Tears and Rain: Disciplinary Debacles at Summer Camp — Lessons Learned

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed
January 2017
Individuals walking on river bed

The sometimes heavy rain on the last and closing days of camp only accentuated the tears of sadness shed in this closest of communities. Some were tears borne of the profound sense of loss that the end of another season brings.

Those were the "good" tears.

Others reflected the disappointment of peers, counselors, and camp directors at the last week's actions of five about-to-graduate, and oldest, members of the camp's teen leadership program.

Those were the "bad" tears.

What would entice five outstanding young men and women to abandon their verbal and written pledges to abide by a code of conduct designed to ensure their health and safety — and those of the younger children they led? A lot of things, merging into a perfect storm of bad choices and difficult repercussions.

There are many antecedents of poor choices. This may be especially true in adolescence when myriad forces, including cognitive change, peer dynamics, and risk "extroversion," can coalesce in, well, some pretty unfortunate, even dangerous, ways.

Adolescent Brain Development

First up: brain development. As I wrote in a 2008 opinion-editorial, "Snap — How Split-Second Decisions Imperil Youth" (Wallace, 2008a), even well-intentioned teens may succumb to a neurochemical process that can quickly erase past reasoning, replacing it with split-second decisions that may surprise, or in some cases confound, even them.

During adolescence — and into emerging adulthood — dormant cognitive order gives way to rapid change as the brain literally prunes itself, recasting its structure in the interest of what psychologists call "higher order" thinking skills, such as appraising, predicting, and evaluating. As this massive reorganization takes place, the brain's gray matter (which had been thickening up to the start of puberty) begins to thin as excess connections are eliminated and remaining ones strengthened. This creates what I call a "leaner, meaner thinking machine."

I also pointed out that, while the end result may be pretty cool, along with that transformation comes a temporary slighting of the region of the brain responsible for judgment. Jay Giedd, MD, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, called this period "a time of enormous opportunity and of enormous risk" (Frontline, 2002).

There you have it. The conundrums of adolescence.

Further, a 2011 Temple University study published in the Journal of Child Development reached this conclusion: "Although most teens have the knowledge and reasoning ability to make decisions as rationally as adults, their tendency to make much riskier choices suggests that they still lack some key component of wise decision making. Why is this so? Because adolescents may not bother to use those thinking skills before they act" (Society for Research in Child Development, 2011).

Dustin Albert, then a PhD candidate at Temple and the study's co-author, said, "Late developmental improvements in problem solving may have less to do with getting smarter and more to do with a growing capacity to settle down and think things through before acting. Programs that target adolescents' still-emerging capacity to plan ahead, control their impulses, regulate their emotions, and resist peer pressure may help bolster youngsters' ability to make good decisions in the real world" (Society for Research in Child Development, 2011).

Peer Relations

Decisions in the real world and at camp are also heavily influenced by peers. In my own research, I have discovered that peers are the number one reason why young people make poor choices — and the number two reason (right behind parents) that they don't (Wallace, 2008b). That suggests a critical tipping point buried in the relationships of adolescence. In fact, along with identity and independence, establishing more "adult-like" friendships — in terms of depth and permanence — presents as a key task of youth development (Oswalt, 2010).

Those bonds, while important and empowering, can lead to "groupthink" gone awry. According to Psychology Today (2016), this dynamic "occurs when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation."

Translation: A bad choice by one member of a group, or team, can lead other members to follow suit. It's sort of a path of least resistance. And this may be particularly the case when an older peer provides the choice.

Risk-taking

Finally, adolescence is known as a time of increased risk-taking — both positive and negative (Wallace, 2005). Not surprisingly, this phenomenon is also driven by the developmental prerogatives articulated by psychologist Erik Erikson, especially those related to identity and independence. In other words, figuring out who one "is" requires taking risks, exploring boundaries, and testing limits. Positive risk-taking results in forward movement toward adulthood. Negative risk-taking can impede that progression, at least temporarily, but ultimately is also part of the mosaic that is growing up. The latter of these constructs is often referred to as "rebellion." Dave Currie, PhD, an expert on family issues, says, "Every parent wants to avoid teenage rebellion if at all possible, and for good reason. Who really wants to see their kids make bad choices and get themselves into trouble?" In reply, he offers some context (Currie, 2016):

  • Adolescent rebellion begins as a result of the desire for independence.
  • Normal rebellion, though difficult to live with, is more praiseworthy than the desire for dependence.
  • Normal rebellion needs to be understood as the natural desire to grow, although being sought after in an awkward manner.
  • Because it does contribute to growing maturity, normal rebellion (increasing independence) should not only be expected by parents — it is actually desirable.
  • Much rebellion is fashioned after peer models.

Currie goes on to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy rebellion, offering that healthy types help young people to "use their own wings," involve open dialogue with parents, are gradual and change in the ways they are expressed, and force adults to "let go" so these young adults can work on becoming themselves. On the other hand, he points to unhealthy rebellion as being characterized by closed channels of communication, extreme expressions of independence, a lack of trust, and increasing resentment, which he says can be damaging to all parties involved.

For her part, Therapist Debbie Pincus, MS, LMHC, offers, "One of the most painful and frustrating things for parents is watching their teens make bad choices and 'throw it all away.' Some of these choices include running with the wrong crowd, blowing off homework, dropping out of school, drinking and doing drugs, and engaging in risky behavior" (2016).

Pincus advises us to remember that we don't control the behavior of the young people in our care. They do. What we can, and likely should, do, she says, is to understand our own emotions, such as disappointment and frustration, observe and change any negative patterns in our relationships with youth, take charge (not control) in influencing youth behavior by articulating clear expectations and consequences and, perhaps most instructive in the camp setting, enjoy our relationships with these young adults — even during difficult times.

Taking Charge — Reframing Discipline

Taking charge can also mean reframing how we look at bad behavior and experience its aftermath. There exist two clear pathways, and here, too, the labels healthy and unhealthy may also be appropriate, or at least helpful.

The first — and often default — approach is to allow disciplinary situations to overwhelm and distract us from the job at hand. In this model, we may view the process of discipline as a burden that is subtractive from our mission. In doing so, we may become frustrated, stressed, and angry.

The second choice is to embrace the opportunity to engage youth in learning at a deeper and more impactful level. It is in that drill down that we can truly lead young people toward self-awareness and impart important lessons related to positive identity formation, character development, community engagement, service, and leadership.

In this way, our words and actions become additive to the experiential learning uniquely offered by summer camps. They define our job as opposed to detract from it.

Of course, there are cornerstones of effective approaches to discipline regardless of how you frame your role. I follow what I refer to as the "5 Cs" (Wallace, 2010).

  1. Clarify what rules will be put in place — and why they are there. Rules are important. They provide structure and continuity that help children feel safe in your environment.
  2. Communicate the rules to your campers. Kids want to know where the boundaries are and, in general, want to earn our approval and trust. It is our duty to make sure they understand what our expectations are for them.
  3. Consistency is key. Rules applied inconsistently confuse campers and invite problems. It is critical that everyone "buys in" and agrees to a common approach to discipline.
  4. Consequences must be enforced when the rules are broken. It's a pretty simple conclusion that if campers believe the stated consequences won't be applied, they are more likely to engage in misbehavior.
  5. Character counts. Lying erodes trust, and trust is a fundamental building block in all human relationships. Children and teens need help connecting the dots between values, honesty, integrity, and relationships.

Retributive vs. Restorative Justice

As I explained in my 2014 article "A Circle of Support," much of what may be practiced in summer camp settings — and in schools for that matter — with regard to discipline mirrors the "retributive justice" paradigm embedded in our country's criminal justice system. Or as a former counselor of mine used to say, "If you want to dance, you have to pay the fiddler" (Wallace, 2014).

Retributive justice rests on the answers to three seminal questions.

  1. What laws (rules) have been broken?
  2. Who did it?
  3. What does the offender deserve?

Sound familiar?

Yet real discipline is not synonymous with punishment. Rather, it is a larger concept in which punishment may or may not reside. Effective disciplinary environments necessarily combine discussions about expectations, remorse, reparations, and, hopefully, reintegration.

Such reintegration is a hallmark of restorative justice. It is a systematic implementation of philosophies governing responses to injustice that places a premium on righting wrongs and including all those affected: the perpetrator, the victim, and the community.

This is nothing new. In fact, models resembling restorative justice date back thousands of years. And, as I pointed out in my article, in many settings such programs are intent on developing closer relationships among young people and adults all the while encouraging the "offenders" to think of meaningful actions to repair what has been broken.

Of course, good communication is also a key component of such an approach. The National Centre for Restorative Approaches in Youth Settings (Transforming Conflict, 2015) offers some guidance through five key themes.

  1. Unique and equally valued perspectives (What happened?)
    Everyone has his or her own unique perspective on a situation or event and needs an opportunity to express it to feel respected, valued, and listened to.
  2. Thoughts influence emotions, and emotions influence subsequent actions (What were you thinking?)
    What people think at any given moment influences how they feel at that moment, and these feelings inform how they behave. The thoughts and feelings are beneath the surface and yet very important to understand. Again, there are many ways to invite people to share their thoughts and feelings.
  3. Empathy and consideration for others (Who has been affected?)
    When conflicts or disagreements arise, harm can result — in terms of negative emotions such as anger, hurt, fear, frustration, and confusion, and in terms of damaged relationships and connections between people. To live in harmony together, people need empathy and consideration so they understand who is likely to be, or to have been, affected by their choice of action in any given situation and how.
  4. Awareness of our own and others' needs (What do you need to make things right and move on?)
    Unmet needs (respect, support, kindness, clarity, appreciation, and acknowledgment) can be the underlying cause of inappropriate or harmful behavior.
  5. Trust and empowerment (What needs to happen to repair the harm?)
    It is the people affected by a situation or event who are best placed to identify what should happen.

In addition to communication, inclusion is also a critical piece of restorative justice, according to Implementing Restorative Justice — A Guide for Schools published by the State of Illinois. It offers a three-part explanation of goals associated with the model (Ashley and Burke, 2009).

  1. Accountability — Have the wrongdoers acknowledge whom they have harmed and explain their plan to remedy that harm.
  2. Community safety — Have the wrongdoers recognize the safety needs of the community, which are met by taking responsibility for developing steps to repair relationships and ensure the well-being of its members.
  3. Competency development — Have the wrongdoers embrace the opportunity to improve their prosocial skills to avoid the possibility of causing more harm and to enhance their strengths.

Restorative Justice — What It Looks Like

Practically speaking, what does restorative justice look like? For the five aforementioned teen leaders, it meant an immediate suspension from camp — as opposed to expulsion. This approach offers an important opportunity to rebuild trust (through written communication with the directors); to make reparation to the community (through written, if anonymous, letters to their peers); and to serve (through a 20-hour commitment to one of four types of activities outlined in the camp's handbook).

It also included an opportunity to contribute to this article.

Restorative Justice — What It Feels Like

On being suspended, John says, "Camp has been a special place for me for the past six years. I've always thought of myself as a kid who views camp as my safe haven. I've made some of my closest friends there and have learned so much about so many things, especially how to interact with myself and with others. When I learned that, because of my idiotic actions, the best four years of my life would come to an end in such a negative way, I felt sad, angry, depleted, devastated, crushed, guilty, and furious. All at once. I felt terrible that camp had given me only good times and I threw that back in its face. I regret it more than anything. I feel terrible about the way people must remember me; about the legacy I leave for my friends and peers; that my friends graduated and didn't get to see my pride for them. I feel terrible about the way my summer ended. I really wish, more than anything, that there was some way to fix it."

(There is.)

On violating our trust, Cody offers, "Trust is hard to obtain, easy to lose, and harder to regain."

Ellie confides, "I feel that I have disappointed you because I signed the social contracts and committed to be a role model for all of the campers. I felt very proud of myself to have been a teen leader and to have earned the camp's trust over the years. This bond was suddenly broken by my action. Trust is something you build step by step and is something that you have to take care of. This experience has helped me to recognize that trust plays an important role when being part of a community, and when you lose it, it can't be rebuilt in a moment; it takes time to do so and it doesn't depend only on you."

(It doesn't and shouldn't.)

On the creation of a path to graduate and, eventually, return as a staff member, Cody shares, "I feel that the 'restorative justice' approach is fair. I am glad to have the option and ability to be able to graduate and return to the camp community in the future."

(He will, as will his friends.)

Lessons Learned

In the end, after the tears dried and the rainstorms moved on, some valuable life lessons emerged through the pain.

Abby: "Camp has been a place where I was comfortable in being free to express myself. It has helped me grow immeasurably as a person and learn skills that I will use throughout my life. However, camp is a privilege, and I wish I had treated it as such instead of making the poor decision to break the code of conduct I had promised to live by. The one positive thing that has come from this terribly upsetting episode is I have learned to choose wisely and to remember the consequences."

Ellie: "This bad experience has allowed me to always think carefully before I do something — that I must consider the consequences of every action. I have realized the importance of saying 'no,' regardless of what your friends do and no matter what they're going to think about you. Our behavior should always be inspired by the values that camp has taught us."

Cody: "I have learned that I need to control my impulses better. I would like to tell those who come after me how important it is to follow the code of conduct in order for the camp to run successfully and for everyone to be safe . . . and remind each one how influential their actions are on the community, especially the younger campers who look up to them."

With the restorative justice process complete, we can best serve these young people by helping them close one chapter and look forward to the next. In his article "What to Do When You Really Disappoint Yourself!" author, keynote speaker, and comedian Rex Sikes suggests the following (2016):

  • Accept what is. Let go of what was.
  • Mistakes are part of life. If you don't make them you don't learn
  • You don't need to be accepted by others. Accept yourself.
  • Welcome challenges. Every situation is an opportunity to learn.
  • Keep going. Don't quit just because you made a mistake.
  • Forgiveness is something you do for yourself. To forgive is divine.
  • Love yourself for who you are. Friend yourself — you deserve to.
  • Accept the rainy days. They are part of life.

(As are the tears.)

Note: The names of the nonprofessionals referenced have been changed for privacy.

REFERENCES
Ashley, J. & K. Burke. (2010). Implementing restorative justice: A guide for schools. Chicago, IL: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. Retrieved from icjia.state.il.us/assets/pdf/BARJ/SCHOOL%20BARJ%20GUIDEBOOOK.pdf
Currie, D. (2016). Helping parents survive adolescent rebellion. Power to Change. Retrieved from https://powertochange.com/family/rebellion/?flip=yes Frontline. (2002, January 31). Interview with Jay Giedd. Inside the teenage brain. Frontline. PBS. Retrieved from pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/interviews/giedd.html
Oswalt, A. (2010, November 17). Teens and peer relationships. Mentalhelp.net. Retrieved from mentalhelp.net/articles/teens-and-peer-relationships/
Pincus, D. (2016). Throwing it all away: When good kids make bad choices. Empowering Parents. Retrieved from empoweringparents.com/article/throwing-it-all-away-when-good-kids-makebad-choices/
Psychology Today. (2016). Groupthink. Retrieved from psychologytoday.com/basics/groupthink
Sikes, R. (2016, September 20). What to do when you really disappoint yourself! Daily Inspiration and Gratitude. Retrieved from https:// dailyinspirationandgratitude.com/2016/09/20/what-to-do-when-you-really-disappoint-yourselfself-improvement/
Society for Research in Child Development (2011, June 17). Look before you leap. Teens still learning how to plan ahead. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved from eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-06/sfri-lby060811.php
Transforming Conflict. (2015). Trademark five key themes: Five key themes for restorative practice. National Centre for Restorative Approaches in Youth Settings. Retrieved from transformingconflict.org/content/trademarkfive-key-themes
Wallace, S. (2005, May). The myth of risk: Promoting healthy behavior by challenging teens. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/myth-riskpromoting-healthy-behavior-challenging-teens
Wallace, S. (2008, June 16). How split-second decisions imperil youth. Sheridan Express. Retrieved from http://sheridanexpress.blogspot.com/2008/06/opinion-how-splitsecond-deci...
Wallace, S. (2008). Reality gap — Alcohol, drugs and sex: What parents don't know and teens aren't telling. New York, NY: Union Square Press / Sterling Publishing Company. Wallace, S. (2010, May). Confessions of a disciplinarian: How managing camper behavior can save the summer. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/confessions-disciplinarian-howmanaging-camper-behavior-can-save-summer
Wallace, S. (2014, May). A circle of support: Restorative justice at summer camp. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/articles/circle-supportrestorative-justice-summer-camp

 

Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/ family counselor and serves as director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association, and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal's parenttoolkit.com. He is also an expert partner at the Risk Assistance Network & Exchange (RANE) and was national chairman and chief executive officer at SADD for more than 15 years. Additional information about Stephen's work can be found at StephenGrayWallace.com.

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