Summer Camp: Building a Culture of Consent

By Curley Newgent

Each year, BCAC’s Community Outreach and Education team travels around the country training summer camp staff and counselors. By the end of July, we will have trained over 40 camps, meeting with counselors, supervisors, support staff and camp directors.

What frames our conversations with camp staff? We want campers to experience a positive connection with others at camp. We want them to begin to expect consensual and appropriate interactions at all times. We want them to expect that of each other, adults, and themselves. We want them to talk about moments or spaces where they feel uncomfortable, and to get support in getting out of those situations, or in healing from harm that they have experienced. And we want to build resiliency into their brain development by creating positive attachments with adults and peers.

Building a culture of consent protects children. If we teach kids that all interactions should be consensual–from a casual hug, high five, “can I tell you this story,” to sexual interactions and more intimate conversations–then young people will learn expect that. Anyone who has heard a child say “that’s not the way my [parent/caregiver] does [bedtime/my chore routine/my TV allotment]” knows that kids are uncomfortable with the unexpected.

If consent is expected, young people have a barometer to gauge when they feel uncomfortable in non-consensual interactions and what language to use to speak about it. We want this. We want young people to speak up, to try to leave, or to share with an adult if someone has made them feel uncomfortable or has interacted with them in a non-consensual way, regardless of how “serious” that interaction was.

When we teach that all interactions must be consensual, we are taking young people’s feelings seriously. If they don’t want to talk about something, we give them space (or if we have to talk to them about it even if they don’t want to, we ask how we can make that conversation more comfortable). If they want some comfort or attention, we give them that. This builds trust in our relationships with young people, which in turn raises the likelihood that they will share with us if they are feeling uncomfortable in other relationships or spaces.

Beyond that, what we have learned about brain development is that creating positive connections and relationships with young people actually changes the physical structure of a child’s brain. It makes it harder for them to be overwhelmed, and easier for them to calm down once they have been overwhelmed. It reduces long-term effects of trauma or negative experiences. The science and research around how trauma affects human development and how we react to various environments and interactions is constantly changing and improving, and we build our framework for camp training around the latest research.

The Community Outreach and Education team will be back onsite in the fall—stay tuned for our fall schedule of trainings for caregivers, organizations, and youth-serving professionals!

Curley Newgent is a Training Associate in BCAC’s Community Outreach and Education department.

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