We’ve got a bit of a problem here in camping.
We like to complain about the involvement of our counselors’ parents in the employment process. And we like to complain about our counselors’ parents pressuring their [adult] children to get ‘real’ jobs instead of returning for another year at camp.
See the issue here?
We tend to completely shut down communication with counselors’ parents because we do not want them to be [inappropriately] involved in the employment process. But, by doing so, we lose out on connecting with many people who have the potential to become some of our most powerful advocates—and some of our best tools for staff retention.
We can all agree that it’s extraordinarily annoying when we have those few parents who fill out an application instead of having their child do it, call to negotiate time off or otherwise cross reasonable employment boundaries [er…laws]. I think, though, that the majority of our counselor parents need to be better informed and appropriately welcomed into our camp families. We are stronger when our counselors’ parents understand and believe in our mission.
Here are three ways we can appropriately involve counselor parents, helping them become part of our camp families:
1. Provide easy-to-find general staff information on our camp websites.
Picture this. I’m a counselor’s parent, and my kid doesn’t call me all the time. I know she’s decided to work at Camp X this summer, and we have a family reunion on August 20. I have no idea if she is going to be working all the way until then but I don’t want to sweat her about the summer plans or stress her out (it’s midterms week, after all). Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just log onto the camp website, click through to the “staff” section, and get some of that information for myself? Frame it in a generic way but provide the information to anyone who clicks through—not just people who have applied through your digital system.
Here's the thought process I imagine a parent has when he or she can find the information they need about the summer:
Camp Posts on Website: Who is running the place (director bios, photo, contact information)
Counselor's Parent Thinks: Oh good! These look like trustworthy people who can mentor my [adult] kid!
Camp Posts on Website: Counselor start/end dates and time off policy
Counselor's Parent Thinks: We should fit in our family vacation in May, before my child's work obligation begins.
Camp Posts on Website: Counselor phone policy.
Counselor's Parent Thinks: OK. I won’t freak out when Junior doesn’t answer my texts during the day. He can only use his cell phone after 10 p.m. It's actually a good thing if he doesn't respond--that means he's doing his job!
2. Host a webinar/Q&A for camp staff members’ parents.
OK, this crosses a boundary for a few of you. But hear me out. Set up an evening time when you can host a webinar for counselors’ parents and invite a few of your most supportive counselor parents to co-host. Send the information to the counselors and invite them to invite their parents (and sit in on it too, if they’d like). Here’s your sample agenda:
a. Our camp’s history, mission and values
b. What it’s like to work at camp
c. Important rules and guidelines to remember as parents
d. What counselors gain and learn throughout the summer
e. Q&A with directors and current parents of counselors
Here's the logic: When your kid magically turns 18, it does not mean that you are ready to send her into the woods somewhere with limited cell phone service and a bunch of people you don’t know...especially if you went to camp in the 70s or 80s (fewer rules, let’s face that) or the only information you have about camp counselor life is from some rather unflattering movies.
This setup allows camp parents to get the information they need about their offspring’s upcoming experience in a proactive and appropriate way. It also allows you, as the camp director, to start making counselor parents “believers” about the impact the job has on staff through the parent panelists who can get other parents on board.
3. Write positive letters to counselors’ parents.
In a recent conference session with Kim Aycock about how to improve staff yield (people saying "yes" and following-through on job offers), an idea that was discussed was writing a general letter to all staff members' parents about the incredible benefits of their kids' new job. I liked that idea, and I want to take it one step further:
Our counselors do amazing things throughout the course of the summer on an individual basis. From something as routine (to us) as comforting a homesick camper to something as extraordinary as saving a life with an EpiPen, our counselors’ parents often never find out about their children’s accomplishments or how amazing they are.
There are a couple of ways to get permission from counselors of how to do this, but there is no reason we should hesitate to celebrate the amazing feats of our counseling staff with the people who care about them the most by writing letters of praise home to counselors' parents. It's up to us to define being a camp counselor as one of the realest and most impactful jobs a person can have. Counselors' parents are one of the key groups with whom we need to share this message! (This idea is adapted from a presentation I heard at the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan, where a corporate executive shared he does this for his staff. Check it out!).
My other random ideas to build relationships with counselor parents:
- Invite counselor parents to come up for things like volunteer work weekend and participate in supplies drives, like donating books for your library.
- Provide counselors with a discount to buy camp t-shirts and sweatshirts for their parents at the camp store. Offer to ship those purchases home to parents for free.
- When counselor parents come up to visit, make time to visit with them and share your appreciation for their child's hard work this summer.
- Offer a "where are they now?" series on your blog or Facebook page, highlighting the amazing and diverse accomplishments of your staff after their seasonal camp careers end (Thanks to YMCA Camp Abe Lincoln for this idea)
- Give staff whose parents live in different time zones flexible time off in order to call home.
Overall, there are going to be a few parents who are at best annoying and at worst entirely out of line. We need to tactfully address those situations. But overall, relationship-building with our counselors' parents is important work. Once we get them on board, they can become great advocates for camp and truly understand the benefits of their [adult] child working there. Let's make them LOVE the fact that their child works at our camp...and tell all their friends how great it is, too!