When we were young our parents sent us off to school and camp with statements such as: “Be a good listener.” “Mind your manners.” “Do what your counselor tells you to do.” “A tough teacher is a good teacher.” I can’t even imagine saying blanket statements like this to my 10 year old today. In fact, almost the opposite is said at our house. We want him to be polite but NEVER at the expense of his safety and just because an adult, like a teacher or counselor, tells him to do something, if it makes him uncomfortable or confused… guess what? He doesn’t have to do it! He has the right to say “NO” and he knows it. Blind obedience versus knowing when and how to be assertive is on my mind as my son tells me this experience he had at camp:
My son is at a new camp. The first two days when changing for swim they changed in a huge bathroom that had stalls. My son (as did the other boys) went into their individual stalls and changed. The third day they were brought to a smaller bathroom (no clue why) and there were no stalls. My son said to the counselor, “I want to change in the stall.” The counselor said “We are in a rush just change here, hurry up.” My son responded, “I don’t want anyone to see me and I don’t want to see anyone else’s privates.” (Now remember he is growing up with one of the founders of KidSafe Foundation and could probably teach the lessons himself at this point.) The counselor raised his voice and told him he had to change. He refused. The counselor got the Director of the camp, who amazingly told my son, “I absolutely respect your right to privacy and you don’t ever have to change in that bathroom again – you can always go to the big bathroom.” Crisis solved. (Well almost – as this was not handled well by the group counselor.)
I can’t even explain to you how proud my husband and I were of him. Thankfully this was just a very minor thing – Just a counselor wanting his camper to hurry up and get dressed for swimming…no big deal right? But what if the counselor or teacher asked a child to do something inappropriate, sexual and unsafe? I want my child, your child, and every child to know they have the right to be SAFE. They have the right to speak up and be assertive if they are uncomfortable…and just because the person telling you to do something is an adult, especially the adult that is in charge at that time, it does not mean a child has to be blindly obedient.
After sharing my story with a few friends (many of their children have been through the KidSafe program), they shared similar stories…especially around the issues of changing for swim and privacy. My friend described that after a few days at camp she finally realized her son’s bathing suit was coming home dry. When she asked him if he was swimming he said that he and a bunch of other boys are not swimming because they didn’t have anywhere to change with privacy. When she called the camp – she understood that the boys were given an option by the counselor – change out with everyone – or don’t swim. They chose to not swim. After speaking to the director – who was embarrassed that the situation was not handled well by his staff, my friend used the experience as a teachable moment. She was so proud that he had spoken up and was assertive – but taught him that the next step is to come to a trusted adult and explain what happened. He has a right to swim and a right to privacy. Wow – it was amazing to have this anecdotal feedback that our lessons stick… the children get it! Some of the parents were surprised by their children’s assertiveness…I was thrilled!
I have to admit that dropping my son off at a camp where neither he nor I knew a soul was difficult for me. I left with a heavy heart, a little anxious….even though I did all the due diligence I needed to feel comfortable with the camp we choose, you still can’t help but wonder…will my child be safe? Parents ask us most often, “When can my child have more independence?” I respond with a question back to them: “What have you taught your child about their personal safety that you feel they will make the safest and smartest choices when faced with new challenges?”
I realized that we have raised our 10 year old to be polite…but assertive. To listen to an adult…but think first how it makes him feel…to speak up if something is uncomfortable.. but to hold his ground if he doesn’t feel safe and to report what happens to a trusted adult. I was proud and realized something important. It is not just what you tell your child, it’s how you ask questions of your child to get them to tell you about their day away from you.
Ask: Open ended questions – Don’t just ask: How was your day? The answer will be: fine.
Ask: Tell me 3 high lights of your day? And 3 low lights. Ask them for the play by play of their day. Once they get talking you can enjoy the info as well as see how they cope during the day and what areas they might need some practice in.
So as your kids go off to summer activities…and then back to school rethink what you may be teaching them…Does your child know they have the right to say “NO” to anyone that makes them feel uncomfortable? Even an adult? Have you talked with your child about this? Do you just assume your child knows he has these rights? Or have you actually had this discussion? Do you assume your child knows he/she can come to you about anything? Or have you actually had this conversation. If you have not – it is never too late. Start the conversation and keep it going! (if you want to read about how to do due diligence the KidSafe way – read our blog “How do I know my Child’s Camp is SAFE.”)