Camp Articles


Bullying Redux

Camping professionals have been taking a systematic, proactive role in preventing bullying since the 1929. canstockphoto8672586

Bullying receives a lot of press, especially schools adopt anti-bullying programs and states pass anti-bullying laws. Witnessing school shootings that were, in part, retaliation for relentless bullying may have increased our empathy toward both bullies and their targets, as well as our motivation to change. But tragic events, additions to curricula, and press coverage have all made it seem as if bullying is new. It might surprise you to learn that camping professionals have been taking a systematic, proactive role in preventing bullying since the 1929.  That year marked the publication of Camping and Character: A Camp Experiment in Character Education.

In Camping and Character , authors Hedley Dimock and Charles Hendry reported on the results of a multiyear study conducted at Camp Ahmek in Ontario. The study sought to uncover the changes evidenced in campers’ behavior during six weeks at camp, and to understand the mechanisms behind those changes. Among the more than 50 behaviors the authors tracked was bullying. Dimock and Hendry recognized that even small increases in bullying behavior needed to be addressed by the camp leadership. They were also encouraged by huge increases in many prosocial behaviors in youngsters. My favorite is: “Making friendly approach to [an] unlikable boy.”

Nearly 80 years later, what are the most important things we’ve learned about bullying? The answer has four parts. First, bullying itself is only half the picture. For every bully, there is at least one target. Second, bullying is cyclic. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control confirmed that about three quarters of bullies are also targets and about three quarters of targets turn around to bully another child. Third, bullying is social. Antisocial, to be sure, but it represents a dynamic, complex, interaction whose origins lie in unhealthy relationships. Therefore, the solutions lie not in simple punishment, but in the formation of healthy relationships. And finally, there are often bystanders; onlookers who have the power to say something. “Hey, that’s not cool” or “Dude” or “Lay off” or “C’mon” are examples of benign-sounding comments that have the power to derail nascent bullying.

Camps are uniquely suited to deal with bullying because they are such healthy social environments. At camp, leaders supervise children and have opportunities to educate bullies and targets. Leaders can teach the kinds of prosocial behaviors Dimock, Hendry, and their pioneering predecessors saw so often at camps. This is easier to do than most people think, partly because bullying is so often a misguided attempt to make a social connection. If you can teach a bully how to make a social connection without using coercion, threats, or violence, you have actually met that child’s needs instead of simply punishing his or her misbehavior.

Specifically, camps help children in the following ways:

  • By having the camp staff set a sterling interpersonal example for all children to follow.

  • By seeing beyond the bully alone and including his or her target, plus any bystanders, in an intervention.

  • By strengthening bullies’ fragile sense of themselves by providing opportunities for authentic achievement and human connection in various athletic or artistic domains.

  • By teaching bullies to make social connections through healthy interaction. We all want to belong to a group … it’s just the bullies go about it in antisocial ways.

  • By teaching targets to stand up to bullies in ways that makes bullying unrewarding.

  • By setting, early and often in the camp session, strict guidelines for kindness and generosity … and then heaping on the praise when staff witness prosocial behaviors.

  • By providing the kind of close supervision that allows both bullies and targets to replay unacceptable or unassertive interactions under the guidance of experienced adult staff.

  • By deliberately creating a culture of caring that is perhaps different from school or the neighborhood at home … and then immersing children in that culture.

  • By allowing positive peer pressure to exert itself such that children feel appreciated and rewarded for gentleness, honesty, kindness, and unselfishness.

Camps are not a bullying panacea. Outside of camp, there are powerful forces, such as violent media, that infuse children with the notion that violent, even lethal solutions to vexing social problems are both effective and glorious. Nevertheless, camp is a powerful, positive force for change.  Educating bullies, targets, and bystanders is just one of the many ways camp enriches lives and changes the world.

So next time you’re talking with a parent about how your camp handles bullying, provide a better answer than “We don’t tolerate bullying.” Instead, explain how your staff is trained to help children make friends. That is the single best way to prevent antisocial behavior. Give everyone a sense of belonging.

Then, explain how you use a combination of pre-season online training and in-person on-site training to train your staff to spot bullying, teach prosocial behaviors, encourage bystanders to be “upstanders,” and give opportunities for bullies to make amends. There will always be some kinds of egregious misbehaviors that require expulsion from camp, but most instances of bullying are below this safety threshold. Showcase the strength of your camp by outlining how well prepared your staff is to prevent bullying and respond thoughtfully when it occurs.

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training .

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