Helping Counselors Answer Tough or Personal Questions Without Seeming Fake Or Getting Camp in Trouble
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The phone call that gives all camp directors a pit in their stomach
"Hey James. This is Connor's mom. I'm sorry to call you about this, but when Connor was at camp last week, his counselor Eric apparently said something that is concerning me a bit."
The split second that follows feels like it lasts for a lifetime. What could Eric possibly have said to prompt Connor's mom to call on the phone?
And, it's interesting, because most of the time the "Eric" in the story hadn't actually said anything terrible. In many cases, "Eric" just shared an opinion of his that the parent didn't share.
I worked at a Christian camp for a while, and I received calls from parents expressing concern that a camp counselor said something bad about homosexuality (calling it a sin), AND parents who expressed concern that a camp counselor had condoned homosexuality.
So if parents are going to be concerned about all manner of opinions and views shared by our staff members, what's a camp director to do?
Honesty, and the best policies
Now, to be clear, I'm of two minds on this issue. I believe honesty to be one of the very most important virtues, and really hesitate to suggest anyone be anything but. If a person asked me my views on LGBTQ issues on the street, for instance, I would proudly declare myself an ally.
But, as I've interacted with more people from a position of authority, I've become more hesitant to preach my own personal worldview. I'm even more hesitant about empowering my counselors to share their worldviews, especially on controversial issues.
There are a number of reasons for this, and scenarios that illustrate why we've moved away from counselors sharing their opinions on basically anything. Shall we roleplay?
How Eric does more harm than good by answering questions
Two of Eric's potential inner monologues:
"My mom says the same thing! I think so too! I'll say I agree, and this kid will feel good that we share views!
"What the heck? Who still thinks homosexuality is a sin? My best friend is gay, and he's the best. I better correct this stupid thing this kid and his backward parents think."
Both of these are two ways, among many, that people today think. Eric might have deeply motivated internal reasons to say either of these things.
But do we really want the kids who come to camp to take authoritative answers on how to live their lives from Eric?
More importantly, definitively answering this question shuts down conversation. Either Eric disagrees and potentially stops the child from feeling empowered to talk further, or he agrees, and the kid walks away, confident in his worldview.
Either answer fails to find out the most important piece of information - Why is this child asking this question?
What if this child had been asking this question because he was really wrestling with this idea? What if he's asking because he considers himself a part of the LGBTQ community, but has always been afraid to tell people? What if one of his friends, or siblings, has come out as gay, and his mom has disapproved? What if one of his friends or siblings has come as gay, and HE disapproves? Are either of Eric's answers going to further the conversation, and actually help the child come to any moment of clarity?
Let's try another, more subtle example:
Kid: "Hey, Eric! I saw you wearing your college's t-shirt. Do you drink when you're at college?"
Eric's inner voice:
"Shit, I totally drink at college, but I can't say that. What am I supposed to say here?"
Eric says: "Um, I don't feel comfortable talking about that?"
"No! I don't drink at college! That's the right answer!"
Eric says: "No! Drinking is dangerous, and a terrible idea."
In Eric's first answer, he dives right into a dodge. If the camper had wanted to have a potentially important conversation about alcohol, Eric has expressed that he just isn't comfortable talking about that.
In his second answer, the "right" answer in his mind, Eric has dissuaded this impressionable young person from drinking, right? That's a good thing, right?
Well, maybe not. Again, Eric hasn't managed to actually figure out why this child is asking the question he's asking. Maybe he's asking because his sister has just started drinking, and he's worried. Maybe he's asking because he recently tried alcohol, and is feeling guilty/scared/excited. Maybe his father is an alcoholic.
When authority figures jump right into sharing their opinion on controversial or very serious topics, the conversation often takes a totally new shape.
It starts with a camper wrestling with a big idea, and it ends with an authority figure portraying one worldview as right, and other world views, implicitly, as wrong.
Counselors definitively answering big questions in life reinforces one of the most dangerous paradigms in the modern educational paradigm - that we should form our opinions based on the opinions of the authoritative figures around us, and not by our own honest inquiry and critical thinking skills.
Take the LGBTQ example - I really want the people I interact with to support the LGBTQ community. But do I want them to support this community because I say so, or because they've looked at the evidence, and have decided to of their own accord?
How do we empower counselors to seem like real people while not sharing their worldviews? Let's dive in.
Giving Eric another chance to answer those questions better
Back to our examples:
Kid: "Hey, Eric! My mom says homosexuality is a sin! What do you think?"
Eric: "It sounds like what your mom said about homosexuality really has you thinking - how are you feeling about it?"
Kid: "Well..." and he can give his answer, right?
Let's try the other one:
Kid: "Hey, Eric! I saw you wearing your college's t-shirt. Do you drink when you're at college?"
Eric: "It sounds like you're interested in talking about drinking - what's going on?"
This one is a little more tone dependent. Sometimes older kids just want to give you a hard time, and an earnest reply like this won't get very far. But if a camper comes to a counselor sincerely asking if the counselor is drinking at college, it's usually for a reason.
I've trained staff to respond this way for many years, and almost always to great success. Here's another classic example:
Kid: "Hey, Eric! Do you and your girlfriend hook up/have sex?"
Eric: "It sounds like you're thinking about relationship stuff. What's going on?"
Again - the "yes or no" answers both have their problems. Maybe Eric is hooking up and having sex at college. He can still be a good camp counselor if he's doing those things. But do we want him broadcasting that to campers (and, you can bet, their parents)? Probably not. Maybe Eric is saving himself for marriage. He can still be a good camp counselor if he's making that decision. If a camper comes to him with a question about sex, is preaching chastity and abstinence going to help this camper feel heard, and work through their own decisions? Not in my experience.
If a counselor acknowledges the question "it sounds like you're thinking about..." and asks a follow up question, "What's going on?" or "Do you want to tell me more?", it creates space for the child to undergo the exploration process with the counselor as a thoughtful guide, and not as an authoritarian advice giver.
Figuring out why campers ask us hard questions in the first place
Figuring out why campers are asking us hard questions will inevitably lead to us better connecting campers with what they are actually looking for.
Almost always, campers are asking personal questions of our staff for two reasons:
1) There is some underlying issue they want to talk about.
2) They are just messing with the staff member.
Occasionally, they have one additional reason:
3) They just, really, really want to know about a counselor's personal life.
Being prepared for this eventuality is a good idea, because it will happen occasionally (especially on lighter issues, like who a staff member is dating, for instance).
Kid: "Mary, do you drink at college?"
Mary: "It sounds like you're wrestling with ideas about alcohol - is there something you want to talk about?"
Kid: "No. I just want to know if YOU drink!"
Mary: "Oh. Well, as counselors we've all agreed that it's not a good idea for us to get into certain things we do or don't do, or certain things we believe or don't believe. Being an authority figure is a big responsibility, and we don't want you to just do exactly what we do. We want you to come to those ideas for yourself. Are you sure there isn't anything else you want to talk about?"
She can still establish a firm boundary for herself without ambiguously dodging the question. She's dodging the question, but earnestly explaining why she feels like it's the right thing to do. Maybe it will spark a debate as to whether that's the right idea, but it comes from a place of honesty, and not from a place of avoidance.
A step by step guide from staff to answering tough questions
So, let's wrap it up with a quick checklist you can use with your staff members.
When a kid asks a tough question, we empower staff to:
1) Acknowledge the subject matter - "It sounds like you're thinking about.." 2) Ask a follow-up question - "What do you think about it?" 3) If pressed, let campers know that they don't want to weigh in on tough questions, or on certain life choices, because the most valuable thing for the camper is to come to those conclusions based on their experiences.
This framework helps campers feel heard when they ask questions, and pretty much prevents parents from calling up and saying, "Your counselor told my camper that..." It helps campers develop critical thinking skills, instead of turning to authorities to form their opinions for them. It fosters connection between campers and staff, instead of driving a wedge between them.
And, still, it's not always perfect. But it's been working for us.
Do you have a framework you follow? Concerns about how we've handled things? Let us know, and we'll share it with others as well!
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