In the Trenches: Working with Challenging Groups of Boys

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

Dear Bob,

I have been a unit director at a boys resident camp in the North Woods for
many summers. One thing that has challenged me and other staff members over
the years is the camper group that just doesn't seem able to come together.
These are boys who constantly fight with one another, pick on younger or
less popular boys, take each other's things, and argue about who is right.
Having a bunk like this is a demoralizing experience for any staff person.

We have tried many approaches: group games, initiatives, bunk chats,
even trips out of camp as an attempt to help the kids bond. Some of these
things work for a while; some don't work at all. I was wondering what
thoughts you had about how to work with a group like this. It seems we
have at least one bunk every year that fits this category.

- Baffled in the Birches

Dear Baffled,

Over the past few years, I have witnessed an increase in the number
of camps reporting children who seem less able to gel as a group. Many
theories exist about the causes. Some observers think children today
are too stimulated by TV and the media. Some experts feel that there
are fewer caring adults present at significant times in the lives of
children. Still others feel that our children reflect the premium value
our culture places on individualism, where true community is neither
practiced nor held in high regard. Whatever the causes, the question
becomes, what can you do about it?

Issues That Influence Boys

Let me review what I think are some of the core issues for boys that
may form an undercurrent in the groups you describe. I will address this
same issue for girls attending camp in a later column.

The male-cultural myth

Boys often find their need for nurturing to be at odds with the cultural male
mandate to be tough, grown up, and on their own. Being on your own is, in
fact, one motive many parents have for sending their sons away to camp. Popular
culture refers to this as being independent, but in practice, too much independence
often encourages counter-dependence, where a child renounces or forgoes his
or her natural need to lean on others from time to time. In the male-cultural
myth, dependency is often equated with being vulnerable, which itself is
confused with being weak.

Today, many camps provide a wonderful set of expanded options for boys.
These camps encourage appropriate affection and model a wide range of
nurturing and balanced behaviors. The problem is that boys come to camp
from the greater culture where what is considered masculine is more narrowly
defined. In this culture, boys are encouraged to deny their feelings
of vulnerability, such as tenderness, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, sadness,
and grief, which are often equated with being weak or less masculine.
Suppressing these feelings, boys feel they have only one acceptable "male" feeling
they can openly express - one they perceive actually enhances their masculinity
- and that is anger. If you watch boys react against other boys who are
considered weak or immature, what you will see is boys angrily doling
out the very punishment they themselves dread, namely, shame.

Conflicting emotions

Boys who are sensitive are often teased by tougher or more self-confident boys.
Likewise, boys who are somewhat more dependent and immature act as an unkind
reminder to the more counter-dependent boys of their own inner yearnings
and dependency, feelings they are trying to suppress. When a boy who is working
hard to control his dependency needs encounters a boy who flaunts whining
or clinging behavior, the other boy's conduct becomes an extreme enactment
of the very emotions he is trying to dampen in himself. Destroy in others
what you cannot tolerate in yourself is an adage that might describe the
attitude of the first boy to the second. Anyone who has worked with boys
in groups is familiar with this behavior. This conflict, both among the boys
and within each boy of the group, is at the heart of the problem in bunks
where boys are fighting, engaging in extreme behavior, or not cooperating.

Some boys in the group are struggling to be true to themselves and are
conflicted about how much they have to give up to fit the perceived masculine
model. Some boys are entrenched in a tough, aggressive, intolerant position
that they think reflects true masculinity, and still others cling to
an immature and over-dependent position. This is what sparks the fighting
and intolerance in the group and is the central issue that must be addressed
in any intervention measures your staff takes.

Dealing With Group Conflict

All the boys need is help and guidance from your camp staff, but sometimes
this is not an easy solution. Your staff may need to take a revolutionary
new approach, like the following step-by-step method:

Step 1

Gather a group from the camp community-at-large that crosses all generations,
a group of people who are held in high positive regard by most campers and
staff. This group might include a popular counselor of many years from another
bunk; it might include a maintenance person, known and loved by all; the
athletic director; the drama coach; and maybe even the director. The wider
the span in ages and the greater the concentration of beloved individuals,
the better. There should be at least six members of this team.

Step 2

Confer with the counselors assigned to the group that is struggling. It is
important to convey that this intervention is not designed to bypass or usurp
their authority, but to enhance it. All adults on the team must understand
that this maneuver is a non-shaming, non-accusatory way to acknowledge the
struggle the boys are having getting along and to support them in finding
a better resolution.

Step 3

The encounter should happen in the boys' bunk. Evening is an optimum time for
this intervention as children are generally more reflective. However, any
time will work as long as all the boys in the bunk are present, there are
no interruptions, and the boys are not overtired. The boys sit in a circle
with their counselors and members of the team. Begin with clarification of
what brings your team of camp leaders to that particular bunk, telling the
boys that everyone knows this group is struggling to get along, that the
team is not here to find fault or blame, and that the upset in the bunk is
probably stressful for everyone. In other words, relay the idea: "We are
not here because you are 'bad' or in trouble but because we know you are
having a hard time. We are here to support you." It is important that each
member of the team participates and demonstrates a personal interest in helping
the boys.

Step 4

Emphasize the issue of getting along in terms of what it means to be strong
("Part of living together means deciding what kind of a boy you are." With
teens say, "What kind of a man do you want to be.") You may also want to
stress these points:

  • Strong boys are able to live with people who are different from them.
  • Picking on a kid who is not as strong as you is not being a man,
    it's being mean.
  • Some of you may have to be stronger.
  • Each of you is strong in your own way. Being smart means figuring
    out how to use your strength in ways that allow you to have fun and
    allow others to do the same.
  • Some of you may have to help out more.
  • Being a man does not mean being right; sometimes it means not letting
    stupid stuff bug you so much that you stop having fun at camp and end
    up fighting all the time.

Step 5

Make it clear that you do not expect perfection, but that you know the boys
can find better ways to work out their differences. Tell them that having
disagreements is normal, but they need to figure out how to fight in a better
way. Tell them you are there for them, that you know they can do this, and
that you will not give up on them. Tell them you want to be proud of them
and that you will see them around camp and ask how it is going. It is then
up to the bunk counselors to continue the work. At this point, other activities
may help channel the energy of these boys or bring them together. The team
should check in with counselors and follow up with them from time to time.

Keep in mind that boys are "men in training," and they take their cues
from the behavior of significant adults in their world. Providing strong
role models can positively influence the behavior of boys, and camp is
the ideal place to have this impact on children.

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 1999 July/August
issue of Camping Magazine.