Cracking Children's SECRET Code

By Christopher Thurber, Ph.D.

I don't want to play. I hate kickball. — Sophia, age five

Ben doesn't like me. He's always mad at me. — Betrand, age nine

This place stinks. All the activities are stupid. — Asa, age twelve

If you're like most camp staff, you bristle when you hear children say these sorts of things. Maybe you feel a little defensive. Perhaps you're ready to offer some contradictions, such as: "I thought you loved kickball. You just played yesterday." Or, "Of course Ben likes you! Don't be silly." Or, "Camp is awesome. The activities here aren't stupid." You're the one who is stupid, you might even be thinking.

Your penchant for contention is normal. After all, you worked hard to create a safe and fun experience for your campers. It's hard to imagine any valid complaints. But here's the secret to cracking children's secret code: What they say isn't always what they mean. Huh? That's right. Sometimes the literal, surface meaning of the words they utter conceals a subtext. Decoding that hidden meaning takes practice, but is one of the most important leadership skills you can acquire.

When you understand the subtext of what a person is saying, you're suddenly in a position to provide an understanding response, to provide empathy. When you provide empathy, you nurture a connection with your campers. That connection not only feels good, it also increases compliance. Yes, that's right. A little understanding from you will actually make it more likely that your campers will do what you want them to do.

When I ask new camp staff what their biggest fear is, they usually say "that the kids won't listen." That's understandable. If the campers don't listen and follow directions, the job of a day camp counselor or resident camp leader gets pretty tough pretty quickly. Any leadership technique that enhances obedience would be welcome. Unfortunately for many new staff, they operate under the false assumption that respect is endowed, not earned.

To think that your campers will listen to you because you're wearing a staff shirt, because you're chronologically older, or (in most cases) because you're taller than your campers is terribly misguided. The "magic of the staff shirt," as I call it, lasts for maybe two seconds after shaking a camper's hand for the first time. The moment you open your mouth and begin interacting with that young person is the moment he or she begins to respect you — or not — based entirely on how you treat him or her. The kind of respect that determines whether "the kids listen" is born of connections. And one of the best ways to form healthy relationships with your campers is to listen to them.

This summer, don't just listen to what your campers say. Anyone can hear the words. Listen for what your campers mean. When you respond to the underlying message — to the subtext or code — of what your campers are saying, they'll feel understood. They'll know you're interested in their experience, not only their presence. In turn, that good feeling — that feeling of "my counselor cares" or "my cabin leader takes an interest in me" — often translates to compliant behavior. In short, they'll listen to you if you listen to them. Hear what they mean, not simply what they say. That connection through genuine understanding builds relationships.

There are, of course, multiple reasons why people speak in code. Table 1 outlines different categories of code that alternately obscure, protect, flirt, stall, or deflect. Regardless of the cause or intent of speaking in code, it ultimately feels good to everyone to be understood. But before jumping ahead to empathy, consider some plausible decodes of the remarks to the left. (As an added challenge, you might want to see what category of code these children are speaking in, according to Table 1.)

Just a few of the many plausible decodes of the examples are listed. If you thought of a few more as you were reading, then you've already taken your first step into a higher level of professional youth development. You're hearing the subtext, and you're now ready to practice a more challenging skill: responding empathically, with sensitivity to that subtext. This chart shows what that might sound like.

At first, these empathic responses seem like non sequiturs. To the novice staff member, a response such as "Aw, c'mon! Kickball is a blast," rolls off the tongue more easily than "Things aren't going well for you today." That's because novice staff members rarely bother to decode the surface content of what campers say. However, once decoding becomes second nature, empathic responses roll more easily off the tongue.

But wait!, you object. What if I'm mistaken? What if my decode completely misses the mark? Well, you're in luck. Cracking children's secret code is foolproof. If you're correct in your decode and you respond empathically, then the young person you're working with will tell you. Their words (such as "Yeah, that's it," "Uh huh," or "Right") or their body language (such as relaxed shoulders, leaning toward you, or a gentle smile) will be clearly saying "You understand me" or "You get it." Getting the decode right is usually easy to detect. But what if you're wrong?

If you're incorrect in your decode or your attempt at empathy misses the mark, the young person will still tell you. Usually. He or she will say something such as, "No, that's not it. I do like kickball and I want to play, but I just can't stand how we pick teams," or "I don't miss home at all. It's just that I wanted to do archery, and now we can't because it's raining." What prompts these corrections is your attempt at understanding. That attempt — as inaccurate as it may be — still shows that you care. Your effort will motivate most young people to think: She doesn't quite get me, but at least she's trying. Let me just explain what's going on. After their explanation, you'll have a clear sense of what's going on, and you'll be back to having a solid understanding of their coded speech. As was the case when you were spot-on in your decode, you're perched to empathize. Table 2 summarizes the flow of listening, decoding, and empathizing as a way to build meaningful interpersonal connections.

As you can see, decoding and empathizing work in series to build relationships, which are the basis for respect and compliance. Your investment of a little time and effort up front, as you work to understand the subtext of their speech and relate to their experiences, saves you a lot of time and effort later on, as you struggle to rebuild lost respect.

Keep in mind that empathizing with young people's experiences doesn't mean you necessarily agree with how they're feeling or what they're thinking. Many a novice staff member has refused to provide an empathic comment such as, "None of these activities seems fun to you right now," because they disagree with the premise. You might love all the activities at camp, but sharing that opinion alone isn't going to help the young person feel understood. Of course, you're entitled to your opinion, so it's fine to say, "I actually like most of these activities, but I understand that none of them seems fun to you right now." Just remember: Empathy is not agreement.

Good news, your charges will listen and follow directions. It is possible to increase compliance simply by listening for, and responding to, the underlying message in what young people say. Naturally, this skill takes practice, go find someone to talk with. Ask them how their day is going or what's on their mind. Then, without missing a beat, decode, empathize, and watch the smile grow on their faces. That's connection . . . and its origins are no longer secret.

Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist and the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, which hosts educational content for youth development professionals. He designed The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, ACA's homesickness prevention DVD. Contact: chris@campspirit.com or visit CampSpirit.com.

Originally published in the 2010 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

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