Camp Might Be Different Than You Remember...
With the arrival of summer, camp season has officially begun! Across the country, parents have begun to pack bags, fill out forms and sew on name tags in preparation for this beloved rite of passage for their kids.
But the question remains: Although summer camp is typically a time in which boys and girls learn to step out from under the watchful gaze of their parents and celebrate a new kind of independence, how do parents protect their children from being bullied when they are so far away from home?
That's the question I asked Dr. Joel Haber, an anti-bully coach and consultant for the American Camp Association. Dr. Haber has more than 20 years of experience in lending a hand to kids, families, schools, camps and other organizations; and when it comes to bullying, he recommends five crucial safeguards:
Become informed: Be proactive in learning about the camp's bully-prevention policy. Request to see any literature the camp may have produced, and then go beyond that. Ask about staff training -- in detail. Do counselors know how to spot vulnerable kids? Do they know how to identify the bullies? Are they trained to recognize exclusive and abusive behavior (whether physical, verbal or indirect)? Has the camp trained its counselors to build "inclusive bunks" and to model positive behavior? And most important, does the staff know how to stop a bullying problem immediately, before it gets any worse? Get all the facts!
Is your child a likely target?: Has your child been bullied before? If so, call the camp and tell them that. Let them know -- confidentially -- that your son or daughter is vulnerable to being targeted; and ask them to watch for signs that your child is being excluded or teased. Pick a point-person on the camp staff to discus this with, and always do follow-up!
Talk to your child: Kids get picked on for a variety of reasons (maybe he or she is the "new kid in the bunk"; or short, or shy, or not into sports, or even of a different race); and your child needs to know that if any of this leads to bullying, getting angry or showing emotion (crying, for example) only fuels the bullies, and can increase the degree and frequency of the abuse. Role-play with your child. Teach him the skills to maintain his composure and self-esteem. Make sure she feels confident about being assertive before she leaves for camp. A little bit of self-assurance goes a long way.
Make a plan together: Tell your child that if he or she feels unsafe at any time during the summer, to tell a counselor about it immediately. And if that doesn't get results, the child must go to another adult, team leader or even the camp director -- and keep going back until the problem is addressed. Explain to your child that it's okay to be persistent until the problem is resolved.
Cyberbullying: Most camps have a no-cell phone policy (blocking the Internet in their computer areas for example), but many parents want to keep in contact with their kids over the summer -- so sometimes, a handheld device slips through. But this sends all the wrong messages. Parents should understand that, in many instances, a cell phone opens the door for cyberbullying, and that they must adhere to the camp's no-cell policy. Just like during the off-seasons, parents and kids need to forge an ongoing partnership to prevent cyberbullying.
"The fundamental rule on bullying is the same at camp as it is at home," Dr. Haber told me in a telephone interview. "We need to teach our kids new skills, and help them develop positive attitudes and behavior. And my message to the camps themselves is to teach staff 'inclusiveness,' and to train counselors to create inclusive bunks."
Dr. Haber told me that when kids don't believe an adult will intervene, bullies will test their power over others, and the kids being bullied won't speak up. That's why it's vital that parents take concrete steps to help protect their kids.
As I wrote here back in May, our national conversation on bullying is a crucial one, and we'll continue to stay focused on the issue throughout the year, so that kids everywhere -- and their parents -- can put an end to bullying once and for all.
Because we must.
Joel Haber, Ph. D. is a clinical psychologist, consultant for the American Camp Association, nationally recognized parenting expert, and the author of the internationally acclaimed, Bullyproof Your Child for Life: Protect Your Child from Teasing, Taunting and Bullying for Good," He is the recipient of five parenting awards for his "Tool Kits for Kids."