Purplers Welcome - What if We Allowed Romantic Relationships at Summer Camp?

De-stigmatizing relationships at camp

Note: these are just my (James') personal beliefs and experiences running camp. I suspect they don't reflect every member of Go Camp Pro's view on the subject. When I say "we" in the article below, I'm talking specifically about people who have run camp with me in the past. Enjoy!

I remember being a summer program director in 2004, talking to our summer staff members about expectations for the summer. I was doing the whole, "You guys tell me the rules, and I'll write them on this flip chart" thing. Real cutting edge stuff.

We were going through all the basics, when one staff member gleefully chirped,

No Purpling!

I smiled, and wrote it on the chart. Then another staff member hollered,

No Dark Bluing either! Or Hot Pinking!

Uproarious laughter followed. I stopped smiling. I didn't say anything, and I just moved on. But this sort of "what the heck was that?" feeling stayed with me.

In case you haven't heard this lingo before, I'll do a brief run down.

Purpling = Boys are Blue, Girls are Pink. Blue + Pink = Purple.

The joke here was that two boys together would be dark blue, and two girls together would be hot pink. So, we wanted to be clear that we didn't approve of any romantic get togethers whatsoever.

And you know, it all seemed pretty reasonable at the time. Parents don't send their kids to camp to hook up, right?

Well, I'm actually not totally sure about that. Now, pretty clearly, we should have some boundaries at camp when it comes to kids expressing their sexuality. We can say pretty definitively that no parent sends their child to camp to get pregnant, for instance. And they probably don't send their kids to camp to make out in front of all of their cabin mates, or play sexual truth or dare, or anything of that nature. Loud and clear.

But what about good, earnest, healthy relationship formation?

What really irked me at that moment during staff training was that I was looking at a room full of people who, by and large, had probably hooked up with someone at camp. I met my wife (my then girlfriend) at camp. Our executive director had met his wife at camp, and they were still together. The program director when I first started working at camp had met his wife as a summer staff member. If we're being honest, camp relationships are one of the very best parts about being a staff member at a camp for many people who work there.

So why do we set one expectation for campers, and another for staff members? I've had this conversation with a number of different camp professionals, and I've never been totally persuaded by the arguments against letting kids form romantic relationships at camp. I agree with the arguments against letting kids have sexual interactions, but romantic conversations? Saying "I love you" to one another? Even holding hands? I'm serious, here: what's the harm? I'll go through the objections to the idea of camper relationships that I've heard, and how I feel about them.

"It's fine to have these feelings, but camp isn't the place to act on them" If by "act on them" you mean make out and have sex, we agree. But otherwise this is just a statement of opinion as fact. I'll often follow up with: "Why isn't it the place for people to pursue relationships? Why is school or a party a better time?"

Well, it's just not the purpose of camp. What's the purpose of camp? On almost every camp website that tries to convey the benefits of camp, relationships are somewhere on the front page of the site. Usually these are platonic relationships: "Make friendships that last a lifetime." I don't understand why romantic relationships are fundamentally different than best friendships. Some romantic relationships DO last a lifetime, and many of the very best of these start at camp. Why is this a privilege reserved only for staff members?

Parents will be mad! Will they, though? I've never had a parent call me upset that her son or daughter started a romantic relationship at camp, and most of my experience in such matters comes from running Christian summer camps where parents would presumably be more conservative. I've had parents bring up the relationships their kids have formed at camp with me in one of two tones: Glad, and laughing.

It will be distracting for the other kids Yes, the other kids at camp will notice when two campers are falling for one another. They will talk about it. Sometimes, this will be frustrating for some parties involved. But isn't this just a fundamental part of being a young person (and, generally, a human being)? We're going to be surrounded by people in or forming romantic relationships for our entire lives, so why attempt to shield them from this reality during summer camp? What's the harm in it?

As an industry, we're constantly talking about developing grit and resilience, and giving kids opportunity for challenges and growth. Well, being in community with people who form romantic relationships is sometimes challenging. But it's also sort of necessary for the survival of the human race. Isn't camp the perfect environment to deal with the realities of the world, and to be around young adult role models who will help maturely put such things into context?

The two kids who spend tons of time together will miss out on meeting everybody else. It's true - people at camp have a fixed amount of time. Time spent with one person means time not spent with someone else (unless everyone hangs out together). And yeah, a camper might later regret spending time with one person at the exclusion of another. Isn't okay, though, to make mistakes? How can we develop grit and resilience if we aren't allowed to scrape our emotional knees every once in a while?

When I first starting dating my life partner, we hung out with one another a lot. Often without inviting others to join us. And you know what? I'm glad we did. And I'm glad for the other fledgling romantic relationships I had leading up to that one. The ones where I also hung out with my significant other for a ton of time, often at the exclusion of other people, because they were the practice I needed to eventually become a decent (I hope!) romantic partner.

But what if something bad DOES happen - aren't you worried you'll be liable for the worst case scenario? I understand this fear, but it's not one I share. Again - we don't condone sexual interactions. We supervise to ensure they don't happen, and to date, they haven't. We've found that when we show trust for these kids, they don't feel the need to sneak out and get together (when those worst case scenarios are far more likely to happen). The deep longing many young people have is to express themselves, to have their emotions understood, and reciprocated. And if we don't feel ourselves, we understand that they will make these emotions heard. If they have to sneak around to do so, that's when we run the risk of the emotions running wild and manifesting sexually.

What if the campers break up? Won't there be drama? Yup. Just like when people break up outside of camp, or in jobs, or really anyplace else. But we're not talking lifelong trauma, here. We're talking about a fundamental human experience that basically everyone can relate to. It's hard, and lonely. And it's the perfect opportunity for camp staff to comfort and provide context. Does it hurt retention, sometimes? I imagine it does. I remember one young man in particular who started dating a girl at camp, only for them to break up before the following summer in a rather unpleasant way. She came back to camp, and he didn't. It's impossible to know if he stopped coming because of their break-up, but even if he did - they shared a lot of great moments together at camp that he may look back on fondly some day. Or he may look back on it with regret. Or he may gain perspective, and realize he learned a lot from it. Or he may regret that he didn't come back as a result. Either way, it's just another life experience, and it's one that's basically inescapable.

Does the good outweigh the bad in allowing summer camper relationships?

Now, allowing campers to openly be in romantic relationships with one another obviously has its drawbacks. It's not what kids are used to, first of all, and often causes kids to offer the same objections I listed above. They're used to their peers having to drive their relationships underground for the supposed benefit of the community, and they'll often share these concerns with other campers and staff.

Again, we find this to be a struggle we're willing to let certain campers have. My message to these campers is clear: Other people forming a romantic relationship does not make you a victim. We can show compassion for their concerns, to be sure, but we draw the line at commiserating with them. It's okay that they feel that way, but it doesn't mean we'll ask others to change their behavior.

As with any change that can happen at camp, there are new challenges (both foreseen, and unforeseen). But there were a lot of favorable outcomes as well.

By not interfering when campers are forming relationships, we find that they'll often trust us enough to accept our guidance on some of the stickier points of navigating young relationships.

I think back to when I was young, for instance. I dated a girl in high school during my sophmore year, and it infuriated my friends. I switched to her table at lunch, hung out with her on weekends, and canceled plans with other friends anytime she wanted me to. It wasn't a fantastic relationship, and when it predictably ended, my prior friendships had been strained.

You know what I never had? Anyone to help me work through how to manage that relationship with my existing friendships. I flew solo, to disastrous results. And this isn't the only area in my life where that was the case.

When conflicts arise because two people are forming a relationship at camp, we are able to help mediate those conflicts without having any skin in the game. When one party is "breaking the rules" by forming a relationship, the people that feel frustrated as a result of the relationship feel justified in their frustration. When all parties involved are just following their inner voices, however, and the camp's policies don't cast judgment on anybody's feelings and actions as inappropriate, much healthier conversation has been possible. We've walked away from the small handful of conversations we've had to this effect in much better spirits than we'd had in the past, where we had to play the part of Romeo and Juliet's disapproving families.

Navigating the waters of relationship formation is tough for everyone, and for young people in particular. As camps, I believe we have a tremendous opportunity to be the first set of adults that is willing to put aside our own discomfort when it comes to young people forming relationships with each other. By doing so, we open up the door for judgment free conversations about something that's arguably the most important thing going on in the lives of many young people.

I hope it's a fantastic New Year for everyone in the world of camping professionals! Thanks for being willing to entertain more of our off the wall ideas. I'd be happy to address any other comments or concerns that people might have to what I know is a controversial topic. We're all trying to get better at this whole camping thing, and don't pretend to have all the answers just yet.