Eek! My child is going on camp!

How old were you when you went on your first school camp? A church youth group weekend away? A Scouts sleepout?

My memory is fuzzy, but I seem to remember I was in Standard Five, as they called it in 1987. That’s Grade 7 in today’s money, and I don’t remember apprehension about going, nor details about where we went or what we got up to. In fact, I only have one memory from that camp, 30 years on – and it’s that some boys stormed the girls’ dormitory and ransacked our cupboards and luggage, looking for bras and sanitary pads. I remember how they tried to spy on the girls, trying to spot us naked. I remember intense shame.

Well, you might say. Throw a group of on-the-cusp-of-puberty children into Lord of The Toxic Masculinity territory in the profoundly sick society of the South Africa of the time and what do you expect? Times are different now. Certainly at my son’s school, the teachers have already prepared the talk about the basic expectations of respect for privacy and bodily autonomy. 

Have you spoken to your child about consent yet? How did you go about this discussion with your child? Tell us by emailing and we may publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.

My son is just nine years old and in Grade 4. He is a whole two years younger than I was, and about to go on camp for two nights, and to be honest, I’m not coping. 

Ninety-nine percent of me wants to shout, “What are you thinking, teachers? Do you not remember how cruel children can be?”

My other one percent reminds me how loving my son’s school is, how different the children of today from how I remember, how emotionally eloquent they all already are.

So far, so good, as far as sexually precocious children are concerned.

But what about the adults?

Paedophiles find work near children, this we know. Priests, teachers, camp counsellors – among the true heroes of their professions also lurk the Bad Guys.

My son is nine and has never spent two nights away from us and not in his own home before. 

Ninety-nine percent of me knows he is safe among his trusted teachers and good friends. The one percent can’t quiet the niggle about the adults who will be there whom I don’t know.  

I already hover on the edge of a “helicopter parent” diagnosis. To avoid a full-blown case of it, I will have to let him go. 

But not without some tools.

And so, I have conversations with my son. First I tell him about what happened to me on my primary school camp. He’s vaguely interested, Now I have to explain tampons, therefore menstruation. He’s losing the will to live. I suggest a book. He doesn’t open it. 

He is young for his grade, with an endearing innocence. It’s hard to tell him these things before he wants to know them. But, rather from me, right?

Mostly, he is mystified why anyone – boy or girl – would think it was okay to rifle through another child’s possessions. “What about their privacy?” my boy demands, incensed.

It’s going to get worse. We now have to speak about “adults who don’t make you feel safe”. I receive a quizzical look. This is not cutting it. I’m going to have to use the real words.

We plunge into discussions of private parts and unwanted touches, about staying together in a group and about what “sexual abuse”, a term he once saw on the news, means. I say that your best defence against bad secrets is speaking up, doing everything in plain sight. That he’ll be stronger if he knows he can say no, even to an adult. 

I teach him to say, “I need to phone my mom, there’s something I have to tell her” and I try to convince him he can tell this to any of his teachers, anytime, day or night. That’s all he has to demand, to get to speak to me, and then I can help him. I’m not convinced it’s enough to overcome his innate desire to please, to follow the rules and not to draw attention to himself. 

I try to tell him he can always, always leave. 

I hope he’s hearing me.

Have you spoken to your child about consent yet? How did you go about this discussion with your child? Tell us by emailing and we may publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.

Read more:

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive Parent24 stories directly to your inbox.