Part I: Questions To Ask Before Show and Tell
Hey, kids, gather ‘round. Let me tell you what I did on my night off, how far my romance has gone, and what I really think about the camp director. I can also explain those marks on my wrists from that time I was really depressed, and can advise you on which perfumes and colognes turn on the opposite sex.
Preserving professional boundaries can be difficult for camp staff members because they are assigned dual roles.
On the one hand, they must nurture close, trusting relationships with the children they serve.
On the other hand, staff members must enforce rules and deliver appropriate consequences for misbehavior.
Like a parent, a skilled staff member must be part friend, part policeman. Youthful inexperience is most obvious when staff fails to strike an authoritative balance and either overshare or underdiscipline.
Too Chummy To Be In Charge
I understand that children love camp staff members because they are cool. Compared to most parents, staff members better understand pop culture, have more time and energy to play, are better actors and athletes, and definitely act goofier.
This youthful exuberance is charming—even alluring—but it becomes toxic when staff members lose sight of their fiduciary responsibility.
A fiduciary is someone who has accepted the trust or confidence of a beneficiary (in this case, a child). Fiduciaries understand that they possess power the beneficiary does not. Therefore, fiduciaries have a responsibility to act in the beneficiary’s best interests. To do otherwise could be neglectful or abusive.
In non-legalese, here is the scoop: The covenant between camp staff members and children is that staff members agree to act in children’s best interests.
This model of servant leadership sounds great on paper, but in a small group setting, apart from the camp’s senior staff members, it’s easy for a lone counselor or cabin leader to take the bait when goaded by his or her charges:
- “Tell us what you did on your night off! I bet it was sooooo fun.”
- “What are the parties like in college? Please tell us!”
- “We promise to keep it a secret if you tell us about your boyfriend.”
- “Why do you always say that the unit leaders can’t find their way out of a paper bag?
Staff members who self-disclose adult themes and salacious content always experience a short-term bump in the polls. (“My counselor is soooooo cool.”)
Rarely do they consider how unsafe a “boundary-less” world starts to feel to children. Instead, staff is rapidly reinforced by smiles and laughter and prompted to share more.
And although many high-school-age and college-age staff members know where to draw the line, many more people cross it, sometimes unwittingly.
Crossing The Line
Senior staff members must therefore anticipate the temptation that less-experienced staff members have to “overshare”—physically, emotionally, and verbally.
Moreover, the underdeveloped frontal lobes of those young staff members add an impulsive variable to the professional-boundary equation. Hence, senior staff members must illustrate the consequences that junior staff members don’t always see. And there’s plenty they don’t see.
Take, for example, the male resident camp counselor who is suddenly inspired while changing out of his bathing suit before lunch. He tucks his penis and testicles between his legs, turns to his campers and hollers “Hey, guys, check out my mangina!”
The cabin erupts in gales of laughter, which would suggest that everyone is enjoying the show. Only on the way back from lunch do some boys start sharing their views, such as, “Yeah, that was a little creepy” and “My mom would totally freak out if she knew.”
Which, of course, she does when one of the boys writes home describing how “totally hilarious” his counselor is.
You know the rest of the story. Parent is shocked. Parent calls director. Director is shocked. Director speaks to counselor. Counselor is shocked … not by what he has done, but because the parent and director are shocked. “What’s the big deal?”
And therein lies the problem: A gap in understanding between what is appropriate among peers and what is appropriate for a fiduciary.
In this instance, the counselor was not acting in the best interests of his campers because he failed to anticipate their discomfort and the paramount importance of setting a wholesome example.
Whether his behavior was funny to many boys in the moment is beside the point. Children’s immediate reactions to adult boundary-crossings are never the litmus test of appropriateness.
What is a reliable litmus test is the following (and this is how I train staff members all over the world): Before you act, imagine that the director is sitting on one of your shoulders and the child’s parents on the other.
If you will be happy explaining your action to both parties, then please do or say what you are thinking. If you think one or both parties might disapprove, then can it.
There is no grey area here. Doubt = Don’t.
I’ve found this little test helps staff members discern the appropriate jokes, gestures, and yarns from the inappropriate ones. Before skit night, for example, I advise staff members to ask themselves, “Would I be perfectly comfortable explaining each and every gag to my boss and my parents?”
Determine What Is Appropriate
Another example involves a female staff member at day camp who surreptitiously removes her smartphone from her backpack during rest hour. One of the girls witnesses this minor rule infraction and asks to see what she’s doing.
“Nothing,” replies the young woman. “I shouldn’t even have this out.”
Now that the entire group’s interest is piqued, campers begin the disclosure campaign. “Please let us see what you have on your phone! Do you have a picture of your boyfriend? Can we text him? Is he cute?”
Eventually, the counselor gives in and the girls huddle tightly around her phone while she narrates sorority life, two brief romances, and a party shot where everyone is drinking from red Solo cups.
That night, one of the campers updates her own Facebook page with a seemingly complimentary post: “Loved seeing my counselor’s party photos today @ Camp Kenyushare. Her bf is H.O.T.”
Of course, when that post shows up on the news feed of another camper’s Facebook page—one monitored by a parent—it raises an eyebrow and prompts a phone call. Now we’re staring at that same gap in understanding between what is appropriate among peers and what is appropriate for a fiduciary.
Preserve Professional Boundaries
Directors cannot prevent all instances of impulsive oversharing. However, they can encourage their staff to preserve professional boundaries by doing more than delivering the simple admonition, “Don’t do anything stupid” or the nebulous advice, “Keep it campy.”
Heck, if those two lecturettes worked, I’d be out of a job.
Instead of vapid platitudes, I recommend that directors:
• Explain the concept of a fiduciary and describe their vision of a youth-development professional. Provide copious, specific examples of professional vs. unprofessional conduct.
• Invite some camp parents to speak with the staff about their expectations for mature caregiving. Few of your staff members are parents themselves, so it’s difficult to understand the caregiving context.
• Review some instances of inappropriate behavior and boundary-crossings from previous summers. This type of case review helps staff members see the consequences of boundary-crossings.
• Describe the litmus test of “Directors on one shoulder; Parents on the other” and ask the staff to use that test as you step through a dozen case studies that they themselves generate.
Designing training around professional boundaries is vastly superior to crossing your fingers and hoping this year’s staff won’t be as imprudent as last year’s.
The good news is that with intentional instruction, next year’s staff members will internalize your wise voice. With proper training, they’ll hear you asking, “Is this professional?” and “What might the consequences be?” and “How would this fly with directors and parents?” before the next opportunity to show and tell.
If all goes well, you won’t actually have to sit on anyone’s shoulders.
In the next issue: Part II: The Temptation to Cross Boundaries
Dr. Christopher Thurber is the school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy, the waterfront director at Camp Belknap, and the co-founder of the leading web-based educational resource for youth leaders, ExpertOnlineTraining.com.