Dear helicopter parents, disengage. Sincerely, your child
Working with children at summer camp can be difficult— but dealing with some of their parents can elevate frustration to an entirely new level. Throughout your career working in summer camps, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself in communication with those parents who just need to know everything, or who always have input, or whose presence at camp sends their child into some erratic, overly emotional, disruptive, or bizarre behaviors.
Directors and their staff will inevitably have this problem— some parents just feel the need to constantly be “in the loop” in everything their child is doing. They want the deets and dates (details and updates), they want the pictures posted (there are companies that use AI to sift through posted photos to pick out specific kids based on face-recognition), or they want to stop by and “check in.”
Those parents wave a special red-flag title in the entire education industry— helicopter parents— the ones who live to hover over the shoulder of their child to “help” them navigate decisions. There are varying degrees of intensity when it comes to helicopter parents, but helicopters are difficult to ignore— no matter where they are. With all of today’s information technology and a culture increasingly dependent on immediate responses, helicopter parents are becoming even more demanding.
So, really, what is happening is that parents are losing that instant gratification of their child’s attention. For some, when summer comes along, parents assume the role of an empty-nester almost immediately. And when the nest is empty, the helicopter takes flight (cue Flight of the Valkyrie as parents scour the internet for pictures of their child having fun). As one might imagine, that can be difficult. Children may become homesick, but parents are apt to become “childsick.”
When Nick Mills sent his 12 year-old son to a 4-week camp in Northern California, he describes how difficult the first couple days were. “I went from seeing him every day to not seeing him at all... And even more, I can’t even talk to him, I’ve found myself refreshing the camp’s Facebook page to see if he’s in any new photos.” He chuckles to himself and finishes with “I even called the camp a few times to see if they would indulge me on his progress.” His disposition seems to say that he is aware of how ridiculous it sounds for him to obsess about seeing his son’s progress, but that he still does it.
At the end of the day, however, these helicopter parents have good intentions with their children. How can we fault them for loving their child so much that they obsess with monitoring their happiness, safety, and health? That almost sounds like the best type of problem to have. The actual problem, however, is the way that it manifests— diverting the staff’s attention and energy away from the children at camp to appease a parent.
So now we have to ask the really tough question— how do we prevent helicopter parents?
Give the parents everything they need to know up front
Directors need to set the expectations for parents at the very beginning. Parents need to know about communication with their child before they send their child to camp. When that welcome packet comes in the mail, there ought to be a hard-to-miss, big, bold title reading something like “Parent-Camper Communication.”
Whatever the camp’s policy is on communication— whether they get one phone call after the first week or they only get to send and receive letters, directors need to make this information abundantly loud and clear. Let them know about the social media posts, about camp visitation rules, about cell-phones, and about the appropriateness of communicating with the other staff.
Set those expectations clearly and early.
Communicate with parents, but don’t always let them respond
It’s not unreasonable for camps to use a platform of communication that is only one-way. Some camp management platforms have these built in, but there are also different softwares that provide this. Many teachers and schools use messaging services like Remind.com to spread information to parents because they don’t allow responses, they can be sent to individuals, or they can be sent to larger groups.
If you give those helicopter parents an opportunity to respond, (think about the growing culture of needing immediate responses) they will. And when they do, they will leech even more attention and energy from your important tasks— which is making this the best summer for every camper at camp!
Give them what they need— the information and communication that you promised you would keep them abreast of.
Give parents information about why it’s important to let go for the summer
There is nothing wrong with being concerned for the well-being of your child as you send them off to summer camp. In fact, that’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about. But, looking at the big picture, children need just as much (if not more) time away from their parents as parents do from their children. Outline to parents why time spent apart is important for growth, maturing, and nurturing independence.
Dr. Michael Thompson, in his book Homesick and Happy, provides parents amazing insight into exactly this problem. He defines the problem that parents are facing as childsick, and offers ways to combat these thoughts and impulses because it’s what is best for the child. Some camps, at recruiting events, will even give this book to parents because it so clearly outlines the benefits of letting go of your child for the summer.
Some parents are natural worriers— appease their minds with the facts.
Of course, helicopter parents will still linger and hover when they can, but these are some effective strategies that much of the camping industry has taken to prevent those parents from ever taking flight. The fact of the matter is that parents need to learn these lessons, too.
Children need to become increasingly independent to grow and parents need to embrace that and support it. Summer camps are among the safest, happiest, and healthiest places for these lessons to be learned. The director and camp staff become somewhat of mediators for this independence to take place— mostly for the child, but it is becoming increasingly valuable for parents.