Parent Panel Particulars

By Christopher Thurber

Chris, I struggle helping my staff members understand the magnitude of their responsibility. Everything from lifeguarding to language must be approached with seriousness of purpose, but so few of my staff are parents themselves that garnering that perspective seems impossible. Any ideas? 

--Louise Fritts Johnson, Director of Camp Arcadia, Otisfield, Maine  

Louise, your staff members are surrogate caregivers. They function as in loco parentis, both in the eyes of the law and those of each camper’s parents. So you’re absolutely right--they must understand their weighty responsibility. This is challenging, especially against the backdrop of a joyous recreational experience such as camp.

Buttering Up With A Purpose
In my years as a cabin leader (decades before I had children of my own), I learned the most about parents’ perspective on opening day. A standard part of each cabin leader’s meet-and-greet approach was to query parents: “Is there anything special I need to know about Benjamin? Any behavioral, emotional or physical factors that will help me know better how to be a good leader for him?” Besides filling parents with confidence that the staff members took their jobs seriously, this set of questions gave me (and all the other cabin leaders) a valuable parental perspective on their child and his or her functioning. No doubt this helped me understand the importance of my responsibility as a youth-development professional.

I heard some doozies in my day. Parents told me everything from “Just don’t let anything happen to that footlocker.  It was with me in ‘Nam.” to “Teach him how to play baseball.” But the most valuable comments were those that gave me insight into the work of parenting, such as, “His father and I have struggled to help him focus and pay attention. If you stand close to him when you give directions, he’s more likely to follow through.” Or, “It’s hard for us to say goodbye to her because we’re going through a separation that’s made us cherish family time more than ever.” Perhaps most powerful were simple loving remarks such as, “Just take good care of my baby. He means everything to us” (and they were talking about a 13-year-old).

A Little Insight
From these poignant interactions comes the idea of integrating a parent panel into your on-site training. Allowing veteran and new camper parents to converse with staff transforms staff attitudes on what it means to work at camp. They no longer see themselves as glorified babysitters with some coaching responsibilities. Instead, they see clearly--perhaps for the first time--they are responsible for the lives of other people’s children.

Here are step-by-step directions for preparing a parent panel:

1.       Choose a day early in the on-site staff training calendar, and set aside 90 minutes. Allot 50 minutes for staff to converse with parents, followed by a 10-minute break and 30 minutes for the staff to share its impressions.

Contact a cross section of eight or 10 veteran camper parents and eight or 10 new camper parents who live within driving distance of the camp. Your goal is to gather a heterogeneous mix of moms and dads, maybe six or eight total parents, who are willing to volunteer their time and candidly share their perspective on bringing their child to camp--either day or resident.

2.       On the day of the parent panel, set up chairs and refreshments in a comfortable location. Of critical importance is that staff is able to hear what parents say. Arrange the chairs accordingly, and if the staff is particularly large, be sure to have microphones wired to substantial speakers.

3.       Introduce the premise of the panel briefly, thank the participants, and then let go. Allow the parents to talk freely about their decision to provide a camp experience for their child, their hopes, fears and expectations for the outcome of the camp experience. Most importantly, have them answer the question, “What do you expect of our staff, the adults who will be caring for your child?”

4.       After a break, have the staff reconvene and process the question: “What’s your response to hearing these parents share their perspective?” and “How might this information change your attitude and behavior this summer?”

Parents Know More
Before I had children of my own, I had a pat response to workshop participants, editors and journalists when they asked, “Are you a parent yourself?” With a tinge of defensiveness, I conceded, “Well, I don’t have my own kids, but I’ve worked with thousands of kids in my two decades at camp.” It was enough to satisfy most skeptics, but those who were parents knew what I didn’t: Having children of your own--actually being a parent--enlightens a person in a way no other experience working with young people can. The day my first son was born, I bent over to kiss him on the stomach while he lay sleeping. He startled reflexively but continued sleeping, and I thought to myself, “I affect this new life.” More than that: “I helped bring this child into the world, and now I’ve started shaping his experience.” No moment before or since has more brightly highlighted the enormity of the responsibility I have as a parent.

Through no fault of their own, all childless camp staff members (that’s most of them) lack some appreciation for the importance of their work as youth-development professionals. However, assembling a parent panel as part of training will bring staff closer to a primary caregiver’s first-hand moral imperative. As a hedge against taking unhealthy risks that may jeopardize the physical and emotional safety of campers, hearing parents’ perspectives on bringing children to camp endows staff members with a vision wiser than their limited experience affords. Start assembling a panel today.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at SummerCampHandbook.com. He is the co-creator of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, a set of Internet-based video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at chris@campspirit.com.