Universal Vulnerabilities

Youthful inexperience impairs decision-making skills. Yes, it’s true that the underdeveloped frontal lobes of men and women in their late teens and early twenties put them at a biological disadvantage. They are at greater risk for crossing boundaries because, compared to older adults, they have less impulse control, poorer hypothetical thinking, less sophisticated reasoning and—through no fault of their own—less experience on the planet. Together, these factors make young adults statistically more likely to cross boundaries than older adults.

Contextual Factors

A cabin, lodge, car, or wilderness setting feels private. The environmental context of an enclosed or remote setting is part of what makes camp, camp. For any staff members who feel that these buildings or woods afford privacy, there is a risk of boundary crossings. Anyone who has worked at a camp or independent school can describe that, in such cloistered settings—ones where many people live together in close quarters—there are, ultimately, no secrets.

The Internet environment (e.g., chat rooms, text messaging) with perceived anonymity lowers inhibitions and may allow for otherwise forbidden or inappropriate behaviors. As we have seen with politicians and celebrities, the Internet makes it easy to cross boundaries. Indeed, search engines and banner ads invite us to cross boundaries. People are curious, and the Internet is the ultimate satisfier of that curiosity. Moreover, the Internet can make us seem as if we are in a private space, which lowers the inhibitions we may feel in public spaces. In fact, there is no more public space than the Internet. For these reasons, all staff members need education about appropriate online behavior. Remember, if it’s digital, it’s duplicable.

Given all of these temptations and risk factors for boundary crossings, you might feel as if employing young staff members to care for other people’s children is the consummate precarious profession. And if it were not for the opportunity to provide top-drawer training to these young adults, you would be right.

Fortunately, well-educated employees rarely commit egregious boundary violations. The catch is, all staff members are at risk, so any director who skimps on staff training, even a little, is inviting the 14 temptations noted above to take hold.

Part I of this series focused on key prevention practices. Reviewing those now might be helpful because you’ll see them in a different light. Then add these other essential preventive measures to your training repertoire:

(1) Emphasize to staff members that it is always their responsibility—not a youngster’s—to observe and enforce boundaries, regardless of the context and emotions involved.

(2) Remind personnel that the Internet is public space. How they behave in that space, like all other public behavior, should set a sterling example for young people to follow.

(3) Explain to staff members how stress and negative emotion can cloud judgment. Educate them about the healthiest ways to manage the challenges of their job, including whom to talk with when they are feeling overwhelmed or strung out.

(4) Ensure that staff members understand how normal it is for their contact with young people to stir up all types of positive emotions, some of which might be confusing. It takes an experienced director to help staff members keep their enthusiasm and affection within strict professional parameters.

In Part III of this series, I’ll explain the ways in which staff members can support one another in observing professional boundaries, and, in so doing, maintain the highest standards of leadership. Because we all share the vulnerabilities outlined in this article, we also share a responsibility to keep one another in check.

Part of our fiduciary responsibility—part of keeping young people’s best interests as our top priority—is giving our adult peers quality feedback on their job. Equally important is being receptive to our peers’ feedback on our own professional conduct.

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.

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Related posts:

  1. Am I Oversharing?
  2. Watch Out For One Another
  3. For Juniors’ Sake
  4. Kids’ Big Fears, Part II
  5. Continuous Professional Development

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