*This appeared as a column in the Five Towns Jewish Times*
We are sending our son to sleepaway camp this summer for the first time. He’s 10 years old, and most of his friends already went last year. I’m very nervous because something bad happened to one of my siblings at sleep away camp when we were kids, and there were serious repercussions from it. My husband keeps reassuring me that that was very unusual and that things are different now. I hope he’s right but I’m not so sure. I wish we could keep him home and send him to day camp indefinitely, but I see how that’s not fair to him if all his friends go away. And he’s excited to go. What I’m hoping you can help me with is what I can do to ensure his safety while he’s away from home.
Thanks in advance,
Dear Nervous Mom,
I’m so sorry to hear what happened to your sibling. When there is trauma in the family, it affects not only the person directly involved, but the loved ones too. It makes sense that if you or someone you love had a bad experience with camp, it can feel scary to now entrust your own child to the same sort of program.
Even without that incident in your family history, it’s so normal for parents to be worried about sending a child away from home for the first time. It’s both responsible and admirable that you want to do the most you can, so he’s informed and equipped to reduce the risk of harm or abuse. I say reduce rather than prevent for two reasons:
1. It should never be a child’s responsibility to protect him or herself from harm or abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to be taking care of them.
2. Even if we teach children the best we can, and even if they do exactly what they’re supposed to do, there are occasionally situations where those measures would not have prevented what was done, and so again, we are reducing the risks, but there aren’t complete guarantees.
I say this not to scare you, but to help you confront the reality that any time we allow a child to venture out of our sight, which is necessary as they get older, we are taking a certain amount of risk. This is true whether they’re going to sleepaway camp, day camp, school, extracurricular activities, shul, a playdate, or even a relative’s house. Tragically, abuse can and does occur in all those contexts. Safety education, body boundaries, and open communication with parents should ideally begin as young as the toddler years. I imagine, based on the level of concern you express, that this will not be the first conversation you have with your child about this, but perhaps more specific to the new context of camp.
As much as I wish your husband were correct in saying that what happened to your sibling was very unusual, the statistics would say otherwise. He is correct in saying that things are different now.
I remember once when my kids were young, I had called a prospective sleepaway camp and asked what they do for abuse prevention programming. The director answered me in a way that sounded condescending and dismissive, as if the question itself was offensive and indicated that I was probably just “one of those” neurotic, difficult parents. It was implied that obviously there was no need for something that extreme in this camp. Several years later, I heard that this camp, along with many others, had instituted some excellent staff training and camper safety protocols. Things are slowly changing, thank G-d.
It also used to be that camps would never let kids call home. There were explanations about how they believe calling makes homesickness worse, paints an inaccurate picture for parents of what’s happening, and prevents kids from solving their own minor problems. While that may or may not be true, depending on the child, policies like this enabled abuse to go unreported for longer, since a scared or traumatized child is less likely to turn to another unfamiliar adult for help than to a parent. Fortunately, we see camps becoming more transparent and flexible about facilitating communication home, even though it’s less convenient for the staff, which is important progress in this area.
Here are some tips to help you prepare your child for camp:
1. Respectfully ask the camp about their training, protocols, and rules. You can share this with your son. For example, if the camp rule is: No counselors are allowed to invite a camper on to his own bed or sit on a camper’s bed, you can let your son know this, so that if that occurs, he knows he’s within his rights to object. Also: when the administration is aware that parents are knowledgeable about these concerns and supportive of their efforts, they are more likely to prioritize and reinforce the safety rules. Kids whose parents make it known that they are savvy and proactive about this are less likely to be targeted.
2. Remind your son more than once about all kinds of safety, like: always be sure there’s a lifeguard when swimming, stay in the bunkhouse after curfew, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, use sunscreen, and no one is ever allowed to touch you if you don’t want them to. If there is ever any kind of touch that you don’t want, whether it’s bothering, physical bullying, or affection, even if it’s just an arm around your shoulders, or a hug, if you don’t like it, you can ask them to stop or move away. And you should show the same respect to others about their bodies, boundaries, and personal items. No one, not even an adult or counselor, is ever allowed to touch or ask to see your private parts, and you should never touch or ask to see anyone else’s. Teach them the proper names for body parts, as well as the slang equivalents that they might hear based on the social culture of the program.
3. Some things aren’t funny. Or, they might seem funny, but that doesn’t make them ok. While we might sometimes wish we could prevent all inappropriate jokes, that’s simply not possible. But teaching our kids what they are, why they’re unkind, especially if it makes fun of specific people, can sensitize them to these boundaries, especially when it can go beyond the verbal. For example: It’s not funny or ok to mock others’ bodies, to pull open the curtain on someone’s shower, or watch someone at the urinal- if you see someone else doing that, don’t laugh, and if you feel uncomfortable with someone’s behavior in the bathrooms, do tell a trusted adult. This is not “tattling,” it’s helping keep people safe.
4. Tell them that we don’t go off alone, one on one, with anyone- kid, teen, or adult. Not in a car, not in a secluded office, not in a camping tent, or even an empty bunkhouse. If there is an extenuating reason, say a counselor needs to drive you to the infirmary, teach them to say: “I’m supposed to call my mom/dad and ask permission before going in a car with anyone, ever. We can just call them for a minute on speaker, on your cell, please.”
5. No secrets. I would love to say, “not even for surprise purposes,” but for now, the difference between a surprise and an unsafe secret is that a surprise is designed to eventually be shared, while an unsafe secret is generally open-ended, and sometimes comes with a threat.
6. What grooming looks like: Tell kids that a lot of private special attention, gifts, or privileges to any one camper is not appropriate, and that they can say “no thank you,” especially if it feels confusing. That if someone does favors for them, and then asks them to do things that feel off, they should trust their instincts, and say: "No, I don’t feel comfortable with that."
7. What to do if “it happens:” We would naturally prefer not to need this information. But in case someone does violate a boundary, the more prepared a kid is, the sooner we can deal with it. They need to know that while it’s not only ok but smart to take precautions and set boundaries, if anyone does end up touching or doing something otherwise inappropriate, it’s not the child’s fault. That they can and should always come to us. We will believe them, and we will do our best to keep them safer. If they were afraid of the other person and promised to keep a secret, it’s 100% ok and healthy to break that kind of promise afterwards. You can give him a code word or phrase to say to you on a call, one that you don’t usually use otherwise, but could be used without suspicion, to let you know if there’s a problem, in case he’s uncomfortable speaking in front of others who may be there.
8. General sex education. Yes. Even at this age. A kid who is well informed is more likely to feel autonomous about his body and his right to privacy and safety, and to respect that of others. He’s also less susceptible to misinformation from peers and predators.
Ideally this material should be shared not in one intense conversation, but in a drip, in other related contexts, repeatedly, and not in alarming or hushed tones. Just matter of fact, calm, and clear.
Some might say all this isn’t necessary for most kids. And thankfully, they’re probably right.
Most cars don’t crash, but we all wear seat belts.
Most schools don’t have fires, but we have fire drills.
We take these safety precautions because it’s a relatively simple way to prepare for dangers that might and often do occur. Abuse and boundary crossing happen more frequently than most people realize. If we can prepare our kids and communities to reduce the risk, it’s surely worth a few extra conversations.
This was just a brief overview, but there are many wonderful online resources which elaborate on these ideas and can help you facilitate these dialogues.
Wishing your family a happy, wholesome, healthy, and safe summer.
Note: I offer a self-paced online course titled: Sacred, Not Secret: A Religious Family’s Guide to Healthy, Holy Sexuality Education, and it includes a unit on safety and body boundaries. There is currently an affordability code to make it more financially accessible. You can learn more about it and sample some free lessons at elishevaliss.com/sacrednotsecret and enter code AC at checkout to join at 50% off.