In the Trenches: Listening to Subtle Signals Youth Spend

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

Dear
Bob,

Each year, our day camp sends a note to campers and families that we
have not heard from for a while to invite them back to camp or, in the
case of older campers, to ask them to consider joining our counselor-in-training
program. The card talks about the friends that can be made at camp and
the good times to be had in a way that we hope is welcoming and affirms
their camp experience.

Recently, we received an e-mail from a young man who identified himself
simply as an "unsatisfied customer." In angry tones, he claimed that
our card did not reflect his experience at camp. Beginning his letter
with, "To whoever (sic) of you guys who read this," he said that he had
made no friends, felt his counselors were "jerks," asserted that we had "scared
the heebee jeebees" out of his sister on the ropes course (for which
we were lucky that she did not sue us), and generally thought we did
a good job of wrecking his summer.

To these comments, he added that his counselors should have stepped
in to do something when some kids teased or picked on other kids, but "all
they did was nothing." Why, he asked rhetorically, would he ever want
to return to an experience like the one he described? He ended by saying
that he was tired of "getting our stupid letters," and we should quit
bothering him.

Given the news of violence in schools and at the day camp here in Los
Angeles at the end of the summer of 1999, we were not certain how concerned
we should be or what our best response might be. By the way, he conveniently
gave us his birth date and his first name. What do you make of that?
What would you suggest as a reasonable response?

- Leery in Los Angeles

Dear Leery,

Despite his admonitions to the contrary, it is perfectly clear that
this boy does not want you to go away. What he wants is to talk to someone
who will listen to him and take him seriously. As I often say to teachers,
parents, and other child care professionals, children often leave the
very clues that lead us directly to them! Even the way he begins his
letter is revealing, suggesting that he doesn't actually expect anyone
to respond to him. In fact, his e-mail is a great example of what things
children tell us to ignore and what to listen deeply to.

From the violence making the headlines in the last few years, we know
that boys who resort to violence often feel marginalized and left out.
Many boys who have been violent often send a signal of some sort indicating
that they are upset, confused, in need of help, or simply want to make
contact with an adult who will listen to them with respect. The lack
of credible, concerned, caring adults who can provide validation, guidance,
role modeling, and containment may be the greatest need of our young
people.

Reaching Out

Since the boy gave you an opportunity to find out who he is, I suggest
you write an e-mail message back to him (his e-mail address would be
easy to trace), saying that you received his e-mail, that you were glad
that he let you know about both his and his sister's experience, and
that you would like to hear more about it. I would check any impulse
to defend or explain yourself or make what he might hear as excuses about
what he experienced. I would also be very careful not to assign blame
to him, his counselor, his group, etc. I would make three points simply
and clearly, as follows:

  • You welcome his comments and are impressed with his ability to express
    himself.
  • You would like to hear more about what made camp such a poor experience
    for him and his sister.
  • You would like to hear his ideas about what he thinks would make
    things better.

Involving the Parents

I suggest you follow up with his parents in a way that is not condemning,
but informs them of your plans. For example, simply let them know that
their son has contacted you, that he was very articulate in his criticism
and in describing his experience, and that you have invited him to talk
with you to share his ideas about what would make camp, in his opinion,
a better place.

If he does agree to meet with you, it will be because you have done
a believable job of making him the "expert." After all, it is his experience
that he is talking about, and your sole job is to listen to him. This
approach will help teach this boy that if he reaches out in a way that
people can respond to him, his anger might not only be accepted, but
may lead to something constructive.

Turning a Negative into a Positive

Once you have met with him, you can ascertain whether you think he might
be a candidate for a counselor-in-training program. Imagine taking a
disaffected boy, helping him channel his criticism, and then making him
an ally. That would do a world of good for this young man! One thing
is certain, if campers were being teased or being picked on, this boy
is one counselor who would do something about it.

Obviously, you must first determine whether the boy meets your criteria
and is interested, but if you win him over and he feels respected and
as if his concerns have been addressed, he would make one great camp
advocate! Indeed, when children feel heard with their words, they seldom
need to resort to talking with their behavior.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing
in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for
Bunk1.com and can be reached via e-mail at InTheTrenches@bunk1.com or
by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American
Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2000 March/April
issue of Camping Magazine.

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