We live in a paradigm of presumed safety. We believe that modern, highly developed (economically) societies are, or at least aught to be, inherently safe places to live. Towards the realization of this belief, we have air bags, airport security checks, and foam pads on ski lift uprights.
When I first saw those foam pads appear years ago, I had to laugh. I thought, are we really trying to make it safe to ski into a metal column? What if you ski off the trail and hit a tree, will we put foam pads on them all? Years later, as this false paradigm is making its way into my favorite family camp, I’ve started to cry. We are becoming more and more impoverished by the belief that life should be safe.
Like life, downhill skiing is inherently dangerous. This is actually part of the attraction: the thrill of speeding down hill on two little boards comes from knowing that if you lose control, you could run into a tree and die. I’d like our camp, and eventually our society, to recognize the value of calculated risks in life, like many downhill skiers do in their sport. Life is inherently dangerous, which is actually good! Some degree of danger is part of what makes life such a rich experience.
I’m not against air bags, or other safety enhancing devices and rules, for which the costs are appropriately balanced with the benefits. I always wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle and my life jacket when I kayak. These increase my safety at a very reasonable cost: the devices don’t significantly reduce the enjoyment of the activities, nor do they cost much money to purchase. So I don’t disagree with mandatory helmet or seat belt laws. The benefits are high in relationship to the costs.
My camp now has a rule, quite common in daycare settings, to proactively eliminate opportunities for sexual abuse. No adult councilor is allowed to ever be alone with a child. I’m quite aware of the terrible consequences of sexual abuse, but I also highly value caring, generous relationships between people of all ages. This is an important aspect of high quality childcare! These relationships are based on trust and yes, that trust entails risk. Some examples of the costs of this rule have already presented themselves.
Yesterday I was working in Alphas with Neily and 4 children, ages 4 & 5. Three of the children wanted to do some gymnastics with Kim and the other did not. So I conferred with Neily and we agreed she would take the gymnastics kids and I’d stay with the other. The camper and I brainstormed a bit and decided to take a walk around our beautiful camp facility. As we came out of the building, she reached up to hold my hand as we walked. I could tell that this felt like “special time” to her and I was grateful for the opportunity. We wandered briefly and came upon an empty hammock.
We were not tired, but the hammock still looked pretty inviting. I told her I had not even used a hammock yet that week. I laid cross-ways in the hammock and she joined me a foot away, as we started to rock it side-to-side. This was a change of plan, if we did not get up to resume our walk, but spontaneity and flexibility are one of the benefits of one-on-one time, especially when one is an adult who’s job it is to cater to the other’s needs. So I went with the flow. At the time I did not realize that the rule applied to outdoor, public spaces as well as secluded ones. I’ve had this kind of interaction with kids at camp every year since I started coming in 2000 and it felt natural and safe to me. Until Veronica spotted us.
She came over and asked if we were okay and reminded me of the rule. She told me, right in front of the camper, that I was not supposed to be alone with her. I responded in my defense and we started to discuss the situation, rule and how I was supposed to behave when I realized that the conversation was best deferred to a time when it could be discussed without campers present. I asked Veronica if we could please continue the discussion at another time. Now I know. The rule does not just apply to enclosed spaces like bathrooms. It applies to anywhere on campus. To correctly respond to the situation, I should have invited another adult, or perhaps an older camper, to join us on our walk. This rule has a very high price!
Extraverts relate well with people in groups. On the other hand, the introverts among us require one-on-one time to really get to know another person. Many toddlers start out their childcare experience fearful of leaving their mom & dad and safety of their homes, introverts and extraverts alike. Can we serve the introverts well within the confines of this rule? As we implement and honor this rule, do we feel love or fear?
The next day, after Veronica reminded us in our staff meeting about the no one-on-one and the no photographs by staff rules, Connor tried to soften the mood by restating that the week had been going very well with no parent complaints. I really appreciate his effort, but these rules are so counter to our camp culture that his affirmation did little to appease my displeasure! I suspect others may have felt the same. While these rules may not be unusual in many day care settings, they just feel uncomfortable here.
Let’s imagine that the camper I was walking and resting with in the hammock is an introvert. I don’t know her well enough from a few days to know, but the hand holding when we were one-on-one, which had not happened in a group setting, is evidence in that direction. If I’d known the full extent of the rule, this young person would have missed out on an important opportunity to connect with me on a one-on-one basis, to grow in trust and love. An opportunity to feel special, because I was willing to spend that time with her when the opportunity arose, would have been lost. Instead, she would have heard me make a request to another person to join our walk. If that person refused for any reason, I would have had to request another, and another. Soon she would know for sure that I just did not want to take that walk just with her. I might have been motivated to actually tell her the rule. To me, admitting the rule to an Alpha would feel like a betrayal of our camp culture.
Since the beginning, camp has been a counter cultural haven for people that want to live richer, healthier lives. We hope that the experience of the loving, cooperative environment we create will carry into the rest of the year, creating ripple effects to strengthen our wider communities.
So I don’t buy that we have to go along with these high priced rules just because they are becoming common place in our fear-based, mainstream culture of presumed safety. We can do better. Lets not throw the baby out with the bath water!