I have a friend named Lily who used to work at Camp Stella Maris with me. Lily now lives in Berlin, Germany, as a freelance writer. I think Lily is super insightful, and when she was home home briefly around the holidays I was able to pick her brain on the current political climate as well as bounce many ideas off of her about what we are up to at Stomping Ground.
I was explaining to Lily how we focus on childhood freedom and choice at camp. How we believe that people learn how to make decisions my making them and not by always following directions. I told her how we strive to create a space where kids have a chance to decide for themselves what seems appealing to them, and how we place immense trust in their decisions regardless of how we feel about them at first.
When Lily heard this she asked if the kids ever felt alone or abandoned. I was immediately taken aback. I want the exact opposite for kids at camp. After asking some follow up questions, I think she was essentially asking if respecting kids autonomy meant that we did not step in to support kids when they needed or wanted advice and love. I think this is a really interesting question, and potentially a question that many of our new staff and new parents might have.
"I think she was essentially asking if respecting kids autonomy meant that we did not step in to support kids when they needed or wanted advice and love."
For me the most interesting part of this question is that the idea is that you can either have one or the other but not both - the idea that freedom and autonomy are the opposite of unconditional support and love.
I understand where this comes from. Natural consequences—the ones that end up providing the checks and balances of a free and autonomous environment—sometimes feel cold and un-empathetic to me. I hear how it could be interpreted to mean, “You made your bed, now you have to lie in in,” you know?
However, this idea that you can either have freedom and autonomy OR love and support, is essentially a false choice.
I believe that an effective learning environment is one which invites failure and mistakes with genuine empathy and the promise of unconditional love and support.
At camp we are constantly trying to find the balance between providing kids with our feedback and reaction to their decisions without stepping on toes or controlling them. We understand that we, as a staff, have had more time on the planet and therefore may have run into similar situations as the ones campers might be struggling with. We want to listen and provide our concern where it is appropriate. This is the unconditional love and support piece. In practice it looks like active listening - taking an appropriately long amount of time to step into the campers shoes and see their struggle from where they stand.
We strive to create an environment that is respectful of kids' thoughts, decisions, and learning process. We strive to make it clear that no matter what they still belong in our community and we care about their happiness. The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung calls this unconditional positive regard, or basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does. At camp we find that this simple idea can completely change the outlook on a tough conversation. Instead of searching for blame, we begin to recognize something deeper and more core to our humanity. We begin to trust that our intentions and the intentions of others are good and to learn how to make decisions that benefit our community as a whole.