Cabin etiquette: Why annoying kids matter

Learning from the more difficult people


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It’s not all rainbows and sunflowers at camp

Now is the time of year when camp directors most often receive calls from parents about their child’s cabin placement. The days lengthen, the mercury climbs, thoughts turn to summer and anxiety ramps up. 

This column is about cabin placement, but let me digress briefly and talk about anxiety. They’re connected. You’ll see. Every year in late March the American Camp Association holds its Tri-State Camp Conference. This is the largest annual gathering of camp directors in the world and my favourite. This because almost 4,000 camp directors come together to learn from hundreds of relevant experts.

Can you guess what the most popular topic was at the 2017 conference? Try. Anxiety. There was a session on camper and staff anxiety in almost every time block. Dozens of different sessions, same issue. Because anxiety stalks so many young people.

Which is not helpful to parents, whose anxiety ramps up in response to so many aspects of parenting. We worry about our kids’ physical safety. We worry bad guys will get them. We worry about dangers on the streets. We worry about abuse. We worry about bullying. And we worry about our kids’ relationships: Especially at this time of year when we can so easily indulge in the comforting (but false) illusion that we can help matters, socially speaking, for our kids, by getting involved in the cast list of their summer companions, whether it’s day camp or overnight camp.

Our own anxiety causes us to forget what Wendy Mogel so eloquently labelled “the blessing of a skinned knee.” The social equivalent of a skinned knee is the undesirable child in the cabin. 

This is the child who’s bossy or impulsive or who gets easily frustrated and yells at other kids or who doesn’t quite get social cues so maybe gets in people’s personal space, or doesn’t get the joke, or their stories go on for too long, or they misinterpret things other kids say. 

Years ago a very wise man said to me: “It’s much easier to get the cool kids to accept the nerdy kid than it is to get the nerdy kid to stop being nerdy.” I was borderline appalled, first at his use of such pejorative labels and second at his apparent pessimism. 

But now that I have 28 years of camp directing under my belt, I know the man was right. The so-called nerdy kids in the cabin are almost always the kids who struggle socially. They are pretty much always doing their best to fit in, desperately hoping to do so, and not quite managing. 

These are the kids you don’t want in your son or daughter’s cabin. These are the kids you phone us about.

And these are maybe the most important kids to have in our kids’ cabins. Seriously. They add more than the cool, socially competent kids. Way more.

Think about it this way: Who do we learn from, the easy people in our lives or the more difficult people? From the latter group we learn patience and tolerance and kindness and empathy. If everyone around us were easy all the time, we’d lack for opportunity to learn those lessons.

In my family, we have conflict. I think that makes us normal. Oftimes the conflict is generated by somebody being a “bad actor,” a.k.a. annoying or difficult. 

When someone starts complaining about that person, I always (being predictable and boring) say: “Oh yeah, that’s the annoying kid in your cabin. What do we do about the annoying kid?” And then I remind them about patience and tolerance and that not everybody is as socially competent as they are.

They usually hate this. Just like parents hate it when they call and ask me not to put “that kid” in their child’s cabin, and I do not comply. 

Because “that kid” in the cabin awakens and calls upon our children’s compassion and patience. Can you think of any more important skills to manage our most important lifelong relationships, at work and at home?

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