In the Trenches: More Respect

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

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.

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 bunk mates that his behavior was both
not accepted and is clearly expected to improve.

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 eleven-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 (twelve-to-thirteen-year-old) 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

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 importance. 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 roughhousing as hostility
rather than as an attempt to 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
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 the 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 roughhousing 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 in which he is more comfortable.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing
in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for
and can be reached via e-mail at
or by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by
American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2005 May/June issue
of Camping Magazine.