Have The Guts To Ask

By Chris Thurber

Whether these messages are on a website, in the registration packet, or part of pre-camp orientation for new camp families, you’ll want to share seven sensible insights. Holding out on parents to save time now will typically cost thrice the time and headaches during and after the season. Consider how valuable it is to deliver these key concepts to parents before the summer:

1.      The more you tell us about your child, the better our staff will be able to provide support.
You know your child better than anyone, so tell us what makes that person tick. We’ve designed a thorough health form that includes mental, emotional, and social health (MESH) questions that we hope you’ll take the time to answer thoroughly. We encourage you to share highlights of the child’s personality, his or her sources of joy, the preferred ways of coping with distress, the current family situation, and any relevant diagnostic information.

We have an excellent healthcare team, but the staff can’t figure out complex conditions that may have taken a team of clinicians years to fully understand. Giving us an early, insider’s assessment of your child’s strengths, weaknesses, and personality will help us support his or her growth and development at camp. Describe the strategies you use to provide comfort, enlist cooperation, and enhance compliance.

2.      Confidential medical and psychological conditions will be shared on a need-to-know basis, without stigmatization.
We treat your child’s health history with tremendous respect. For most parents, this request for a history seems reasonable when it comes to conditions such as allergies, food sensitivities, and medications. However, many parents hesitate to share psychiatric diagnoses (such as anxiety, depression, and attention deficits) out of concern that their child will be labeled and stigmatized.

We want to reassure you that we treat each child with dignity and respect, regardless of the medical or mental-health history. We share information on a particular child only with staff members who have regular, direct contact with the child. Furthermore, staff members receive basic training in child development, mental health, confidentiality, and inclusion. Therefore, they treat health information with discretion and strive not to prejudge a child for any reason.

3.      Homesickness is normal … and your approach to prevention can make it worse or better.
Everyone misses something about home when going away. It’s completely normal. And, if there are things about home that children miss, that means there are things about home they love, and that’s a wonderful thing. Best of all, research on homesickness prevention helped create a 25-minute DVD titled The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, that families can watch together.

Available from EverythingSummerCamp.com for under $10, this program lowers the intensity of first-year campers’ homesickness by 50 percent, on average. The tips and tricks on the DVD are complemented by an explanation of the common mistakes that loving parents sometimes make. Some well-intentioned strategies, such as promising to pick a child up early if he or she feels homesick, actually make homesickness worse.

4.      Trust us to create healthy cabin (or group) rosters; resist the temptation to insert yourself too far into the process.
Our collective experience in running summer youth camps has given senior staff tremendous insight into healthy group composition. Because we value friendship so highly, for example, we strive to put children from the same hometown into different groups. This helps foster new friendships and diminishes the chances of cliques forming.

Indeed, national studies have revealed how much children like to shed the reputations they have at school or in the neighborhood, and “start with a clean slate” at camp. “At camp, I get to be myself” is one of the most important reasons children decide to return to camp. So, as much as we understand the comfort of living in the same cabin or playing in the same group with three best friends, we’ve also listened to kids describe the benefits of branching out socially. So we ask you to trust us. Provide lots of good information about your son or daughter, and we will make the cabin (or group) assignments in a way we believe will provide the best combination of fun and growth for your child.

5.      Social conflict is normal and presents important opportunities for learning.
Tough talk, such as “We have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying,” leaves out learning. All groups of people—from families and sports teams to companies and clubs—experience conflict. And in almost all cases, a combination of careful listening, genuine empathy, and creative problem-solving can help people find peaceful resolutions. To help ensure your child’s physical and emotional safety, we dedicate significant resources to training the staff. Our intensive curriculum combines pre-season, online courses with lively on-site workshops, and periodic in-service trainings.

Long before your child arrives, the new or returning staff will have learned about bullying prevention, behavior management, effective supervision, and conflict resolution. So, rather than dismiss anyone who misbehaves, we take every opportunity to teach kids how to make amends, restore friendships, and engage in positive, alternate behaviors. Not surprisingly, campers respond well to the staff’s skillful coaching. The rare dismissal is reserved for only the most unusual, severe misbehaviors.

6.      Staff members speak frequently about each camper’s progress.
We pride ourselves in providing a personal touch. Staff members work hard to learn campers’ names, interests, and interpersonal strengths as quickly as possible. Combined with the valuable information you supply on what makes your child tick, this knowledge informs the work we do as youth-development professionals. We truly believe that nothing is more important than the relationship that staff members form with the young people they serve.

To that end, staff members consult with one another and with their immediate supervisors on the progress and occasional problems that each camper has. As a staff, we support one another in a shared goal to be the best role models, coaches, teachers, and caregivers that we can. And please know that if we have any significant concerns, we will contact you immediately. Until then, you can assume that no news is good news and that staff members are showing your son or daughter the best time possible.

7.      Ask your child’s counselor or cabin leader how your child behaved during the session.
Having garnered so much valuable information on your child’s thoughts, behaviors, and emotions during camp, we think it’s only fair to deal you in. Surprisingly, many parents are so happy to see their child at the end of the day, week, month, or summer that they forget to ask their child’s counselor or cabin leader, “How did things go with my kid?”

And don’t take “Just fine” at face value. Sometimes well-meaning staff members forget something, too: how valuable their observations are to your role as a parent. Knowing how your son or daughter behaved in a highly social, recreational, outdoorsy environment, in which you were not present, is incredibly useful data. We know that parents crave feedback—both positive and constructive—that can shed new light on the best ways to promote healthy future development. To that end, we encourage you to ask the following:

·        What were some of the things that really impressed you about __________?

·        Can you describe a few times when you saw __________ at his/her best?

·        Can you describe a few times when you saw __________ not at his/her best?

·        How did __________ respond to your behavior management in those instances?

·        How did __________’s peers treat him/her?

·        How did __________ treat others?

·        What are a couple of things you think I could work on with __________ in the off-season?

Modify As Needed
Yes, it takes guts to present these seven conceptsto parents. You’re asking them to share confidential information; to trust some college and university students they’ve never met; to partner with you in promoting mental, emotional, and social adjustment (sometimes in counterintuitive ways); and to let you do your job as camp director. Of course, you might edit the language I’ve suggested or add an eighth or ninth guideline. I respect your personalization of this content, knowing the courage that this level of honest communication demands.

It also takes guts for parents to share their children with you. The beauty of sharing these seven guidelines with moms and dads (most of whom are also highly qualified in the workings of their child) is that they will immediately see the value in collaboration. For example, simply instructing parents to complete the health form doesn’t yield complete data. But by sharing concepts (1) and (2) above, you’ve transformed a simple instruction to a compelling rationale.

The ultimate beneficiaries of candid communication between camp and home are the young participants, of course. And although they may never be privy to the behind-the-scenes exchanges between you and their parents, they will appreciate the hundreds of ways that enlightened and engaged caregiving has created an amazing summer experience.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist who serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy. His writing and videos are favorite training tools for professional educators and youth leaders worldwide. He co-founded ExpertOnlineTraining.com, co-authored the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook, and hosts The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, a homesickness prevention DVD for families. Find out more on DrChrisThurber.com.