More Respect (May-June, 2005)

Dear Bob, I am writing in response to the “Frustrated Director” (“In the Trenches, March-April, 2005, “Respect for Authority”). I liked the article and feel that it provides a valuable perspective. I have a few thoughts: 1. I would answer the director’s question (what do I do with this kid?) more directly. From a Camp Director’s point of view, my response would be to identify the various problems that the rude camper’s behavior presents: First, of course, is the obvious rejection of the authority. It’s time to make it clear to both the camper and his parents that either he “gets with the program” or he needs to leave it. The conversation with the parent needs to take place with the camper in the room so everyone is crystal clear about the camp’s expectations of proper behavior. The Director also needs to make clear to the camper that there are specific consequences (clearly outlined and defined) for his unacceptable behavior along with a clear set of escalating negative consequences for future bad behavior. The second problem is the anger and frustration that must be felt by the bunk counselors who have had to endure this camper’s behavior day after day. So, in addition to the camper in the room when the Director calls the parent, the affected counselors must be there, too. That way, by knowing the clear expectations of behavior and the future consequences of bad behavior, they can be partners in the solution (improving the camper’s behavior). At the very least, their presence will allow them to understand that real action has been taken and that a clear strategy exists to effect an improvement in the camper’s behavior and, of equal importance, that there is a “light at the end of the tunnel” if the camper does not improve. Finally, the camper’s bad behavior has probably either created an environment in the bunk which encourages other campers to do the same or simply makes them feel uneasy or both. In a low key manner, the Director and the counselors need to reassure the camper’s bunkmates that his behavior was both not accepted and is clearly expected to improve. 2. I agree that our kids are being raised with too heavy a material bent. I think it’s the wrong direction for many of the same reasons that you mention (in your article), but I don’t necessarily agree that it promotes more rude behavior. What I do find, more often at camp, however, is that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. Rude, nasty, demanding parents seem to breed rude, nasty, demanding children. That corresponds well to the parent’s reaction to the camp’s complaints about their child’s behavior. Jay Jacobs Director, Timber Lake Camps
Dear Jay,
Thank you for your response to my column on respect for authority. With regard to your first point about addressing the Director’s question more directly, I don’t think I could lay it out any clearer than you have. One detail I would add concerns the “low key” conversation with the campers in his bunk. I would frame that conversation in a positive way, with the boy present, explaining to the other campers that everyone (the counselors, the division leader, etc.) is going to help the boy change the way he has been acting so that the cabin can be a happier, less stressful place. As part of this conversation I would have the boy offer an apology to his cabin mates for his disrespectful behavior. At the very least, I would request that he make a statement to the others committing to being more respectful in the future. Either one or both of these moves would signal to the rest of the boys (and to their counselors!) that disrespect gets taken seriously. Having to face his bunk-mates also makes it clear that respect is something that affects everyone and must, therefore, be addressed in that arena.
With regard to your second point, I don’t think Wendy Mogel (The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Penguin Books, 2001), whom I referenced in my column, or I are saying that a more materially oriented society in and of itself leads to disrespectful or rude behavior. I believe parents must demand respect from their children, and they must exemplify it. After all, respect is something children learn “through their pores.” When they experience their parents and other significant adults in their lives acting in a respectful way toward others—teachers; counselors; coaches; camp directors; store keepers; relatives; even each other—they tend to adopt that same respectful behavior. Likewise, counselors who treat campers with disrespect—teasing or ignoring them; playing favorites; yelling and screaming or preferring the company of their friends over their campers—can hardly expect respectful behavior in return. It is when counselors are caring, thoughtful and generous with their time and attention and campers are still rude that the prescription you offer above is so necessary and useful.

Dear Bob, We had an 11 year-old boy at camp last year—I’ll call him Nathan—whom we were not sure we served very well. He had been friends with only one other boy who was very similar in his lack of maturity and social skills. Late in the summer “Josh,” Nathan’s friend, went back to live with his mom out of state and Nathan attempted to move into an older (12-13 year olds) group of “normal” boys. This group had a definite pecking order and treated Nathan like they treated each other by rough housing and teasing one another. The problem was, when they got too rough (which didn’t take much—he is very slightly built and has some feminine qualities, which doesn’t help endear him to his peers), he would not separate from them, but would continue to seek their attention, then go home and tell his mom and dad that he was being picked on. Their “play” didn’t seem at all out of the ordinary and we don’t allow much latitude for roughhousing. Many times I would watch him initiate contact with the older boys by teasing and “egging them on,” then not be able to handle it when they came back at him. How do I help a kid like Nathan stop this cycle and how do we train the other boys that this isn’t acceptable? It was a little like watching a puppy mess around with a bigger dog and then get pounced on… you kind of think to yourself, “Hmmm, when is he going to figure this out!?” Jann Martin Associate Executive Director Decatur Family YMCA
Dear Jann,
Perhaps the reason Nathan was not able to “figure out” his pattern with the older boys is because what he was doing is not all that apparent. One possibility is that he was attempting to “master” the social challenges of being with older boys. With Josh gone he may simply have decided to connect with the older boys. In other words, his behavior may be an attempt (poorly executed, but well intended) to move up the social hierarchy and “toughen himself up.” Indeed, this phrase—to “toughen up”—is a good one to use with boys because they immediately grasp its import. If this is the case, Nathan then has two problems: he doesn’t know how to connect in any way other than by provoking the boys; and he misinterprets their rough-housing as hostility rather than as an attempt treat him as an equal. (Among boys, playful wrestling is code for, “I like you!”) Understood this way, we can see that Nathan makes a valiant effort to join them at their level (one has to admit, he does a good job of getting their attention!) but can’t hold his own when they respond. In some ways the older boys are just doing their part to help “toughen” Nathan up, too, since from what you say their responses were within reasonable bounds.
One other possibility, however, may be that, after having lost Josh, Nathan just gave up. After all, for a boy you describe as somewhat immature, having found, then lost, a friend like Josh is quite significant. There are some boys who, when they get desperate, will make the lives of other boys miserable by being as big a pain as they can, even if it means they sacrifice themselves in the process. The only way to know is to explore with Nathan his feelings about Josh’s departure. (For all we know, Nathan may blame himself for this loss).
Nathan won’t “figure it out” until you honor and validate his friendship with Josh and then assess whether his attempt at connecting with the other boys is an act of desperation or his way of trying to “move up.” If it is the former, it will help enormously for him to be able to talk about it. If it is the latter, you can help him (and his parents, separately) understand his behavior as an attempt at mastery and not as a deficit. Only after pointing out the positive intention in his behavior can you explain that he either try connecting with a slightly less rough a crowd; or that he get better at understanding that the boys are trying to include him and not hurt him.
The other boys may need some help understanding him, too. It is important not to make them “wrong” for responding to him they way they would any boy. If you can reach them it might help to have one or two of the boys explain to Nathan that they don’t mean him any real harm and that their rough-housing is their way of being friends. If that’s not his idea of what friendship is like (I suspect he and Josh interacted very differently), then that’s fine, but he will need to look for boys who “do” friendship in a way he’s more comfortable with. I don’t know if this might help, but see what you think.

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