Alongside the pop-culture image of summer camps as frivolous playgrounds for food fights and panty raids lie insidious and maladaptive gender-role stereotypes. Boys’ camps are thought to be full of manly men whose superior upper-body strength and testosterone-saturated blood shape a culture of hazing, rough-and-tumble play and extreme competition. Girls’ camps are thought to be full of girly girls whose glossy nails, glossier smiles and dolled-up fashion hide a cliquey social hierarchy of queen bees, mean girls and suicidal social rejects.
Yikes! Is that terrible rumble the sound of the positive youth-development training derailing? It could be. These gender-role stereotypes are–like every stereotype–distorted and destructive. But like many stereotypes, they contain a grain of truth. Every staff member who conforms thoughtlessly to an insensitive and aggressive stereotype or to a superficial and gossipy stereotype sets the camp world back a step. Thank goodness the staff members at high-quality youth-development programs are shedding these destructive stereotypes and taking steps to project healthy examples for impressionable youngsters. Such was not always the case.
Exposing The Truth
A decade ago I arrived at a co-ed camp where I was scheduled to provide a mid-season staff-training workshop. The entrance to the camp was remarkably pretty. Unlike some camps, whose access roads feature deteriorating signage, potholes and a dumpster, this camp’s entrance had a handsome sign pointing up a well-maintained dirt road that opened onto a meadow where the camp’s horses were grazing. “It’s one of the most beautiful camp entrances I’ve ever seen,” I remember saying to the director. “The horse pasture at the top of the hill probably gets every camper excited for camp.”
“If only they’d ride the horses,” lamented the director. “Excuse me?” I was baffled. “What boy or girl wouldn’t love to ride a horse?” “It’s not the horses,” she explained. “It’s the campers. The boys think riding is a girl activity, and the girls don’t want to climb the hill. They don’t want to get sweaty. They’re worried the boys will lose interest if the girls look grubby.”
The camp director was mistaken, as I came to discover. The problem wasn’t the campers. The problem was the staff members, whose adherence to gender-role stereotypes set a poor example for the campers. Male staff members didn’t overtly criticize riding. It was enough to crack a half-smile, raise one eyebrow, and say, “Well … you could go up to riding … if you want. The rest of us are gonna play some hoops.” Nor did female staff members openly discourage hiking up the hill. A subtle disincentive was enough. “We can go up the hill to horseback if you girls want, but I know it’ll be hot and muddy and we’ll totally have to take showers again before dinner.” I can’t make this stuff up.
Out In The Open
What I did make up was an impromptu workshop for the staff members about the pitfalls of gender-role stereotypes. These days, it’s a well-developed workshop, frequently requested by all types of camps. When I take an exploratory, lighthearted approach, staff members rarely become defensive. They are often able to make remarkable improvements in their thinking and behavior. Because gender-role stereotypes can infect any organization, I suggest an open discussion with your entire staff to answer:
1. What are the obvious/subtle differences between males and females in this culture?
2. What stereotypes do females sometimes have about males and vice-versa?
3. In what ways do gender-role stereotypes play out here at camp?
4. In what ways do these gender-role stereotypes shape campers’ attitudes and behaviors?
5. In what ways can staff set the best possible example for campers, such that male staff members are promoting healthy boy development and females are promoting healthy girl development?
6. What are the long-term developmental outcomes we’re hoping to achieve at this camp? In other words, what kind of men and women do we want campers to become?
Round ‘Em Up
While responses to some of these questions spark laughter, others prompt serious consideration. In some way, they all contribute to revised attitudes and behaviors. With a co-ed staff, I enjoy separating males and females into concentric circles, in a configuration referred to as the “fishbowl,” for questions 2 and 3. I explain that members of the inside circle should discuss their answers to the question, while the outside circle listens silently. After a period of time, the circles switch, and the listening group members have a chance to express themselves. The fishbowl setup often permits more open discussion within a subgroup than blended seating.
I’m always impressed by the insights staff members have during this workshop. Despite a few embarrassing moments, they are generally forthcoming. Most of them are not only happy to disclose their thoughts on gender-role stereotypes, they’re eager to unload the ways in which these stereotypes have, for years, constrained their behaviors, or negatively affected the way they are viewed by the opposite sex.
For example, some young men are keen to inform young women that they feel a wide range of emotions; that they do think about lots besides sex; that they can ask for directions; and that sometimes they truly are not thinking about anything in particular. Some young women are keen to inform young men that they don’t always care how they look; that they can distinguish points on a compass; that they do enjoy when men appear vulnerable; and that friendship is a prerequisite to romance.
Creating Role Models In Peer Groups
These disclosures, while revealing, are often met with cries of “not for me!” from members of the same gender. And how could it be otherwise? The point of the workshop is not only to uncover and shatter stereotypes, but also to sensitize people to individual differences among members of the same gender. Participants gradually learn that the real danger of a stereotype comes from using it as a basis for judgment. Prejudice is, after all, pre-judging, often on the basis of a stereotype. Therefore, the real opportunity–at camp and in life–comes in the form of authentic relationships and personal integrity. Participants gradually learn that the life worth living is the one unfettered by distorted or limiting notions of what it means to be a boy or a girl, a man or a woman.
When some of these insights stick, the results at camp are extraordinary. Male staff members become less self-conscious about being appropriately affectionate with other males, discuss how they feel, and express their appreciation of natural beauty. Female staff members become more assertive, take more initiative, eschew daily primping, and participate fully in the camp’s program.
Most extraordinary of all, of course, is the liberating effect that this enlightened role-modeling has on the boys and girls who attend the camp. They witness young men and young women who are strong, sensitive, affectionate, bold, creative and athletic. And they want to become what they see. Camp becomes an environment of opportunity, not subtle oppression. To sidestep stereotypes is to embrace one’s complete humanity and the universe of possibilities therein.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org