Sidestepping Stereotypes

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?

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