This Isn't Fight Club - A Fresh Take on Staff Relationships


What if we let staff talk about their relationships? One camp does just that.

Editor's note: This is a blog post from the wonderful Natalie Roberts-Day, a Go Camp Pro Member who's been with us since the beginning. She's also the associate executive director of the cutting edge YMCA Camp Kitaki, which has been a thought leader in camping in a number of ways for quite a while. We hope you enjoy this delightful guest blog post from her!

Like many camps, in my time at Kitaki we have been fine-tuning a number of the philosophies that surround our work, and rethinking the why behind our policies has been an ongoing effort. Like James outlined in his recent post on eliminating the “no purple” mentality, the way we approach the romantic feelings of our campers has represented a dramatic shift in the way we talk to campers. But when it comes to staff to staff romantic relationships, we have been far slower to shift the sentiments we express to our counselors.

Up until recently we took the Fight Club stance when it came to romantic relationships between staff: The first rule of dating someone at camp is you don’t talk about dating someone at camp. There are many good arguments for this hush-hush approach, but I have come to believe that the potential gains do not outweigh the many benefits (for both the staff and campers) of allowing staff to be more open with their campers about their relationships, if they choose.

Now to be clear, I am not arguing that summer staff need to make the details of personal affairs the business of the whole of camp, and I am certainly not saying that counselors should feel pressured to disclose personal information to their campers if they do not wish to. In training I encourage counselors to think through the challenges that may result if campers know they are dating: the challenge of having to explain a breakup to the campers, concerns about campers/parents believing their counselor is more focused on their partner than the campers, campers feeling insecure about their relationship status, or revelations about sexual orientation that may push campers (or their parents) out of their comfort zone. And while a mindful approach can mitigate all of these challenges, in the two years that we have taken a more open approach most counselors have not chosen to share any specific information about their dating life with their campers. Yet I have still seen a positive shift in our culture as a result of the change in policy.

Trusting Counselors to Manage their Personal Affairs

When we allow a counselor to make informed decisions about talking to the campers about their relationship, we not only demonstrate trust in their judgement that fosters a greater connection to us as supervisors, but also create a space where staff think critically about what information they choose to share...and with whom.

In our training we spend a great deal of time discussing what age-appropriate sharing looks like with a cabin of nine-year-old boys as compared to a co-rec group of 17 year olds on a two week trip camp. We use big picture examples to demonstrate age-appropriate discussions, for instance talking to seven year olds about consent by encouraging them to ask for permission before hugging someone, or thinking through the pros and cons of leading capture the flag as a boys vs. girls competition. As a result of these conversations, romantically involved counselors working with the teens have spoken more candidly than the staff working with our younger campers, but across the board our staff have made mature and positive decisions about their sharing.

Reducing Staff Conflict

Giving staff the opportunity to engage in a conversation about healthy boundaries rather than the directors imposing a superficial rule which staff may or may not agree with (and therefore may not abide by) strengthens rapport between the administrative team and the summer staff. It can also positively impact the staff culture. When conversations about dating partners are permitted to take place outside of the staff lounge and nights off, staff are less likely to view the subject as hot gossip. In the past, I have had to mediate a hefty number of conflicts because a counselor was dishing out information about another counselor's love life, but as we have continued to engage our staff in conversations about their personal business rather than setting rules for them, the rest of the camp family has begun to approach the topic in more respectful and thoughtful ways. Now I spend a lot more time talking directly with counselors about the support they need to be successful in their job, and far less untangling the web of drama that counselors were often unintentionally spinning.

Now Staff Know They Can Come To Us With Their Relationship Struggles

While reducing staff conflict alone is enough of a reason for me to believe we are moving in the right direction, I see other benefits as well. By allowing our staff to be as open as they would like to be about their relationships, we have created an environment where they feel more able to seek help from both supervisors and peers. Even though there was no reason for staff to feel hesitant to approach me with relationship questions in the past, the sense that there were times and places where even disclosing the existence of a relationship was taboo led to some staff feeling like it wasn’t my job to support them in this way (for me and our approach to staff support, I don’t want them to think this way). Taking some of the secrecy out of the inevitable relationships that form at camp has resulted in many more frank conversations with myself and the other directors about the full range of needs of our staff, which has both strengthened their trust in our leadership and allowed us to intervene sooner if a problem develops.

The staff are not the only ones who benefit when they are free to share age-appropriate details about their romantic partners. Our staff are great role models, and trusting them to demonstrate this fact through the way they talk about their relationships creates another opportunity for connection and positive leadership with the campers.

Campers want to know about staff relationships. In fact, they are desperate for any indicators on how one is supposed to act in these potentially uncharted waters, and will make assumptions if not given the information. I vividly remember feverishly scribbling notes during rest hour as a ten year-old debating the likelihood that our counselor was dating the archery director or the counselor from the neighboring cabin, and I know full well that these types of conversations are happening in that same cabin twenty years later. Rather than teach campers that the relationships they assume counselors are having are inappropriate or warrant secrecy, a message they then apply to sharing information about their own relationships, counselors have the opportunity to show that healthy dialogue with a broad network of support is as important a part of dating as finding a partner.

Setting Examples Of Healthy Relationships For Campers

About ten years ago now, well before this shift in our relationship rhetoric, we hired two counselors who happened to be dating. One of them somehow missed the memo during training that we did not want the campers to know this information, and told both her cabin group and her boyfriend's that they were a couple. While she was embarrassed when she realized she had broken a taboo and kept the relationship to herself in future weeks, there was no way to get the cat back into the bag, and the two of them had to find a way to navigate the situation with, I am ashamed to say, no help from the other supervisors and me, who took an ill-conceived "you've made your bed" sort of approach when asked by the couple how to make things right.

Present day me is in no way surprised that the big reveal had little to no impact on the campers' experience, but it did lead to a conversation between one of the boys and his counselor that has stuck with me. The boy asked in a teasing tone, "Why don't you go up and kiss her right now?" and the counselor responded "Because we have talked about how we want to act as a couple at camp and I know she wouldn't want me to do that." Now, the counselor was somewhat annoyed, and his delivery of this line was probably not as stellar as it looks in written form, but what a fantastic lesson for that nine year old about communication and consent in relationships. Statistically speaking, an alarmingly large number of the campers we serve may be witnessing domestic violence in their homes, and camp may be one of the only opportunities for them to witness and discuss positive and healthy relationships centered around mutual respect. For me, the potential for such a significant impact in the lives of the youth we serve far outweighs any of the hypothetical concerns I may have clung to in the past.

Have questions or comments for Natalie? Leave them below.