In the Trenches: Notes on Communication with Parents

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter


Dear Bob,

Many camps we know now have Web sites where, during the summer, they post pictures
on an almost daily basis of campers at various activities at camp. Colleagues
who do this tell us they get many hundreds of "hits" each day during the
summer as a result of this practice.

We have resisted doing this because we have wondered whether having
so many pictures doesn't compromise that special and separate experience
that we so cherish about camp. We feel that one of the strengths of camp
is that it allows children to reinforce their autonomy in a safe, healthy
environment. Though we want parents to know what we do, exposing that
experience in such detail seems to us to dilute the independence we are
trying to develop. Do you have any thoughts on this?

- Not Convinced in North Carolina

Dear Not Convinced,

Many camps do, indeed, have what they call "photo galleries," or pages
on their Web sites during the summer where fresh photographs of campers
appear on a daily basis. These have proven to be extremely popular with
parents, but your question about protecting the separateness of camp
is a good one.

First, let us remember that those photographs can be reviewed and hand
picked before they are put up on the site. That gives you control over
what appears and what doesn't. I mention this not because you might have
something to hide, but because a photograph seen out of context can give
a misleading impression about what might actually be happening.

Remember, too, that what parents see when they view a photograph is
one image frozen in time. What they don't see are the interactions that
lead up to and follow that instant - those many moments that, taken altogether,
make the experience at camp so special. Having photos is not like putting
a video camera in a cabin or down at the waterfront, which would be intrusive.

What is also missing from the photo gallery is sound. Given that parents
are still not privy to the banter and dialogue among campers and campers
and staff, much of that autonomy and independence you refer to are never
compromised because parents can't hear it. I have spoken to directors
whose concern about the photo gallery is precisely that it doesn't give
an accurate or complete picture of what camp is really about. Their argument
is that those "Kodak Moments" are such a small part of the overall experience
of camp that parents will either get an incomplete picture or, worse,
a distorted one.

As long as the photographs are carefully chosen, I do not think they
pose a threat to the special environment of camp. Furthermore, I don't
think parents "log on" to do anything other than see their own children.
In these post September 11th days, my sense is that parents are going
to want more, not less reassurance about their children, simply because
in our collective anxiety about safety and security, they, like the rest
of us, want to know that "things are okay." It seems to me that the photo
gallery provides a simple, convenient way for parents to get this reassurance
without interfering with or intruding into that special experience we
call camp.

Camp Is Calling

Dear Bob,

We train our division leaders to have a lot of phone contact with parents concerning
their children. For example, we have made a promise to parents of every camper
new to our camp that we would call them within the first twenty-four hours
of the beginning of camp to let them know how their child is doing. We also
make a call during the first three days to tell the parents something about
their child's progress - like a favorite activity or new friend or special
achievement - because, if we have to call later about some negative behavior,
it isn't all they've heard from us. This involves a lot of work on our part,
but we feel it has paid off handsomely in terms of increased parent trust
and cooperation.

My question has to do with parent voice mail. We often get an answering
machine or voice mail when we contact parents. I feel it is best not
to leave a message. First, I am concerned that parents might think that
some harm had come to their child if they hear a camp person on their
voice mail without knowing what the call is about. Second, I prefer to
deliver the news personally, as I think it has more of a positive impact.
I believe that if we get voice mail we shouldn't leave any message, but
should call back later. What do you think?

- Phoning in Phoenix

Dear Phoning,

First, I want to acknowledge the tremendous commitment you have made
to your parents. Given how busy those first twenty-four or seventy-two
hours are at camp, contacting parents as you do is a commendable, time-intensive
promise to keep. It reminds me of a practice initiated by the late Peter
Kerns when he was at Nobles Day Camp here in the Metropolitan Boston
area years ago. Peter had his leadership team keep a logbook of all calls
to parents (this would now be done by computer) so that division leaders
could tell whether there were any outstanding issues before making their
calls. It was also a way to establish a positive call so that the first
time a parent hears from you it isn't about something problematic. So
thank you for sharing your "best practice." Many camps and schools could
take a lesson from you.

Before the advent of "caller ID," which is now widely used by many households,
I would have agreed with your stand on leaving messages. Now, however,
if a parent were to see from their caller identification log that camp
had called and not left a message, you might well get the same panic
you wish to avoid. This would be especially true if you had called more
than once.

My suggestion is to leave a simple message, such as, "Hi, this is Camp
X, and we are calling about your son/daughter, Y. He/she is fine and
healthy . . . we were just calling because we thought you would like
to know how well things are going. We will try to call you back at (leave
a specific time Z)." This way you avert the possible panic that caller
ID can induce without giving the details of your call in a non-personal

"Secret" Information

Dear Bob,

Recently I received a call from a parent of a camper telling me that she did
not want her son in the same group as another boy who will be attending camp
from their neighborhood. When I told her that we didn't honor negative requests,
she asked me whether I knew that the boy had been setting fires at school
and that he had also been extremely physically aggressive with other children.
I was dumb-founded, since there was no indication on the boy's medical form
or his application that would indicate a problem like this.

My quandary is what to do with this information, which I am not supposed
to have? The behaviors described by this parent are fairly serious, yet
I feel I cannot compromise the confidential nature of the woman's call.

- Pensive in Pennsylvania

Dear Pensive,

Let me point out that, while you have cause for concern, since fire-setting
and physically aggressive behavior are both serious, your knowledge is
currently based on hearsay. Not that I have any reason to doubt the parent
who called you, but experience tells me that well-intentioned people
often get only part of the entire story. Until you get more direct confirmation,
you don't know what the whole truth is.

This is one of those many situations where there is no perfect solution.
On the one hand, you have an obligation to protect the safety of everyone
at camp, including the supposed fire-setter; while, on the other hand,
you don't want to stir up trouble between neighbors.

One factor you have not mentioned is what relationship you have with
the parents of the boy in question. Obviously, the more you know a family,
the more able you are to bring up a sensitive topic without offending
them. You do this by framing your call as a concern that the boy has
the most successful summer possible. Since doing something that would
further erode his relationships with peers or lead to being dispelled
from camp would hardly be a "success," you tell parents that having agreements
and understandings in place before the boy gets to camp may assure that
he feels safe from his own impulses and that he knows people are going
to be there to support him in his efforts at self-control. I would identify
those people ahead of time (a counselor, a nurse, a unit director, etc.)
and make them known both to the boy and to his parents. You can hardly
create such a plan without knowing the boy's particular needs.

I therefore suggest you err on the side of safety and call his parents.
First, ask about how he's doing and give them a chance to tell you first.
If they make no disclosure, tell them you wish to "check something out
with them." Again, if you frame your call as a concern for their son's
well-being and they still get defensive or hostile, you then know you
have nothing with which to work. You can tell them that the important
issue is not how you got the information, but how to use it in a positive
manner. Suggest that you and they devise a plan that will allow their
son to get the most out of camp in a way everyone can be happy.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing
in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for and can be reached via e-mail at or
by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American
Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2002 March/April
issue of Camping