Adventures with Camp Parents (May-June, 2006)

Very often while I am visiting a camp in June or July, I not only hear about challenging camper behavior, but perplexing parent behavior as well. I decided to share one of these episodes as a way of illustrating techniques for working more effectively with camper parents. I have changed a few minor details to protect the privacy of the family—and camp–involved.
Rocket Boy Stages a Launch
Alec is a wiry ten year-old boy who seems to be an expert in group mayhem. Often shouting out when a counselor is talking, Alec has a mind of his own. In the summer that I caught up with him, he was rarely staying with his group, frequently running off on his own without permission or a counselor to accompany him.
His most challenging behavior, however, occurred when he was with his group-mates. Alec had a very difficult time keeping his hands to himself, grabbing things from other boys when he wanted something of theirs and lashing out when he lost a game or felt “dissed” by one of his peers. When spoken to by a counselor, he complained of being “singled out” and mistreated. After about a week of his physical and verbal assaults, the other boys in Alec’s group began complaining bitterly about him. Some wrote letters home to their parents and others said Alec was ruining their summer.
About ten days into camp, while Alec was at model rocketry, he stole one of the propellant cartridges used as engines. Using some contraband matches he had snuck into camp, he tried to light the engine on the ground just outside the rocketry shack after the period was over. Luckily, the activity counselor caught him before he could do any damage to himself or anyone else, but it was Alec’s reaction that most upset the staff. Rather then owning up to the fact that he had stolen the engine and endangered himself and possibly others, Alec was defiant and outraged that he wasn’t being allowed to “have any fun.” What had started out as mischievous behavior on Alec’s part had quickly escalated into the mistreatment of others, eventually spiraling into potentially dangerous behavior.

When contacted, his parents were angry and defensive. They wondered why the camp had waited so long to inform them of their son’s misbehavior. It seemed to them that they were being notified at a point when the camp was ready to send Alec home, which made them feel helpless and resentful. They also claimed that Alec “never did such things at home,” and questioned whether the counselors were somehow “singling (their) son out”—a tune eerily similar to the one Alec had crooned just days earlier! They also felt Alec was the “victim of poor supervision,” implying that he would never have gotten his hands on that rocket engine had the rocket counselor been more watchful. Reasoning this way, it was not too much of a stretch for them to say that they felt Alec was being “punished” for the poor performance of his counselors.

Just to make things more interesting, it came out during the exchanges that ensued between the camp director and Alec’s parents that Alec took a psycho-stimulant medication for attention and impulsivity while in school, a fact the parents had not previously mentioned. They had decided to take him off that medication for the summer without telling the camp.
As a camp director, were you to find yourself in this situation, you would probably be experiencing a range of reactions. You might worry about campers getting hurt by Alec. You might fear the impatience or anger of parents whose campers have already fallen prey to his aggression. You might feel defensive or angry in the face of Alec’s parents’ accusations. You might experience a bit of self-recrimination for not having found a way to make things “work” for this boy, and maybe even protectiveness for your staff, whose patience with the boy would be wearing pretty thin by now. With all this swirling about, how would you respond to these worried, angry, fearful parents? Let’s walk through it step by step.

The very first step is to take stock of your feelings. The worst thing would be to get into a heated exchange and have your feelings get the better of you. While it is human to have feelings, it is not professional to let them have you! What you and your camp don’t need is to have your feelings dictate your responses. Stall for time before returning that phone call if that’s what it takes to get your emotions in order.
Second, resist the temptation to get into a blame game with the parents. Maybe things would have been different had Alec been on his meds, but rubbing that in his parents’ faces doesn’t further your cause. Trust me, underneath it all they feel terrible. Part of their attack is an attempt to deflect the guilt they already feel. Don’t fall into that trap. Take the high road. Acknowledge your mistake up front—you should have called earlier! That you may have wanted to give Alec the benefit of the doubt and time to work things out (which is true) should not distract from the sincerity of owning this mistake. Parents do not like surprises!
Likewise, don’t get into an argument about their statement that “Alec never does this sort of thing at home!” The best response to their claim, far fetched as it may seem to you, is to accept it at face value. It just might be that he doesn’t act this way at home. (He just acts that way in school—thus the meds! But you won’t mention that!) “Children act very differently depending on what group or situation they are in at the time,” you explain. “Alec probably doesn’t behave at your holiday dinner table the same way when he’s outside with his friends with no adults around.” It just might be that Alec just isn’t ready for the kind of group living situation that comes with camp. Some kids are more comfortable with it than others.
You will also wait for an opening to mention how hard this must be for them to hear. No parent likes to be told their child is struggling. If you have a moment when you sense they are more open, you can add that, from the sound of it, Alec has probably not had an easy go of it. If they ask you why you say this, you respond with your knowledge that kids with ADHD, which you assume Alec has been diagnosed with since he is on medication for it in school (remember, you are not a qualified diagnostician!), often have struggles others kids don’t have.

Let’s also consider their claim that Alec is being punished because of poor counselor performance or supervision. This argument avoids the reality that Alec seems determined to get into things that are of such danger to himself and others that he would need constant, one-on-one supervision. This is not what camp is about. Children must take some responsibility for behaving in such a way that they can be trusted. Given that Alec is sneaky, that he refuses to stay with his group and that he is intent on breaking rules, the amount of supervision that would be required to keep him safe is not appropriate in a camp setting.
Remain firm. Maybe you could have called them sooner. Maybe you could have thought together about better ways to manage Alec. The bottom line is that Alec has now crossed a line where you can no longer guarantee his safety or the safety of other campers. Resist the temptation to say how other parents are understandably upset about what their sons are experiencing at Alec’s hands. While true, no parent is interested in what other parents or campers might think. We wish they did, but they don’t, and saying so only weakens your position. It is enough that Alec has behaved in such a way where his safety and that of others can not be assured. He simply cannot stay at camp because you can’t guarantee that safety. Next year is another year, but for now Alec must go home.
Looking Back
Parents today are more concerned about how their children are treated by other caretakers. With all that is in the news about trusted adults mistreating children, how could they not be? Overall, parents probably should be called sooner than you might have done in the past. The point is to learn techniques like the ones I have outlined here for defusing difficult conversations while maintaining the integrity of your program. When parents are not being their “best selves” with us, it is crucial that we find ways to be “our best selves” in response. To be your best self not only serves these parents and this camper, but your reputation as a fair-minded, principled professional and the good name of camp

For more techniques, go to www.ACACamps.org/handouts for a copy of the handout from Bob’s opening keynote address with Jay Frankel and the True-to-Life Training Company at the 2006 National Conference in Chicago.

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