Coaching Parents on Child Safety

“Will my child be safe at camp?”

Behold the question every parent ponders before and after the camp season. Fortunately, hiring protocols and staff training programs at most high-quality camps prevent most people with ulterior or unsavory motives from ever becoming a part of your camp family. Criminal background checks have limitations, but federal law is slowly creating a more reliable system.

The bad news is that every summer, a tiny fraction of the millions of boys and girls who attend camps in North America are either mistreated by a camp staff member during the season or drawn into an inappropriate relationship sometime after. I believe that even a tiny fraction is unacceptable, so I frequently coach parents on the best ways to protect their children. Here is what I share:

(1) I am a tremendous advocate for youth camping. Having worked for decades with dozens of venerable professional camp organizations, I understand what a positive and powerful developmental growth experience camp is for young people. I am also a tremendous advocate of child safety. As a clinical psychologist and waterfront director with two children of my own, I’m probably one of the most safety-conscious people you’ll meet. Indeed, every summer, I bet my staff $1,000 that they’ll never catch me in any of our 64 camp boats without a life jacket. I’ve yet to lose that bet. Why? Because most staff at high-quality camps follow the rules and lead by example.

(2) Teach your children about safe and unsafe touch so they understand the difference and could stop and report an inappropriate advance. Even if it happened at camp. As many readers know, I have created a library of video training modules, hosted on a website called ExpertOnlineTraining.com. This site provides training to tens of thousands of summer camp staff worldwide, and includes titles such as Safe Touch & Safe Talk, Duty of Care, Active Lifeguarding, and Wise Use of Time Off. The fact is that pre-season online training has become an essential supplement to the on-site training you deliver. Given the choice between highly trained and less highly trained staff, the choice for parents is obvious.

(3) Campers do engage in risky activities at camp, such as swimming, rock climbing, and horseback riding, but wise camp directors ensure that every reasonable precaution is in place to minimize the occurrence of accidents. Those precautions are part of what make risky activities fun, not frightening. Those precautions are also what make parents trust high-quality camps. Naturally, smart parents understand that no camp is accident-free, but when they can see the safety equipment in place, they are reassured. If parents were to walk around your camp while it’s in session—and many do—will they see the lifeguards on duty, see the safety harnesses on the climbers, and see the helmets on the riders?

(4) Sadly, nobody could ever see the potential for inappropriate behavior between a camp staff member and a child. But that invisibility should not stop you from protecting your child from predators by asking the right questions and looking for the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship. Begin by teaching children how to protect themselves from unwelcome or unsafe touch. My Summer Camp Handbook or Norman Friedman’s Inoculating Your Child Against Sexual Abuse both provide detailed guidance.

(5) Search carefully for the right camp. This careful search has many components but the three that most parents neglect are:

  1. Finding out whether the camp is accredited and by whom
  2. Discussing the director’s education and experience
  3. Asking about the camp’s hiring protocols and staff training program.

In these three neglected domains, here’s what I coach parents to verify:

  1. The camp you send your child to should be accredited. In the US, this means accredited by the American Camp Association. In Canada, this means accredited by the province in which the camp operates. There are some high-quality non-accredited camps, but you’ll need to personally verify hundreds of health, safety, and personnel standards before resting assured you’ve chosen wisely. Use the ACA’s new Accreditation Standards for Camp Programs and Services as your guide.
  2. Your camp’s director should have years of youth development experience under his or her belt and should participate in continuing professional education—such as camp conferences—each year. Find out what their professional credentials are, what conferences or seminars they last attended, and what other camp experience they have.
  3. The camp should freely share with you its protocols for conducting required background checks. These could include criminal background checks, but that will only uncover whether a person has been convicted of a felony in the state or province in which the check is conducted. More meaningful is the process of religiously checking a staff member’s references. Finding people who have known the prospective hire well and who have witnessed their work with children is better than verifying whether or not they are not a convicted felon. The camp should also freely share with you its staff training program. Whatever training program a director uses should include modules on appropriate touch, discipline, and communication with children.

(6) Finally, lest a parent’s love and concern for their child evolve into protective paranoia, I emphasize that the personal relationships that form between children and the camp staff are typically wonderful.  They are what kids remember most about camp and what they crave during the off-season. These relationships are also the necessary foundation for growth. Without those caring relationships, there can be no increased self-esteem or independence, no growth in social-skills or confidence.

The key to a positive experience at camp is a healthy, nurturing relationship between children and the youth leaders who serve them. For this reason, it is my sincere hope that directors will join me in coaching parents toward safe and healthy camp experiences.

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.