In the course of my 20-year career as an adult camp professional, I've had many moms and dads confess that their first romance occurred at camp. Typically, these stories are about a first kiss under the moonlight after the dance in the main lodge. The stories--indeed the events themselves--have an idyllic charm.
Less charming (and far less common, thank goodness) are the confessions of camp directors who hear from outraged parents in November that one of their teen campers contracted a sexually transmitted disease or became pregnant at camp. Equally, if not more upsetting, are horror stories from campers that they were physically or sexually abused at camp. Nothing could be more upsetting to children, parents, and camp professionals. Camp is supposed to be a sanctuary from the outside world.
Although extremely rare, unwanted or unsafe sexual or physical contact between campers or between campers and camp staff can be avoided. Here are the essential steps all parents should take:
- Have frank, frequent, and age-appropriate discussions with your son or daughter about the privacy and protection of his or her body. Teach them to emphatically refuse unwanted touch. Teach them to report unwanted touch and inappropriate intimate behavior until someone listens. Teach them that no matter what a peer or adult perpetrator might tell them, they will never get in trouble for reporting unwelcome or unsafe touch.
- Check with the camp's director that all staff undergo appropriate background checks and reference checks. At a minimum, each staff member should pass a criminal background check and the camp director should hire someone only after checking at least three reputable references who have known that person for at least three years and witnessed his or her work with children. In addition, all staff should receive pre-season training on appropriate touch with children. More and more camps train their staff with Expert Online Training, which includes a video training module on safe touch and safe talk.
- Discuss your values with your son or daughter. Without lecturing, candidly discuss scenarios such as dates, school and camp dances, co-ed recreational activities, and the kind of physical intimacy that you believe is healthy in those different circumstances. A handshake? A kiss? Making out? The more explicit you can be, the better able your son or daughter will be in living up to your expectations. Also, review with your son or daughter how to assertively refuse an unwelcome romantic advance from a peer.
- Put appropriate physical intimacy in context. Hugs, kisses, and more intimate physical contact are healthiest when they occur in the context of a mutually fulfilling, kind, and developmentally appropriate relationship. Too often, young people are exposed to decontextualized sexual messages. The sex that happens in video games, movies, and other media is shown largely outside the parameters of a loving, committed relationship. Without your guidance, this can easily lead to a distorted concept of the role that physical intimacy plays in a relationship.
- Keep the lines of communication open. Despite the eye rolling and the "Aw, Mom!" and "Aw, Dad" comments, your children actually want to discuss sex and relationships with you. They may outwardly dismiss your counsel as old-fashioned, but they're internalizing it, piece by piece.
Children and adults are sexual beings, to be sure. However, most camp professionals and parents agree that while romance may blossom at summer camp, sexual activity is best postponed. And all adults and young people agree on the importance of physical and emotional safety. To help ensure your child's safety and healthy development, both in and out of camp, I encourage you to follow the steps above. Research has confirmed that summer camp accelerates children's growth in self-esteem, sense of adventure, independence, and social skills. Your active involvement is necessary to keep that accelerated growth on the right track.
For more information on protecting your children and educating your them about the parameters of safe touch, we recommend "Inoculating Your Children Against Sexual Abuse: What Every Parent Should Know," by Norman Friedman.