Why Coming to Camp Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Helping kids understand what their words really mean

Two children get in some manner of dispute, and feelings (and potentially bodies) get hurt. A well meaning adult comes in to try and facilitate a discussion about the events.

Somewhere, at the end of the discussion, the adult has the parties involved apologize to one another. Maybe even shake hands. The kids go through the motions, and, satisfied, the adult leaves them to their own devices.

Sometimes, though, apologies weren't offered with enough chutzpah. In those cases, the child is reprimanded, and told to "say it like they mean it."

They try again, changing their voice and their posture. If it's persuasive enough, the adult accepts the apology.

But what has really been accomplished? Let's dive in.

What does sorry actually mean?

I hurt people sometimes. I'm occasionally inconsiderate, sometimes (often?) clumsy, and I'm not always at my best when I'm tired. When I see that I've caused someone distress, I apologize. What I'm trying to communicate is: "I can see that something I did has negatively effected you. I wish I didn't do that. I'll do my best to do better next time." It's sincere, and while it doesn't always right the wrong - it's a way I can communicate a lot of feelings and information quickly.

But what does sorry mean when kids are forced to say it to one another? Something different altogether.

In the example above, the participants in the disagreement are potentially not feeling "sorry" at all. But they're forced to say it anyway. This is done with the well-meaning intentions of making the harmed party feel better, but does it, really?

At the Stomping Ground, our answer is, "No."

Forcing them to say sorry to one another when they aren't feeling sorry has at least four unintended consequences:

1) It teaches them the wrong definition of the word "Sorry." It teaches them that sorry is a thing you say to appease people that are mad at you. It teaches them that they should "say it like they mean it," even when they don't! Essentially, it teaches them to convey dishonest feelings to one another.

2) It builds resentment, and not empathy, in the heart of the person being forced to say it. Being forced to say anything just feels, well, yucky. It's a "power over" technique that primarily reinforces the adult as the ruler, and the child as the ruled. It erodes trust, and only reinforces a paradigm of domination. A community that's only stable because it has adults to rule over everyone.

3) It distracts the person who is forced to say sorry. Instead of thinking about their actions have impacted someone else, they spend their time feeling pissed off at the person who is dominating them. All of a sudden there is a NEW person to be mad at, and they can spend their time feeling victimized instead of considering the ramifications of their own actions.

4) It actually makes the apologized to person feel worse. As an adult with considerable experience forcing kids to say sorry in the past, I can tell you that it almost never achieves the desired result of making the apologized to party feel better. Kids are very perceptive, and when I'd remind a damaged party that the other person had apologized, they'd frequently counter with: "But they only did because you made them!" or "They didn't mean it!" And, they were right.

How we handle conflict

NicJonSo what do we do when kids are feeling mad at each other? Great question.

First of all, we'll get at the heart of why people are feeling frustrated in the first place. Often times, kids become frustrated with one another based on a simple misunderstanding. Learning that another party had no intention to hurt you (maybe he thought you wanted to play rough, too, for instance) can help you see where the other is coming from.

Next, we'll try and help them communicate how they are feeling in light of the new information that has been presented during our discussion. Hearing that someone took your stuffed animal because they thought you wanted to bring it with you and you forgot it might dissolve your feelings of anger altogether, and it's great to share that if it's the case.

If kids are having trouble conveying a certain feeling, we can help them find words to do so. Sometimes, a summer camper is very obviously feeling remorse. They didn't want to hurt the other camper, and now they see that they have. In those instances, we will share strategies for conveying those emotions. Like apologizing, for instance.

At the end, we'll try and make a plan to avoid hurting one another in the future. We'll emphasize the importance of consent when it comes to using someone else's things, or entering their physical space. Kids don't want to be involved in disagreements, and when we have established ourselves as partners in a resolution (instead of Lords of How Everyone Acts) they are often willing to listen to our ideas as to how to avoid them going forward.

"Who is this for?"

It's the core question that underlies everything we try to do during summer camp. Forcing kids to apologize to one another can feel good for the adult because it feels like we are doing something. But human interactions are more complicated than that. Disagreements can't always be resolved in 5 minutes, and they don't always end with a handshake and a smile. It can feel uncomfortable for adults, sure, but the Stomping Ground wasn't created for the comfort of the adults who work here.

It was created for kids.

At the Stomping Ground, we're doing our part to prepare kids to interact with the world when they don't have adults to hold their hands through the process.

Living in any community means ups and downs. Even a community as incredible as ours won't be exempt from people occasionally hurting one another, or being inconsiderate.

But that's okay.

Conveying how we honestly we feel when we are frustrated or upset is the best way to help avoid more frustration and heartache in the future. And if it looks a little messy sometimes? That's okay, too.

Becoming our best selves means making mistakes sometimes, and it means learning from them. But we don't learn by being forced to say things we don't mean.