I know we’re practically around to the next Friday, but what with the blog transfer and all, I just got ’round to sitting down and writing about my experience with Youth School last Friday. This time, it’s not so much a vignette as a learning experience that I want to be sure to remember. It actually started two weeks ago, the first time I was subbing for Jason and had his clan for the day. I wrote last week about how the boys just wanted to run ahead and hit things, and that was pretty frustrating. I think I also mentioned that this clan is the one that has had instructors coming and going all year, and I think that comes through in the lack of cohesion in the group. So two weeks ago, I had tried to get the boys to understand that they need to be part of the group in some more subtle way…putting one of them in charge of leading (and therefore in charge of being sure everyone is following), or getting everyone to hide when the boys got so far ahead that they couldn’t see us and then waiting to see how long it would take them to come back and look for us. But on that previous week, we pretty shortly ended up staying in one place and everyone being entertained for a while, so the issue took care of itself.

This week, we were down on the beach, and had the day devoted to beach wandering. Right away, the three boys took off running down the beach. They got around the first bend, and started setting up a fort in the rocks so they could hide and jump out at the girls once we got up there. I saw what they were doing, but they didn’t think I could see them. Hiding and ambushing people is something we do a lot at Youth School, so I can see why it didn’t occur to them that it’s not cool to hide from the instructor. I waited until after they pulled their prank and had their fun, and then reminded them that running ahead to hide is fine as long as I know where they are. So they need to let me know ahead of time, and I won’t tell the rest of the kids if they don’t want me to. So they’re cool with that, and everythings cool.

So we continue on with our day, which goes very well and we have a great time on the beach. As soon as we turn around to head back, two of the boys take off running again. They actually run all the way back to the main meeting place, far past the point where I can see them. Once again, I knew what they were doing, so I wasn’t really worried about their safety, but it was exactly the thing that we had just talked about. When they got back to where the rest of the group was hanging out, I talked with them again. Each time I would bring it up, they would act very sorry that they forgot the rule. These are good kids, and I belive that they genuinely mean well. I think it’s hard for 10-year old boys to keep these boundaries in mind. So, we play around there on the beach for a while, making sand castles and digging for geoducks. Pretty soon, it’s time to head back to the place where the parents are picking up.

The pick-up point was in an unusual spot last week, and that meant that we had to walk up the gravel road a ways. The road is in the camp, but there’s a lot of construction going on on camp property these days, so the construction workers go barelling up and down this very narrow, twisty, steep gravel road all day long. And what do you know, but these two boys take off running again. Pretty soon, they are out of sight, and I assume they are heading all the way up to the parking lot. I have to wait for a couple of girls to stop and use the bathroom on the way up, and as I’m hanging out there, Sol comes up to wait for some of her clan also. I tell Sol about the situation and that I’m frustrated with it.

Sol says, “Do you have some ideas for next steps to take with them?” And I confess that I don’t really have any good ones. In my family, you either did what mom said, or you got a spanking. I’ve never really had any other kid/adult interactions, and since that model isn’t the appropriate one to follow in this situation, I’m at a bit of a loss. I didn’t explain that all to Sol, but she seemed to understand and gave me a couple really good suggestions. In the course of her suggestions, she said, “I think it would be a really good idea to nip that behavior in the bud. You need to prove that you really are the alpha.”

The word “alpha” is a really important word, and I’m really glad she used it, because it triggered a much clearer understanding of the situation for me. I have a pretty dominant personality, and a lot of my interactions with people involves me trying to temper my aggressive personality so people don’t feel bowled over by me. I am pretty clearly an alpha person, and people sense that quickly. There is usually very little question of who will be in charge in a group setting, unless I specifically opt out of the role because I realize someone else knows more about the situation or has more experience. It is so common for me to act naturally as an alpha, that I very rarely have had to respond to a challenge to my alpha status. People just don’t challenge it. However, kids don’t understand all the fine points of group interactions, and it’s sort of their jobs to challenge everyone’s roles in order to see where they fit in to the big picture. So I hadn’t seen it that way until Sol pointed it out, but this was totally about these two boys testing the waters to see if they really had to do what I said.

Sol gave me a brilliant suggestion for proving that they do, and she offered to take over the rest of my clan while I went to catch up to the boys and implement the plan. Her idea was that I explain to them that we are going to play a game to help them remember the rules about either being in sight or telling me where they are going. Then hand them each one of the loose ends of the adjustment straps on my backpack. They had to hold on to those straps for the rest of the day (about 30 minutes) and go wherever I go. We headed back down the hill to wait for the rest of the clan, and on the way there we detoured through some mud puddles and (accidentally!) a patch of stinging nettle.

But then one of the boys had a total reaction to the stinging nettle. His hand got all puffed up and I felt pretty bad. We found some plantain to mush up and put on it, and I told him that I had heard on good authority that slugs would take the sting right out of it. He sounded pretty sceptical, but we wandered around until we found a slug. I put the slug on my hand (because, of course, I had walked through the nettles also), and he got all disgusted as was like “I am not putting that thing on my hand.” So then the little bell went off for me, and I said, “So your hand doesn’t hurt badly enough that it’s worth touching a slug?” and he said it didn’t, so I realized that his hand probably really did hurt, but he was playing it up to make me feel bad.

When the final circle started, I told them they could let go and find spots in the circle, and that was the end of the story. Except that I learned a lot from this interaction. Especially after talking with my mom about the process, I would have done the whole thing differently. Given that I had only 30 minutes or so left at the end of the day to take care of the problem, I think I took the right action (except for the stinging nettle part, which I think was probably over the top and just made me seem like a bitch…lesson one). But in the future, I’ll start in much sooner.

One of the problems I was having is that the structure of Youth School is designed to be very free form. The boundary is set at eye-sight because that’s the point at which I can still contact everyone in the group. So at the point that they’ve broken the rule, is the point that I can’t reach them any longer. So the very first time they broke the rule in the morning, I would have set it up so that the boundary moves in close enough to me that I can still get in touch with them if they go past it. And I would have set that up in terms of their choice so that they could see it as their responsibility. For instance, “You can choose to keep the current boundary as it is by respecting that boundary. If you choose to go past that boundary, then you will be letting me know that that boundary isn’t working for you, and we will change the boundary so that you have to be close enough to me that you can hear me without me yelling.” And then if they went past the eyesight boundary, it’s already set up so that I can remind them that they’ve just chosen to be within range of my unraised voice, so it’s their choice not just me seeming like a control freak to them. And then if they are appearing to push that boundary, I can remind them of it without trying to holler down the beach to get their attention. If they chose to break that boundary, the next level would be that they would need to be within actual physical reach. And only if they broke that boundary would I have made them actually hold on to my backpack.

Like I said, these are good kids, and if I had started that process sooner, we would never have had to go as far as the backpack boundary. So far, my experience has been that after I lay down the line with a kid, even if they are really mad at me in the moment, they are way more friendly with me after that. Other people I know who work with kids report the same experience. So I’ll be curious to see how my interaction with those two boys is different tomorrow.

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UPDATE:There’s sure been some fall-out from this day. I’ve written more about it here.