This is the time of year when the phone calls start. They usually begin in one of two ways: “I’m not a helicopter mom, but….” Or “I know we’re not supposed to disrequest certain kids, but…”
And now we camp directors know what’s coming next. There’s a kid, either a kid new to our camp or one we already know, who shouldn’t be in my kid’s cabin because they are a) annoying, b) mean or c) a cling-on.
We often, in that situation, tell the parent on the phone, that we could consider moving the difficult child out of their child’s cabin, but we’d have to tell that child’s parents this is happening, and why – because it wouldn’t be fair for that child (or indeed any child) to get off the bus at camp and discover that they didn’t get any of their cabin requests.
Then they ask if we’d tell them who disrequested their child and I usually say yes, with your permission. Because that family is going to ask. This permission is never granted.
Now we’re back at square one.
So let’s talk about the difficult child.
Malcolm Gladwell often writes about how disadvantages are really advantages, if we understand the situation more fully. Like David and Goliath, which of course Gladwell says was no accident, but in fact simply a matter of David turning his disadvantage – small size, being a lowly shepherd – into an advantage by avoiding getting near the giant Goliath, and felling him with a sling and a stone.
I have a feeling that if Malcolm Gladwell went to summer camp, he would want every cabin to have a challenging camper in it, in order to give children the apparent disadvantage that’s really an advantage: Dealing with difficult people. This skill begins with compassion, but that’s only the first step of the journey. Compassion is really good, but greater success in life comes from learning how to navigate around and with difficult people.
Because we’re all going to have them in our lives. Some of us have difficult people in our families, some at work, some among our friends. Some days we want to rip their face off. And what better training for doing something more helpful than that, than at summer camp, the veritable living laboratory for what we call “lifelong learnables?”
A camp cabin is a petrie dish for growing… everything. The fun stuff grows, the deepest friendships of our lives grow…. and so do the annoyances. Usually our difficult kids come to camp – and walk through life – with their difficulty. It’s often ADHD making them impulsive and struggling with focus, sometimes with personal space. Sometimes there’s a learning disability that makes them oblivious to social cues, so they try hard to make friends… the wrong way. Sometimes it’s the kid who isn’t a bully, but isn’t so nice either.
Years ago, I had a friend in a small elite grad school program that focussed on t team-based work. After she graduated, my friend asked the head of the program why the schlepper was in the program. He explained that they always tried to include one weaker or difficult person, because such a significant part of teamwork is dealing with that kind of person.
Yes it is. And there goeth the camp cabin. Aside from the reality that it’s impossible to purge everyone annoying from every cabin, they’re helpful, in their own way. Imagine our kids learning to tell the close talker that you need your space, or tell the one who makes mean remarks that it hurt their feelings… or figure out a way for the group to share the social task of supporting the friendless kid who can’t read social cues. This is the hidden silver lining of summer camp.