617-572-3373. “In the Trenches” is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2003 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.