Maine Camp Leaders Gather to Consider and Discuss Gender Stereotypes

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Summer camps are communities unto themselves. Maine camps are both coed and single-sex, are residential and day camps, and they offer varied experiences and opportunities. Yet all those camps have common considerations, including attention to gender roles and gender role stereotypes. Last week, a noted psychologist, educator, and camp professional presented some of those considerations to Maine camp directors and leadership staff.

Sponsored by Maine Summer Camps (MSC), a nonprofit membership organization providing a broad range of support to Maine camps, the program called on the expertise of Chris Thurber, Ph.D. Thurber, a clinical psychologist, has served at Phillips Exeter Academy for two decades, and in a variety of roles at YMCA Camp Belknap since 1980. He has written widely on camp issues, has conducted workshops around the globe, and is the creator of an online camp training program.

Thurber told his audience that the workshop would focus on gender stereotypes and healthy camp culture. Citing a colleague at Phillips Exeter, the school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion director, Thurber suggested the idea that if someone angers you, it’s a chance to explore where they’re coming from.

Chris Thurber, Ph.D. a clinical psychologist, has served at Phillips Exeter Academy for two decades

“Before we condemn someone, gather more information,” Thurber said.

Why Discuss Gender Stereotypes?

Campers arrive at camp with gender stereotypes on their minds, Thurber said. School and social media influence their thinking. And leaving those influences behind may affect campers. They may show a different side of themselves, may be more open-minded, and more open to explorations of who they are, he said.

Making space for campers to engage in such exploration demands tuning into “the social pressures of stereotypes,” Thurber said. In addition, because camp staff are role models, camps have “the awesome opportunity to ask what we want to model.”

Camp leaders must also mentor and create awareness in their counseling and instruction staff, Thurber said.

An Example for Consideration

Thurber described a camp skit, two boys impersonating parents. The “dad” wore a blazer and fedora; the “mom” put gym balls under his shirt, donned a mop head, wore lipstick. How could, or should, this skit be addressed at a staff meeting? Thurber asked.

Workshop participants offered a variety of thoughts about the skit, including the suggestion of “feeling out” staff responses to the skit. In addition, specific considerations were offered. Was their cat-calling? Were the characters generic portrayals? Who was in the audience? Was a specific person being portrayed in a way that created discomfort? Was cross-dressing being mocked or were the kids just goofing off?

Attempting to “mine this for meaning” may or may not actually identify any, Thurber said. Camps cannot “control everything that happens,” he said. They should push kids out of their comfort zone, he said, and promote “social risk-taking.”

Gender stereotypes bear consideration in all aspects of camps’ practices.

The Question of Bullying

Bullying happens at camp, Thurber conceded. If it’s “egregious,” the offender gets sent home. Despite all staff attempts to prevent it, sometimes campers are mean. Thurber suggested providing campers with “perspective-taking skills,” such as an understanding that they can “slide” into mean behavior, learned from school or siblings.

“We have them leave camp with a more nuanced set of skills,” Thurber said.

Camp culture should foster “invitation for conversation,” he added. For example, a camper called another camper a racial slur and the staff member present “went ballistic,” Thurber said.

“There are other ways to handle it,” he said. By bringing kids together, there can be “a great opportunity for conversation.” In this case, the white camper who spoke the slur “thought he was being cool.”


The Pain of Misjudgment

Thurber displayed a number of photographs of individuals, from children to adult, and asked workshop participants for their input on the subjects’ gender. While many photos were identified by the audience as female, all were male.

“How might a person in the photo have felt being miscategorized?” Thurber asked “Being misjudged can be hurtful for all ages, all genders,” he said.

Thurber suggested that all stereotypes may have a “kernel of truth.” There may be a “visceral reaction when someone doesn’t match expectations.”

Defying Stereotypes

Thurber also shared a video of a young man who has developed an expertise in applying makeup. In this video, the makeup expert, who is gay, applies makeup to his younger brother, who periodically emits grunts that are stereotypically male.

What if a camper wanted to apply makeup to others at your camps? Thurber asked.  “How would it play? Where are campers and staff at regarding gender stereotypes?”

As one boys’ camp director said, campers sometimes come to camp with passions that lie outside camp programming. A passion for applying makeup, executed with staff supervision, would be okay, he said. “The challenge is the parental piece. I feel like I would have to get parental permission.”

One question that arose. Is there a business element at work, a concern about pushback and parents’ attachments to stereotypes?

A girls’ camp director raised another point. Her camp downplays and discourages makeup for their campers because it’s stereotypically feminine, and the camp advocates girls’ development and growth free of such stereotypes. As an art form, though, she said she would make space for makeup application. “I wouldn’t look for parental permission.”


Stereotyping Toys, Broader Messages

Workshop participants also created mini-advertisements for a variety of toys. Some ads were gender neutral and others played into gender stereotypes. Advertisements have for decades promoted distinctions between girls’ and boys’ toys, and Thurber suggested that camp personnel consider “in addition to advertising, what are we trying to say to suggest, ‘this is what it means to be a boy or girl?’”

“All camps can make improvements. Where are the subtle messages about stereotypes still lurking at your camp?” Thurber asked.

Camp directors are running businesses, and must work with parents, he said. They must consider a number of factors, a number of social influences.


The Scope of Camps’ Messages

Thurber reminded workshop attendees of “explicit subtle behaviors to think about.” From signage to the physical plant to songs to games, messages are woven into the camp, he said.

Campers need to arrive at camp and “feel they can be true to themselves, be their authentic selves, have their choice of activity, feel not just tolerated but welcome,” he said.


The Takeaway

Thurber suggested camps consider “one policy and one practice” for the upcoming season that would make campers feel more welcome.

“Diminish what you consider an unhealthy gender stereotype,” he said, acknowledging that it may result in pushback. Nonetheless, he said, “push staff and selves to look at subtle problems.”

“Do everything you can to make camp a place either to discover a love of something or have the freedom to do that and not get static from their peers.”


Camps Leadership, Learning and Evolving

Educational workshops offered by Maine Summer Camps bring together leaders from camps all over Maine to learn about and discuss topics that make a difference in the lives of every staff member and every camper. As issues relevant to camp operations evolve, so does camp leaders’ commitment to understanding those issues and best serve kids. Last week’s program provided one such opportunity, with the guidance of a seasoned educator and mental health professional.

Gender stereotypes bear consideration in all aspects of camps’ practices. Chris Thurber Ph.D., alongside scores of Maine camp professionals, helped illuminate both situations and solutions.


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