Things have changed since I was a kid – and I’m not that old!  Well, I don’t feel all that old.  I may only be 37, but I guess I did attend summer camp last century.  I hope that was easier for you to read than it was for me to write.  Here’s the thing, though, I don’t need a calendar to mark the passage of time.  I just need to think about how human interaction has evolved over the past three decades.

Whether you are aware of it or not, the way youth development professionals interact with the children they work with has changed dramatically.  If you are over 30, you may remember a soccer coach driving you home after practice.  You probably recall a favorite teacher or the director of your school play taking a little extra time after school to work with you one-on-one.  If you grew up going to camp, you may even remember reading a letter from your summer camp counselor during the winter.  If you are a child growing up in America today, chances are you will never experience any of these things.  Times have changed.

Every youth-serving agency in the country struggles to find the balance between appropriate child protection and delivering quality, impactful programs.  If you work for, or volunteer in, the YMCA, you have probably signed a code of conduct that prohibits you from transporting a minor to or from a program in your personal vehicle.  That same code would prohibit you from contacting a child or teen outside of the defined parameters of the program you are running.  It would ask that you agree to never babysit a child you meet through a YMCA program.  It would prohibit you from ever being alone with a child.  Not one of these statements should sound unreasonable – they are for the protection of the children with which we work.  Here, in America, we take the care of our children very seriously.  As a dad, I am grateful for that. 

In summer camp, one of the topics covered in a good staff training involves appropriate counselor/camper contact after the summer camp season ends.  Why is this a topic?  Quite honestly, if the camp and its counselors are good at what they do, your child will want to continue to interact with them throughout the year. 

There was a fad among YMCA camps several years ago.  Instead of giving staff a traditional “staff shirt,” YMCA directors were handing out “Professional Role Model” shirts.  While this may have become a cliché, it was a slogan for a reason.  As camp directors, we want our staff to be role models for the kids we work with.  Kids get attached to good, charismatic staff, and they want to keep the relationships going.  Thirty years ago, that wouldn’t have been a problem.

Through the 1980s the camping industry and society at large didn’t have a problem with kids reaching out to their summer camp counselors after the summer ended via the U.S. Postal Service.  At that time, the potential for contact between people not living in the same community was limited to snail mail and the phone.  Now when we think about camper/counselor contact, we have to consider cell phones, smart phones, texts, email, instant messages, Facebook, My Space, chat rooms, discussion groups, digital photos, video – and the U.S. Postal Service.  With increased opportunity for online interaction comes increased risk.  Camps have responded appropriately.

So what is “appropriate” contact between summer camp counselors and the children with which they work?  The short answer is (drumroll, please), whatever your camp says it is.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My Advice for Parents:

Read your camp’s materials.  They should have a section on counselor/camper contact after the camp season.  Most camp’s prohibit phone calls, emails, and social networking site interaction between your child and camp staff.  That does become difficult to enforce since most camp staff are seasonal (they are only employeed by the camp for the summer).  This puts the onus back on parents to monitor who their kids are interacting with online.  Check out your child’s “friends” on Facebook and My Space.  Read the posts.  Stay involved.

Most camps have an “official” Facebook and/or My Space page.  These sites are generally monitored on a daily basis, but you will want to check with the camp.  Again, if your child is “friending” the camp, you may want to consider doing the same. 

Know that not all camps have identical counselor/camper contact policies.  Some programs encourage letter writing between staff and campers throughout the year.  Some camps publish yearbooks or calendars that print all the camper addresses.  Other camps have middle-of-the-road approaches that allow campers to mail letters to counselors via the camp address.  Likewise, when counselors write the camper back, the letter should pass through the camp office and then be forwarded on.  Some camps have strict “no contact” policies. 

If you suspect a former camp counselor is contacting your child inappropriately (innocently or not), contact the camp.  I have no doubt that the camp professionals will work with you to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. 

My Advice to Camp Professionals:

Know your policy.  Know why it was instituted.  Know what the intent of the policy was when it was written.  In a world where on-line interactions are evolving daily, the intent of your policy is probably more important than the actual language.

Educate your young, college-age staff.  They need to know the intent of your policy, as well, so they can make good decisions in ambiguous situations.  Also, educate them about privacy settings on social networking sites – as well as why that privacy is important for their future.

_______________________________________________________________________________

The relationship between a counselor and her summer campers is paramount to the camp experience.  A good counselor can positively change the life of a child.  As parents, and camp professionals, we have to respect the power of that relationship while drawing clear boundaries that we can share with our children and our young staff.

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

Be sure to visit Nathan’s camp, The South Mountain YMCA Camps, at www.smymca.org.

Advertisements