The times they are a-changing — Bob Dylan
For some campers and staff, respect, responsibility, civility, adherence to appropriate standards of conduct, and the appropriate methods to resolve conflicts may have diminished. This promotes a different type of problematic behavior than what was found in the good old days at camp.
Campers and staff may come from toxic home and school environments where constructive discipline and behavior standards have been significantly compromised. These are the realities of the 21st Century.
Inappropriate behavior found in the outside world is increasingly being transported to and taking place at camp. Real-life issues and problems that have become more prevalent in both day and resident camps include the abuse or withdrawal of medication, illegal drugs and inhalants, alcohol abuse, harassment in its various forms, physical abuse, vandalism, violence, gambling, sexual activity, runaways, stealing and dishonesty.
In addition, bullying, the inability to make friends, the loner, depression, eating and sleeping disorders are becoming more visible.
The camp director is charged with the responsibility of providing for and ensuring the health, safety and security of the entire camp. Violations of this trust can promote the consequences of alleged negligence, possible litigation and the loss of both reputation and consumer satisfaction, even if the camp is ultimately found to be innocent.
Though having up-to-date worker’s compensation, medical and liability insurance policies, financial loss and negative notoriety can result in the possible closing of a camp when the organization’s behavioral standards, reasonable parental expectations and the law are alleged to have been violated.
Tolerate, Treat or Terminate?
Increasing amounts of stress, conflict and the loss of respect for authority, provided by peers, parents, teachers or institutions, and the expected conformity to peer-pressured acceptance in risk-taking can be attributed to both the camper’s and staff member’s experiences at home or school.
As found in homes, schools and colleges, major problems at camp in the 21st Century appear to be the failure of some campers and staff to adhere to the camp’s reasonable behavior standards and expectations, which have been sent home to them by the camp administration and discussed with them during the camp season.
Implementation of the philosophy, mission and behavior standards provided by an organization are universally recognized as the common denominators for the effective functioning of most organizations, including camps.
Constructive decision-making can be achieved through the practice of effective human relations, communication and positive reinforcement techniques in order to effectively resolve problematic behavior at camp.
The use of written pre-camp orientation materials, followed by discussion with both the staff and campers after their arrival allows the camp director and administrators to reinforce ground rules for all participants in the camp community.
Atypical and antisocial behavior, conflicts and issues brought to or occurring at camp must be anticipated, perceived and resolved by the director and administrators. They must simultaneously take a flexible but compassionate position as to which types of behavior are inappropriate, and their projected resolution at camp.
Parents, campers and staff do want to know before the season what standards, expectations and outcomes will be found at camp. It must be made very clear to one and all that the director and administrators will not be indecisive, tolerate or attempt to appease, rather than resolve particular problems equitably.
Confidence in and respect for camp as an educational institution can only be achieved by structuring behavior standards and possible outcomes in writing before camp. The rationale for stating potential resolutions or sanctions for inappropriate behavior by campers or staff could ultimately result in their suspension or termination from the camp.
When the director must communicate with parents during the camp season concerning their child’s problematic behavior, a number of positive and negative responses can be expected:
• “I understand the problem and will comply with your suggestion by speaking with my child on the telephone, or I will come to camp for a face-to-face discussion with you and your counselors before speaking with my child in order to hopefully help resolve the problem.”
• “I will remove my child from camp because it appears to be a no-win situation for my child and your camp.”
• “It must be a case of mistaken identity. Please further investigate the alleged problem!”
• “Other campers or staff members must be provoking their inappropriate behavior.”
• “My child’s behavior is your camp’s responsibility. I paid the tuition, therefore you deal with them as best you can!”
• “I will not remove my child from camp because it’s your fault… We’re on vacation and cannot return…”
When parents deny, resist, or are uncooperative during the director’s effort to resolve the camper’s problem, the following statement may expedite appropriate closure…
“The camp can no longer assume, manage or take further responsibility for the child’s behavior and welfare without your full support and intervention. If it is not forthcoming the camp has the prerogative to transfer the camper to the jurisdiction of the local or state division of youth services.”
Hopefully, the director will not have to utilize this court of last resort statement in order to expedite parents constructive participation in resolving their child’s problematic behavior.
Prevention is the Cure
The intrusion of inappropriate behavior is found in the outside world, and when demonstrated at camp can pose a potential number of problem areas.
Ambivalence, complacency and the denial of inappropriate behavior at camp are quite unrealistic. This result can cause major problems for the director if the parents of other campers do not allow their children to return to camp the following season because of what happened the previous summer.
The director’s and administrator’s competence, effectiveness and responsibility to provide constructive experiences at camp must be publicized and reinforced. Parents and campers want to know up front that their expectations of trust and competent and effective supervision will be available, implemented and maintained at camp.
Denial, wishful thinking, or a laissez-faire attitude can result in the loss of the camp’s reputation, litigation and financial disaster if all of the above contingencies are not taken into consideration and planned for well in advance of each camping season.
An ounce of prevention can be worth more than a pound of cure — Anonymous
Charles B. Rotman is Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., is the author of “Camp is Business, Customer Satisfaction” and “Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) in Camp Management” (1998. Babson College Press), and is president of CBR Associates Inc., a mental health consulting service utilizing principles of applied psychology in the camp environment. For questions, Rotman can be reached at (508) 651-1132 or email@example.com.