UPDATE: While I believe these issues are always relevant, hearing of the death of 12-year-old Joshua Thibodeau at a soccer camp in Holden, MA this week really made it real. While it appears his death was a terrible tragedy that could not have been prevented– and that the soccer camp staff did everything correctly– it is a reminder that worrying about safe conditions (especially during a summer heat wave) is not silly.
Earlier this month The New York Times ran an interesting article on the changing economics of summer sleep-away camps. My favorite line from the piece was: “‘It is not enough anymore to just go to camp to have fun and make friends and improve independence and self-esteem,’ Mr. Black says. ‘Some parents want actual takeaways. They want to see skills, achievements, patches and certificates.’” The desire for credentials and accolades in childhood is definitely heightened nowadays and because of this specialized camps and counselors are sought so that “the best” can teach kids how to be “the best.” But just who are these camp counselors, and how credentialed are they to be awarding credentials to young kids?
The ease with which someone can claim to be a coach or teacher became clear to me when I attended a week-long soccer camp during fieldwork for my dissertation (and book), Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. I met the owner of the “Northeastern States Soccer Camp” (name has been changed) at a State Soccer Expo I attended the previous winter. Whenever I walked by his booth he tried to get me to take one of his brochures to send my child to his camp. Finally, not wanting to be rude, I explained that I was not interested in sending my child because I did not have any children and that I was attending the Expo doing research. Being a graduate of one of my alma maters, he offered to help by inviting me to attend one of the camps to see how a sleep-away summer soccer camp is run.
Over the next few months we spoke several times and he asked if I would consider being a coach. I clearly explained on multiple occasions that I had no soccer skills but that I could be a counselor, living with the kids in their dorm and supervising them. When I arrived at the camp I discovered that I was supposed to be in charge of training a group of participants—whose parents paid nearly $700 for the week under the impression that their children would receive top-of-the-line coaching and training. I immediately protested and again volunteered to help in other ways, like doing registration and working in the camp store.
The camp that week was understaffed when it came to coaching so the director tried to convince me to run drills. Again I said I had no knowledge to run those drills or give corrections. The director was frustrated with my unwillingness to serve as a “coach.” After two days of feeling deeply uncomfortable I decided to leave the camp. The experience showed me how easy it is for someone to pass themselves off as a coach, even in a reputable program, when they actually have no substantive knowledge of the focal activity.
It is shockingly easy for individuals to go into business and exploit families in the world of competitive children’s activities simply by applying a veneer of professionalism. Parents invest a great deal of money in their children’s participation, and many teachers and coaches and other entrepreneurs are there with their hands out, ready to accept whatever people can give, often asking for more. Legal scholars, like Laura Rosenbury, have written about how unregulated the space between school and family life is, and competitive children’s activities– and summer camps– certainly occupy this space. I’ve previously written about what to look for when signing your children up for afterschool activities, and the same rules apply here: expertise, teaching, and safety. Be sure to check on the credentials of your child’s camp counselor before signing on the dotted line.