My Son Won't Go Back to Camp! -- C.U.E. #2

My Son Won't Go Back to Camp! -- C.U.E. #2

C.U.E. posts share a recent "Consciously Unskilled Episode" where I messed up, made amends and learned lessons. Here's how this doozy played out:

  • Back in late winter, Jake (13) and I decided to sign him up for a day basketball camp at UC Irvine. Cost: $285 USD.
  • Day 1 (last Monday): Watching the action before pick-up, I was dismayed to see all 80 or so boys doing the same elementary group drill -- Jake was the tallest and one of the oldest.
  • Day 2: Jake didn't want to go back to camp. And didn't. It was not ok.
  • Day 3: He still didn't want to go back. And didn't. It was not ok.
  • Day 4: He definitely didn't want to go back for the last day. And didn't. And, actually, it was ok. 

The Missteps

Misstep #1: I didn't Active Listen right away

Going to the car that first day, Jake told me camp had been a total waste of time. I could have said something like, "Wow, it did not meet your expectations at all!" If he wasn't in the mood to talk, I could have used a Door-Opener, "Well, I am here to listen. Sounds like it was truly disappointing."

Instead, I just said "Oh, no!" I was bummed and had a sense of dread that I ignored.

Misstep #2: I got stuck on solutions

After dinner, Jake announced he wanted to skip the next day but return after that. I Active Listened a tiny bit better. It was lonely to be without his brother Harrison (16) for the first time. The one boy who was his equal in terms of skill already had his posse from school; Jake felt too much of an outsider to make inroads.  

Asking the P.E.T. question "What does staying home do for him?" would have revealed Jake's underlying needs and helped him resolve his problem.

But I was too busy trying to solve mine. fixated on Jake's awful plan and Shifted Gears too quickly with MY solution: Go back to camp because, hey, it's expensive!

Misstep #3: I struggled too long with feeling like I had lost

When Jake was still adamant on Tuesday morning, I felt upset that he was winning.

Yet P.E.T. teaches that conflict resolution (aka Method III Problem-Solving) should never feel like a zero-sum game: 

If [parents] feel they have given in to a child, then they have . . . not [used] Method III . . . Method III means negotiating [with] courage to persist in problem-solving until a solution meets the parent’s needs as well as the child’s.
— Dr. Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, pages 245-246


I hadn't invested enough time for deep listening, honest communication or a creative problem-solve. Now Jake was clinging to his solution and I didn't like it one bit. 

Misstep #4: I modeled unassertive behavior

Without a word, I left in a huff to run an errand.

When I came back, Jack gave me an I-Message (I was seeing sprinkles of hope throughout this mess!): "I feel annoyed you left without acknowledging my needs." When I wouldn't make eye contact (to punish, perhaps?), he called up from his room, "Mom, could you not stay mad at me the whole day?"

I came to. "I'm sorry. I'm trying my best. I know that's not a healthy way to communicate." Jake pleaded, "Can you let me make my own decision?" "It's just that it does affect our wallet, Jake," I said. He got it. 

Misstep #5: I did not show compassion when he was hurt

A couple of hours later, Jake hurt his knee skateboarding and I exclaimed, "I am really worried now that you are going to not want to go to camp at all and that's $285 down the drain!"

(Jake's steady I-Message -- "Mom, I'm going to get really mad. I just need your compassion." -- was another uplifting reminder that P.E.T. skills were permeating our family!) 


The Repair

After the initial shock, I started employing some skill.

I helped Jake release strong feelings and gain insight. Camp lunch had been especially awkward."I didn't have Harrison." he said through tears. "It's only been a week but it feels like five months!" What made things harder was that his brother was so happy with his 4 week program, "Mom, can you tell Harrison I miss him?" He was apprehensive, "When Harrison goes away to college, will he ever spend summers with us?" 

I ALed with: "This is such a hard transition. You're mourning the end of a special era that you didn't even realize was ending until this summer. It's so fast and there's not enough time. Sounds like you guys have a lot of private jokes and you will really miss that."  

And later I got in my say too:

  • The pressure to guilt-trip him was great. His basketball coach and tons of parents would say, "You just go out there and do it. You don't quit and you don't waste your parent's money." "Do you see?" I asked. "This is what I'm dealing with from the outside and also from within because it's just such a huge amount!" He assured me, "This is a super exceptional case, Mom. Don't worry, I have my values right." 

  • "Do you understand how totally frustrating it is that you hurt your knee skating when, if you had been at camp like you were supposed to be, you probably wouldn't have gotten hurt?" "Yeah" and he hugged me.

  • I worried about a repeat. "You know that saying, Jake? Give 'em an inch and they take a mile?" He understood. He knows to choose more judiciously and decided to cancel an August camp.
  • We talked about the possibility of him paying $71 for each missed day but, in the end, I did not want to punish him for being dejected and unable, this time, to accept my solution that he return. 
  • I recalled our work with the book The Whole Brain Child"This is an important chance to change your thoughts and realize you CAN do this. Instead of 'I don't have any friends, I wish Harrison were here, Why does he have to be away so long?' what might you think instead? 'I can do this, I choose to be here, I can get through this minute by minute.'" At my behest, Jake went onto The Mind Unleashed's FB page for inspiration. 

The Take-Away

1. Act Quickly

I resolve to pay attention to my own unease sooner rather than later! Then, with patience and openness, I can AL until my child hits one of the sweet spots:

  1. Emotional release
  2. Shift in energy
  3. Presenting problem disappears (self-corrective behavior)

If I had done this Monday evening, Jake might have felt fully heard and found the reserves in himself to return the next day. Instead, the growth happened later on and, by then, he had injured himself; after that, showing up for the last day felt unbearable (they would already have set up tournament teams, etc.).

2. Define the needs

Instead of arguing over solutions, I will focus on needs such as:

  • Clarity -- Why do I feel so incredibly yucky at camp?
  • Empathy -- I feel so shy and awkward without Harrison's comforting presence.
  • Acceptance -- It's ok to miss my brother terribly and feel depressed.
  • Support -- What are some strategies I can adopt to solve my problem?
  • Catharsis -- I need to cry and that's ok.

By the time we said goodnight on Wednesday, I felt like a winner even though I knew Jake was not returning even for one last day. That's because my needs were met! Jake gave me consideration and respect by his deep attention. He knows Daddy and I disliked losing that money and is grateful for this yielding. 

My brother just took this picture of us yesterday

My brother just took this picture of us yesterday

One might say I lost the battle of the camp but I am winning the war of how to have enduring influence. Jake listens when I share values and concerns. He took my suggestion and every night this summer we read a little more of Meditation, My Friend. I want this collaboration to continue.

As he walked downstairs after our fifth and final conversation, Jake called out, "Love you." After that multi-day P.E.T. effort replete with slip-ups, it was so what I wanted to hear.

You've read my talking points -- I'm so curious to know what else you might have said! Do you feel I "let him off too easily?" What other approaches would you have tried? What would have been the effect on the relationship?

Postscript: Jake and Claudia (10) took a cooking course together this week and it was not lost on me or Jake that he was much older than the others. When I went to pick them up after the first session, he mouthed something from across the room and I clutched. Later, he clarified that he had said, "I want a job here!" 

I breathed out. "Oh, thank goodness. I thought you had said 'I want to drop out!' and I was thinking, 'Boy, this kid's really got some sense of humor!'" He grinned his beautiful grin and that was that.  

Credits: Banana (; Tools (; Take-out box (