To Wait, or Not to Wait: That is the Question

I was taught a valuable lesson by a bunch of inner-city kids when I was their 20-year-old summer camp counselor. The lesson was about when and whether to take action; and when and whether to do nothing and wait. But let me tell you the story…

The job was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of Harvard and MIT. Although I was attending the U of Illinois, my friend Rich Adelstein was then involved in something called the “MIT Science Camp.” I never really found out what science had to do with it, because it wasn’t much different from any other summer camp, but for a few things having nothing to do with science. First, of course, it was at MIT, one of the world’s premier institutions of higher learning; a place where only the elite young minds already proficient in science were allowed to matriculate. And because of that, it was not an “outdoor” oriented summer camp, although we did do the usual things like playing baseball. But perhaps the most important distinction between this summer camp and most of those you might have heard about or attended, was the fact that it was for underprivileged kids from troubled homes and tough neighborhoods. Most of them were in the 12 to 15-year-old range. Some were shy, some were petty criminals, some were learning disabled, some were angry, and some were lost. But, it was thought that all of them might still benefit from the camp experience.

The counselors were all about my age, and all of them were MIT undergraduates with two exceptions: myself and a Harvard student. The kids were recommended by their schools. The project was funded by money then available as part of the “Great Society” vision of LBJ, otherwise known as President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The camp itself was supervised by a psychiatrist, Dr. Warren Brody. The year was 1967.

Many of the activities of my group of six kids were done in cooperation with another counselor, Geoff Smith. Geoff was a swell fellow, smart and easy to get along with, and we worked well together. We had money for some outings with the boys (all the kids in the camp were male) and even took them on a day trip to Martha’s Vineyard and another excursion to New York City, where we watched the Rockettes in Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center. As I said, we played some baseball and also put on a play under the direction of a Boston College undergraduate theater major, Betty Rose. It was “Twelve Angry Men.” We had just enough players, and these kids were thereby exposed to performance. A fun summer was had by all.

On the day in question Geoff had a morning dentist appointment, so I was in charge of both of our groups. Depending on the day, not all the kids would necessarily be there. I imagine on this particular day, there were probably 10 of them present.

I was walking with the kids through Building 7 when one of the older ones quickly instructed the others to run in different directions. We had come to a four-way intersection, so there were four possible flight paths down which each kid could escape. In a flash they were gone. As I stood at the intersection and looked in each direction not one was to be seen.

Remember, I was 20 years old and in charge of these lives. Their safety was my responsibility. But what was I to do? Even though I was rattled, I was still smart enough to know that any direction I chose would, at best, avail me the possibility of finding only two or three or four kids. For the life of me, I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. Not because I thought that was a clever idea, but because I couldn’t think of any good solution.

Perhaps you’ve guessed that I had stumbled upon precisely the right course: inaction. In fact, it was the only solution. If I had started running down any one of the corridors, I’d probably still be running. But because I didn’t, the kids found that the “chase” they’d hoped for hadn’t materialized, and they weren’t having any fun. In the space of 10 minutes they were all back where they started and we proceeded on to our appointed destination.

Sometimes life is like that. If you stop chasing a thing or a person, it stops running away from you. You can drive people away in your pursuit, be it romantic or angry.

Slow down. Be patient. See if you can live with uncertainty. Don’t act impulsively. Wait, wait, wait and see… Take a breath. Action for the sake of action doesn’t make sense. You can actually make things worse. Assertiveness is not always the answer. Sometimes inaction is better — much better — than action.

A lot of things in life, like those kids, are like boomerangs — they come back to you.

At least, they sometimes have for me.

The top image is called Hesitation by Alfred Garth Jones, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Children Need From Parents: Part I

A 15-year-old treated by me many years ago is a good example of one of the things that parents need to provide their children.

I’ll call him Ike (not his real name), a slender, silly kid with sandy hair. His family was middle class, hard working, and honest. Unfortunately, Ike lacked the latter two qualities. He was a minor league juvenile delinquent, prone to shop lifting, cutting classes, curfew violations, and occasional drug use. Ike was a poor student thanks to a lack of effort,  an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder condition that featured notable impulsivity, and the unfortunate fact that he wasn’t very bright. This teenager treated school as  diversion from his major life tasks of having fun and causing trouble. He rarely thought of the long term consequences of his behavior, instead choosing to do whatever felt right in the moment and whatever action seemed likely to produce some immediate payoff, the future be damned. Outpatient therapy had failed to make a dent in any of this, so his parents ultimately brought him in for whatever a psychiatric hospital could do to redirect Ike’s life and get some control over things.

Years ago it was often possible to keep a teenager in the hospital for several weeks or months if he needed it. Insurance policies were different and more generous then. And so, given the total control over someone’s life that a psychiatric adolescent treatment unit provided, you could produce changes in some very rebellious, out of control kids. Ike was like that. Eventually he figured out that the only way to get out of the hospital was to conform his behavior to the required standard.

While his parents participated in family therapy during his hospital stay, they remained uncomfortable with the job of setting limits on Ike. Neither one was very secure or self-confident and Ike fueled that insecurity by his behavior. Both parents were prone to feeling guilty when they punished him because of their own unresolved childhood issues, and Ike knew how to “play” them and get them to back off of threats and attempted punishments. These adults needed their son’s approval and good will too much for his, and their, good. Ike was running the show before his hospitalization. He knew it, they knew it, and his “will” was stronger than their wills were. If he complained and pleaded long enough, one or the other parent would typically break down and give him what he wanted. Despite the fact that family therapy hadn’t succeeded with the parents, Ike ultimately behaved himself in the hospital and had to be discharged even if his parents didn’t seem to have a better handle on how to deal with him in the real world. So, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

As often happens after an adolescent is discharged from a psychiatric hospital, Ike and his folks went through a honeymoon period. But after a couple of months, he resumed his misbehavior and things weren’t much different from the way they had been the moment that Ike had first stepped into the hospital. So it was on the first day of his second stint in confinement (yes, his parents took him back and readmitted him), that I recall having the following conversation with Ike:

GS: “So, Ike, how does it feel to know that you can pretty much do anything you want when you are at home? How does it feel to know that your parents really can’t control you?”

Ike: “Terrific!” (Said with a big smile).

Silence ensued. I was quiet and just sat there with Ike for perhaps 30 seconds. Then, Ike spoke again and surprised me.

Ike: “And scary.”

This was the truth of it. Even Ike, who was one of the least thoughtful and least self aware patients I’ve ever treated, realized that if he could get away with anything he wanted, that wasn’t a good thing. Even Ike knew that if he was driving the bus, the bus was in trouble. Even Ike knew that he needed someone to rein him in, to set a good example, to steer him in the right direction, and to prevent him from doing some of the things he would do impulsively, recklessly, and thoughtlessly.

What then do children need? Parents with the will power, strength, consistency, motivation, intelligence, resilience, and the self confidence to set and stick to limits, take charge, and make sure that the combination of a child’s poor judgment and impulsive or rebellious behavior doesn’t rule the day. Ike was the problem, but without his parents getting a grip on their own lives and finding the strength and confidence to assume the proper role in the home, Ike wasn’t going to get better any time soon. And even though Ike would have and did resist a more assertive, consistent, and confident approach from his parents, he knew that he needed it.

Some children are easy, some more challenging for parents. It is our job in the latter role to figure out what each of our children need and provide it. Not all children are the same and not all of our children need an identical approach from us. Ike would continue to misbehave until his parents figured this out.

The strength that I’m talking about isn’t the only thing that children need from parents, and from time to time I’ll write about some of the other requirements. The good news is that if Ike, at age 15, was able to figure out what he needed, nearly all adults can too. From that point on, good things are possible.