You know them when you see them: the boys and girls who don’t mesh. Maybe their shorts are pulled up a tad too high; maybe they don’t know the rules to common games; maybe they blurt out dumb jokes at inappropriate times; maybe they prefer to be alone; or maybe they don’t see how other kids perceive their behavior.
Piggy, a central character in William Golding’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), is a classic dork. He’s clingy, overweight, timid, asthmatic, and bespectacled. None of these qualities is, on its own, a fateful liability. In combination, however, the consequences are socially corrosive. Golding subtly captures Piggy’s dorkiness in the first chapter. Ralph, another 12-year-old main character, has just introduced himself, but shows little interest in Piggy, despite the latter boy’s passive desire to connect.
The fat boy waited to be asked his name in turn but this proffer of acquaintance was not made; the fair boy called Ralph smiled vaguely, stood up, and began to make his way once more toward the lagoon. The fat boy hung steadily at his shoulder.
“I expect there’s a lot more of us scattered about. You haven’t seen any others, have you?”
Ralph shook his head and increased his speed. Then he tripped over a branch and came down with a crash.
The fat boy stood by him, breathing hard.
“My auntie told me not to run,” he explained, “on account of my asthma.”
“That’s right. Can’t catch my breath. I was the only boy in our school what had asthma,” said the fat boy with a touch of pride. “And I’ve been wearing specs since I was three.”
He took off his glasses and held them out to Ralph, blinking and smiling, and then started to wipe them against his grubby wind-breaker. An expression of pain and inward concentration altered the pale contours of his face. He smeared the sweat from his cheeks and quickly adjusted the spectacles on his nose.
Some readers may criticize me for labeling Piggy a dork. They might say that labeling is wrong and explain why being attentive and wearing glasses are advantageous attributes. They can be. Heck, I’m an attentive person who wears corrective lenses. I’m also against name calling because it hurts. I also know that chronic social rejection hurts even more. Therefore, I want youth leaders to call it out honestly and do something about it. After all, camp is about community and promoting kids’ social skills.
Some camp professionals would like to avoid the problem of helping awkward children fit in by hiding behind vapid statements of political correctness. “All people are different and we should celebrate those differences,” they contend. “Differences are what make us special.” Well, try telling the least popular kids at your camp that they should stop worrying about being rejected and simply remember that they are special. They’ll tell you to wake up and start smelling what you’re shoveling. Now who feels rejected?
Alternatively, you can work to identify the causes of social rejection. You can engage in a little “rejectology” and then help those kids fit in. Almost everyone wants to belong. Almost everyone craves social connection. Indeed, the most important work we do as youth leaders is to engineer those connections. When we do it well, the results last forever, far beyond a child’s final summer at camp. When we teach social skills, we’re teaching nothing less than peace and love.
The Rejection Spectrum
A range of reasons exists for why one youngster may not fit into the group. On one end of the spectrum are intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities. When a child’s IQ is markedly low or his or her behavior is patently unusual, as might be the case for a child with severe autism spectrum disorder, then special training and/or considerable experience is required to skillfully and comfortably interact with that child. Such training and exposure cannot be accomplished in a magazine article.
A bit further along the spectrum are character pathologies, also known as personality disorders. Symptoms of these disorders include cognitive, emotional, and behavioral traits that make healthy interactions and connections particularly challenging, even for mental health professionals. For example, people with schizotypal personality disorder do not want friends. People with borderline personality disorder vacillate rapidly between showering selected others with love and then violently rejecting them. Most camp-age youth would not be diagnosed with full-blown personality disorders, but there are always a few with pathological tendencies that require clinical expertise. Again, professional training and experience is needed before working with those young people.
The vast majority of awkward children and adolescents — those exhibiting dorky behavior — have no disability or disorder. They’re just a little odd, a little off, a little quirky. Heck, we can all be dorky sometimes. It’s part of being human. And when we say, “a person with dorky behavior” rather than “a dork,” that further humanizes the construct. Just as it is kinder to say, “a person with paraplegia” than “a paraplegic,” we should emphasize the personhood of kids with dorky tendencies.
It may also be instructive to differentiate dorkiness from nerdy behavior (pronounced interest in academic subjects), geeky behavior (pronounced interest in technical subjects), and jocky behavior (pronounced interest in sports). Those groups all alternate between popularity and rejection for different reasons and in different milieus.
A nerdy kid might fit in just fine at an academically competitive boarding school. Geeky kids thrive at Lego competitions and math Olympiads. And young jocks excel in sports showcases, earn scholarships to Division 1 universities, and sometimes become professional athletes. There’s something adaptive and wonderful about nerdy, geeky, and jocky behaviors. Dorky behavior is less adaptive and wonderful.
Of course, dorky behavior sometimes intersects with nerdy, geeky, or jocky behavior. For the purposes of this article, however, I’ll focus narrowly on dorky behavior because it is so rarely adaptive (unless you’re a stand-up comic). Plus, we can actually do something to ameliorate it at camp.
A Dorky Hit List
Awkward youth are easiest to spot in the faces of others. When someone does something dorky, the reaction usually prompts a crooked grin and a raised eyebrow from the youngsters around them. This trademark expression is a combination of sympathy, embarrassment, and irritation. It’s as if they are saying, “I wish you hadn’t done that because it’s pathetic and inept.” Except, of course, kids don’t talk that way. Instead, they either say nothing or they say, “You’re such a dork.” Fortunately, as a well-trained staff member, you can be there to improve the situation. More on treatments for dorky behavior later.
So, what are examples of socially clumsy conduct?
- Dressing in a way that departs from a functional, if not fashionable, standard in the host culture
- Jumping into a game or group activity without being invited by a group member or without asking the group’s permission
- Failing to adhere to generally accepted norms for cleanliness in the host culture
- Making assertions or comments that are patently unrelated to the dominant conversation topic
- Displaying a noticeable lack of basic coordination in a game or sport
- Trying too hard to be funny or trying to impress peers with exaggerated stories
- Revealing a lack of culturally relevant knowledge about topics that have social importance for the group
In their harshest and least politically correct moments, camp staff describe these behaviors as “social suicide.” That’s a misnomer of sorts because young people with dorky behavior are not trying to self-inflict social rejection. Quite the opposite. They are trying to fit in. Dorky behavior is more like an accidental social wipe-out than social suicide.
Dare to Be Different
Camps, schools, and other youth programs are enriched by differences, as are families, neighborhoods, and friendships. As the aphorism goes: “Variety is the spice of life.” Indeed, most people cite both similarities and differences between them and their peers as pillars of lasting and interesting friendship. When we talk about dorky behavior, we are not talking about characteristics that make one child different from another.
Most parents, teachers, and youth leaders would take the difference dimension a degree further by stating that differences should be celebrated, encouraged, and nurtured. Sometimes, the more awesome the difference, the better. Extremely talented kids can get away with a lot of dorky behavior. Admiration causes a certain degree of awkward behavior to be overlooked. Psychologists call this phenomenon “earning idiosyncrasy points.”
Not surprisingly, no youngster is so talented that he or she is able to bank an infinite amount of idiosyncrasy points. Manners, social skills, and adherence to cultural norms play some part in every young person’s social standing. So, yes, we want kids to dare to be different, to celebrate what makes them special, but without losing sight of behavioral norms altogether. As a youth leader, you can be instrumental in grounding both talented and relatively untalented kids before their ignorance precipitates an accidental social wipe-out.
Earning Social Currency
The most elegant way to help awkward youngsters fit in is to let them do it largely on their own. Engineered social blending — such as advising a group to “let Bobby join in the game” or discretely imploring them to “stop being so hard on Bobby,” — is superficial lubrication. Bobby is never really accepted, and he certainly doesn’t acquire the kinds of skills that earn him a place in the next setting.
We also don’t want Bobby to mimic other youngsters. Fitting in doesn’t mean blending in or losing one’s individuality. What we want does take time, but it promotes durable gains in social status. Here’s how you can begin teaching dorky kids to fit in.
- Teach Consideration. Young people who respond to other people’s needs are viewed positively by their peers. You can begin these lessons with questions such as, “What do you think Roger wants right now?” and “How could you help Michelle get what she needs?”
- Teach Sportsmanship. Young people who follow the rules and cheer on their teammates are respected for their fairness and enthusiasm. Call out any poor sportsmanship and state the positive alternate behavior. “Don’t argue. Live with the call and get ready for the next play,” or “Join the cheer at the end of the game whether you’ve won or lost.”
- Teach Appropriateness. Don’t sugar-coat your social coaching. Be clear and direct. Otherwise, you’re wasting precious time. Say things like, “Sam, when you change your clothes, keep it moving. The other kids don’t want to talk with you while you’re naked,” or “Rachel, the surprised looks on the other kids’ faces made me realize that they didn’t want to talk about that topic.”
- Teach Fairness. More than affection or material objects, kids want fairness from their friends. Give them feedback such as, “When you play favorites like that, it makes the other kids dislike you,” or “It would be better if you gave everyone a try. That way, no one feels left out.”
- Teach Hygiene. Youth leaders wince at the prospect of telling a young person that her breath smells or that he has bad body odor — or worse. Sadly, your silence may prolong the ridicule poor hygiene can spark. Be discrete and specific by taking a youngster aside and saying something such as, “You need to brush and floss more often so that your breath smells fresh,” or “Other kids seem to be noticing that your body smells bad right now. Let’s make a plan for keeping clean.”
- Teach Healthy Risk Taking. Kids who are too timid to try new things are quickly seen as the runt of the litter. You need to encourage courageous behavior. Say, “I know it’s a bit scary at first, but trying this will make you feel great about yourself,” or “I want you to give this a try so you become more confident. Even if this doesn’t become your favorite activity, I want it to be one you can say you tried.”
- Teach Playfulness. Kids who decline invitations to play are eventually ignored. And those who never initiate games are similarly neglected. Coach an awkward child by saying things such as, “Hey, how about you grab this playground ball and invite that group of kids over there to play some kickball?” or “I noticed you said ‘no thanks’ when those girls asked you to play. Perhaps you could say ‘yes’ the next time so they don’t forget that you’re here.”
- Teach Imaginative Behavior. Find out what an awkward child is good at and ask him or her to dream up some ways to involve the other boys and girls at camp. Not only can this help a dorky child earn idiosyncrasy points, but it can also give them confidence to learn new skills.
- Teach Humor. I saved the hardest for last. Funny kids are well-liked, but it’s nearly impossible to teach humor directly. Instead, you’ll need to model a good sense of humor and see whether dorky kids catch on. Sometimes they will; other times not. Do your best to set a good example by telling appropriate jokes at the appropriate time.
Growing Up and Out
You owe it to the young people you serve to guide their social growth, to prevent accidental social wipe-outs, to help the dorky kids belong. You may work hard and see obvious change. You might also see little or none. Sometimes, this invisibility means that they haven’t understood your coaching; other times they have internalized your wise counsel but haven’t the courage or the motivation to put it into practice.
The truth is that sometimes kids’ brains are not ready to integrate your prosocial advice. Fortunately, almost all youngsters eventually grow out of their dorky behavior. The lucky ones have camp — and you — to accelerate their maturation. But make no mistake; we all outgrew one kind of dorky stage or another. In case you don’t believe me, go give your mom or dad a call.
Golding, W., & Epstein, E. L. (1954). Lord of the Flies: A novel. New York, NY: Perigee.
Christopher Thurber, PhD, ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist and the cofounder 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 him at email@example.com or visit CampSpirit.com.