How to have ‘The Talk’ with your teenage boys heading to Jewish summer camp

Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

MONTCLAIR, N.J. (JTA) – When our twin sons were getting ready to head off to Jewish summer camp the summer before they entered eighth grade, my wife, Lisa, asked me to take them out of the house one evening so that we could have “The Talk.” 

“What exactly is ‘The Talk’ about?” I asked her.  

 “I haven’t been a 13-year-old boy at camp,” she said, “but you know what it is like. So prepare them for what they are going to experience in the bunk, what kinds of peer pressure they will face, that sort of thing.”  

I quickly flashed back to the summers of my middle school years. Bunk life included lots of sexist and homophobic humor, inappropriate nudity, wedgies, occasional incidents of public masturbation, hidden pornography and all sorts of pranks, bullying and hazing. And outside of the bunk were endless competitions regarding who would make out with whom and bragging about hook-ups that led to broken hearts, anger and frustration.  

What my wife wanted me to communicate was relatively simple: Tell them what to expect and then tell them to respect others, to ask for consent and to push back on peer pressure.   

But is that so easy?  

What if their friends (and hormones) are trying to push them to hook up with someone? What if their super-cool counselor is the one who is asking them about who they have a crush on? What if, by refusing to participate in rule-breaking or pranks, they find themselves excluded from the group?    

The good news is that in recent years, camp directors are helping their staffs to better monitor what happens in the bunk, are engaging in role playing to prepare them to set appropriate boundaries and are adding mental health professionals to their staffs. Things are getting better, but it is still a good idea as a parent to have an honest conversation about some of the challenges your child will likely face at camp.  

Over the past seven years, as part of my work with Moving Traditions, my colleagues and I have had the opportunity to work with camp professionals to train hundreds of first-time staff members on how to turn down the volume on peer pressure at camp. 

Based on our experience, here are a few thoughts about what you might say to your child heading off to camp this year. 

Consent matters.

Pay close attention to the way that others react to touch. If you see that a person does not want to be touched, don’t tease them or laugh at someone else teasing them. You have no idea what is behind their desire to be left alone. Respect that person’s sense of their own body. And if you do not feel comfortable with a touch that someone is giving you, communicate clearly about where you do not want to be touched. Some common camp experiences around touch – like cuddle-puddles or play-fights – can lead to uncomfortable or unwanted touches, so be especially aware of those situations and how you and others are feeling. 

Not all adults will behave like adults.

If a counselor or another staff member is name-calling a camper, putting pressure on a camper to say if they have a crush on someone or making fun of a camper in a demeaning way, find a way to talk to another adult about it. You might have to find an adult during a meal in the dining hall or while walking from one program to another – but find someone who will listen to your concerns and help you address the situation.   

Have realistic expectations about camp romance.

If you go into camp thinking “this is the year that I have to hook up with someone,” it can have a really negative impact on your summer. Maybe you will be into someone and they won’t like you back. Maybe you will be into someone and they will like you back for a short time, but then they will have second thoughts about you. Either way, keep in mind that trying to force a relationship when you don’t really click with someone is generally a bad idea. It is OK if you go through the summer without hooking up.   

This is just a start. My colleagues and I have created a more extensive set of reflections on relationships especially tailored for teens headed to camp.

is the chief of education for Moving Traditions.


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