July 5, 2015
During orientation, we coach our counselors on ways to talk with campers. One of our first rules is to make sure the campers knows you care and that you are there for them. Feeling emotionally safe is a mandatory part of a quality camp experience. The counselors need to know that a child cannot grow if he or she does not have a base of security and safety.
[Note: it is so important to us to understand the emotional state and behavior of our campers that we ask our counselors to evaluate both on a daily basis. We also know that counselors are not mind readers, so we also have a weekly confidential survey that every camper fills out that tells us how he or she feels about camp, cabinmates and counselors. We also ask “do you feel safe?” and “would you like to talk with someone on the leadership team about anything?” These surveys help us know about the camper that might not show frustration or difficulty externally, but is having some struggles.]
We also give counselors this piece of advice: “do not interview for pain”. This advice comes from both the Silver Fox (my incredibly wise mother) and developmental psychologists.
Let me explain what I mean using a story.
When my older sister Becky was in kindergarten, my mom picked her up on the first day of school.
“How was your day?”
“Do you like your teacher?”
“Yes, she is nice.”
“Did you make friends?”
“Did anything else happen?”
“Jimmy Barnes pushed me down and I scraped my knee.”
My mom stopped the car as soon as she could, turned to face Becky and excitedly asked, “He did what? What did the teacher do? Are you OK? Maybe I should call him mom. Are you OK my sweetheart?”
The next day, mom picked Becky up again. Before she could even ask about the day, Becky immediately started a report, “You will never believe what Jimmy Barnes did today! He talked back to the teacher and he stuck out his tongue and he shoved another boy and he knocked over some pencils!”
Becky looked at my mom expectedly. At this moment, the Silver Fox did something that I consider remarkable. She had a revelation – by focusing on Jimmy the day before, she told Becky that this was the type of story she valued. The Silver Fox then made a quick adjustment. She sat down with Becky and said, “Oh, that Jimmy is just a silly boy. Tell me about your teacher and your friends and your favorite activities.”
She then had a 10-minute conversation with Becky focusing on all the positives. She gave her 100% of her attention and asked only about what had worked that day. Every day that week, she did the same thing.
She guessed (correctly) that if Jimmy was truly making Becky unhappy, that he would keep coming up in the conversation. But Becky was only talking about Jimmy because that was the subject that got mom’s complete attention on day one.
I later saw a youth development expert talk about “interviewing for pain” and I realized that the Silver Fox was ahead of her time.
Let me share another example. I used to have a friend at Davidson named Perry that would interview for pain. He was one of the nicest and most sensitive people I ever met, but I eventually found myself avoiding him because our conversations were inevitably like the following:
“Hi Steve, how are you doing?”
“Are you sure? You look a little down.” This is said with loving sincerity.
“Yeah, I’m OK. I guess I am a little tired.”
“Why are you tired?”
“I had to study late last night and I had an argument with my roommate.”
“That’s terrible. That must make you frustrated. Tell me what you argued about.”
I would then begin a 15-minute discussion about the argument from the night before. I would leave the conversation sad and exhausted. Frankly, I was already over the argument and had not been thinking about it at all when I saw him. I only realized later that he was so committed to “being there” for me that I felt like I needed to give him something to “be there” for.
I contrast him with my best-friend Mike who wanted to hear about what was great about every day. If I was REALLY down, he was more than happy to talk with me about it, but he always started with the positive. When I talked with Mike, I felt strong and capable. When I talked with Perry, I felt fragile and easily hurt.
This poses a challenge to us parents and counselors. When should we focus on our children’s struggles and when should we redirect their attention to the positive? I think the best rule of thumb is to “connect and redirect”. Let the child/camper know you care and that you heard them (connect), but then attempt to redirect to a more positive and powerful viewpoint. It has been my experience that if the child is really struggling, the redirection will fail, even after 2 or 3 attempts. In this case, you have a child that really needs you to “be there for them”. But far more often, your redirection sends the following messages: 1) you are strong enough to absorb this challenge without help and 2) we can always look for what is working (rather than what is not working). It can help make failure lead to success, turn a fear into newfound love, or a turn a conflict into a friendship.
To be clear, I am NOT saying that we should ignore real problems or struggles. As parents and adult role models, it is imperative that the children in our lives understand that we are committed to their safety. But we should also avoid interviewing for pain. We should assume that they are capable of resolving the vast majority of their conflicts on their own without our involvement. After all, this is one of the great goals of parenting – to (somehow) teach independence, thus preparing our children to be successful without us.
Want more like this? See: http://blog.campchampions.com/blog/how-to-teach-kids-optimism