– By Catherine Ross, CCA/ACC Communications Officer
On March 31, 2012, Elizabeth Renzetti, Globe and Mail columnist, wrote an article about overanxious parents. She concluded with these statements: “They [children] need to be saved from us, their saviours. They need to be released into the wild, among the pimply and pierced who are their own kind, where they will be fine. Probably.” No doubt she was speaking metaphorically, but I chose to read her advice literally.
What better place for children to be gently weaned from parental anxiety, dependence and overindulgence than at camp!
Renzetti was responding to a story about the ban of the 2012 Easter Egg Hunt in Bancroft Park near Colorado Springs because in 2011, parents jumped the gun before the official start to gather eggs to ensure that their children did not miss out on their chocolate treats. I recalled a similar experience in my own home when some of my former counsellor staff visited with their young children. I had laid out an Easter Egg Hunt for the children in the living and dining rooms so that the parent s could visit in the family room while enjoying a quiet cup of coffee. I drank by myself. The parents, holding the baskets, were all too busy following their offspring, pointing out the eggs the children might have missed! They had forgotten one of the cardinal rules drummed into them as camp counselors: never do for children what they are capable of doing for themselves with effort.
On May 1, a second Globe and Mail article addressed another trend: excessive spending on dresses, limos, professional photographers, makeup, manicures and pedicures to celebrate grade six graduations. Parents struggle to find the balance between making the occasion special without indulging every whim and wish. Some parent s have difficulty saying “no”. Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb in an article How to Land your Kid in Therapy refers to parents with an overwhelming fixation on their children’s happiness and a desire to protect them from all life’s knocks. She says, “Parental overinvestment is contributing to a burgeoning generational narcissism hurting our kids.”
Again, enter camp!
Children need camp where they learn to live quite happily with less: minimum clothing (whatever fits into the duffle bag), limited living space (a bunk and a cubby) and fewer amenities (no TV and computer in their sleeping quarters and rarely an ensuite bathroom). They learn to share the available equipment, the food on the table and their counsellor’s attention. They learn to co-operate to build a campfire, tidy their cabin or tandem a canoe. And in the process, they discover that life can be fun and fulfilling without all the trappings they thought were absolutely necessary because, according to their perspective, everyone has one! They discover that they can cope temporarily and make simple choices and decisions without constant parental consultation at the other end of a cell phone.
On the question of access to cell phones at camp, each director in consultation with parents and staff has to ultimately decide,” What is best for the campers?”
Jane McCutcheon has spent over 30 years in active leadership in the camping industry. She has led workshops, organized international camping conferences, served as President of CCA/ACC and has received awards from provincial and national camping bodies. Jane, now a consultant to camps and others, was named Entrepreneur of The Year for the Province of Ontario, 1999.
1) What is your background in camping?
I started at age 12 at Camp Tawingo. I was involved there for the next 36 summers, and for 25 years full time. I moved up the ranks from camper to wilderness journey girl, to camp counsellor in training, to counsellor…. to camp director…to co-owner of the camp.
2) What are some changes that have occurred in camping during your camping career?
Today there are many more summer options for families. Many parents still want their children to have a camping experience, but often as one of many summer choices. Family dynamics have changed and the whole idea of what constitutes a traditional family has been altered.
I think the camping industry sometimes sees itself as more important in the lives of families than it really is. Camps don’t always realize that they are only one of many options. Parents are looking for shorter sessions, and camps are not filling as quickly as in prior years.
3) You say that camps see themselves as more important in the lives of families than they really are – that is quite a statement!
I feel that some camps have not educated themselves well enough about today’s client pool. In fact, there is a great deal of education that needs to be done if we are going to attract new cultures and new families. The word “camp” can have frightening associations for some cultures, e.g. recent refugees. “Camp” needs to be explained really well to people. We have to get to know our communities better and work really hard to espouse the value of a camp experience.
We can learn from the YMCAs, for example – many have adapted to the ethnically diverse communities they serve. We have to be more creative in describing what we do. I am encouraging folks starting a new camp program not to call it a camp, but a learning centre or anything that better allows families to relate.
We need to be very clear about what it is we really do – and who we are. Our marketing focuses on programming and activities because it is easier than selling our strongest suit, which is developing responsible citizens through leadership and role modelling.
We also need to work together as a broad camp community. Rather than each of us trying to market our own camp, it would be far more effective as an industry to send out a unified message. Private camps should run weekends in the city and show families what they do. Partnering with city organizations that serve families is wise. We also need to consider our pricing. Why should we be above offering a discount or a sale to our clients?
4) Was any one of these changes either discouraging or rewarding for you personally?
I am not discouraged about camping as an experience. Camps can do a great job in a short period of time if they stick to their philosophy and know what they are delivering. I remember my twenty one day camp canoe trip – the most fantastic canoe trip in my life. We went through every kind of weather you can imagine. We slept on the ground. Our tents had no screens or zippers. But it was fantastic. Every camp experience can be fantastic with the right leadership.
I am a little discouraged when I hear people who are not filling their camps resist change. I am amazed that people who are not happy with their bottom line (i.e. profit!) are not working harder to change that. We can’t stick our heads in the sand and hope the campers will come.
5) What are the changes which have been presenting themselves to camps in the last 10 years?
I think that the big factors impacting camping are the economy and the change in family dynamics. I think there has been a change in staffing too. Young people in their teens want a louder voice than we had as teenagers. Camps need to get to know their staff better. They need to offer free internet service and allow staff access to their cell phones more often. I believe that children, at certain times, should be allowed to use their cell phones at camp. This will help today’s parents make the decision to send their children to camp.
6) In your view, how are the camps you are familiar with responding to change?
Camps that used to run month long sessions are now offering shorter options; many camps now offer special teenage weekend experiences; some camps offer new and different program activities such as instrumental music, drama and theatre, clowning, circus programs. I have seen some creative pricing options. There are camps who have had success with a tiered fee system.
7) What are some key changes you think camps should consider?
I think the whole idea of keeping your camp in the forefront of your families’ minds after camp and through the year is key. City reunions or events that don’t have to take place at camp can be successful. Using social media effectively is a must. Providing an opportunity for staff to interact with campers online through the rest of the year can work.
8) Why are we as a camping industry resisting change?
I believe some camps feel we know the profession so well that we do not need to change. But do directors know the real world in which the child lives the rest of the year? We know that we can enrich a child’s life when they come to camp, but we need to get them there first. Our marketing needs to cater to the needs and wants of the family as a whole. Change may be uncomfortable but in my opinion it needs to happen, and Camp Directors cannot make these changes alone. They need a team of people (staff or volunteers or peers) to help – the camp as a whole needs to be supportive of the change process.
A key to change is a really good evaluation process. A lot of camps don’t like to have their parents evaluate the camp. I believe you should seek as much feedback as possible from parents, from campers, from staff, from director walkabout tours. Evaluation is a critical step to success.
Camp is still a fantastic profession. It’s just a harder business to run than it used to be. As long as we keep changing and adapting I still think there is a great future for camping. The good news is that from where I sit, I see great things happening across the country.
In 1997 author Diana Brock’s middle son, Evan, told his kindergarten class in Montreal about his EpiPen during “Show and Tell”. Grabbing an opportunity to educate her class, his teacher invited Evan’s mother to instruct the children about food allergies. Diana accepted immediately. It had been a struggle to obtain the principal’s permission to allow five-year-old Evan to carry his EpiPen with him at all times rather than having it locked in the school office. Evan was not invited to some birthday parties – for some parents the simplest way to avoid any problems. Diana was encouraged by Evan’s classmates’ keen interest in the subject and their sincere desire to help to keep others safe.
Diana has now written The Best Audience A Lesson about Food Allergies for Young Children to educate children on this important subject. It is a useful resource for your camp library, to educate all your staff and for group counselors to share with their young campers, especially if a child in the group has a food allergy.
Parents of campers with allergies will be reassured to know that such education is happening in your camp. The Best Audience is endorsed by Allergy Asthma Information Association in Canada and Food Allergy Anaphylaxis Network in the USA. It has been approved by several Ontario school boards and is being used in hundreds of YMCA before/after school programs in several cities in Ontario.
To order a copy for your camp, please visit www.thebestaudience.ca .