All Kids Have Worth
All kids have worth. Some, though, want to prove to us that they have none. Our job as caring educators is to prove them wrong.
This got me thinking about my own past experiences with very high risk youth. I used to facilitate wilderness adventure therapy programs for adjudicated youth. This is a story of one youth in the program.
The Story of Timmy MadDog
In preparation for our two week wilderness course, I met each of the kids in their social workers’ offices. I knew the kids would be a challenge. They were given the choice between going on the two week wilderness course or going to juvenile detention. Prior to meeting Timmy, his social worker told me he was a handful, that both adults and his peers feared him. I took in a deep breath in preparation for meeting him. In walks in a 13 year-old boy with shabby clothes, shaggy blond hair, and about 4’10 in height. The first thing he said was, “My name in MadDog.” I laughed out loud given the incongruence between his description and his appearance; but my heart was immediately drawn to this kid.
As expected, MadDog caused a lot of problems “mouthing off” to both staff and his peers. None of problems, though, were outrageous or dangerous. We used huddle-ups or the tenets positive peer culture to deal with problems:
PPC is a peer-helping model designed to improve social competence and cultivate strengths in troubled and troubling youth. “Care and concern” for others (or “social interest”) is the defining element of PPC. Rather than demanding obedience to authority or peers, PPC demands responsibility, empowering youth to discover their greatness. Caring is made fashionable and any hurting behavior totally unacceptable. PPC assumes that as group members learn to trust, respect, and take responsibility for the actions of others, norms can be established. These norms not only extinguish antisocial conduct, but more importantly reinforce pro-social attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Positive values and behavioral change are achieved through the peer-helping process. Helping others increases self-worth. As one becomes more committed to caring for others, s/he abandons hurtful behaviors. http://www.cebc4cw.org/program/positive-peer-culture/
The bottom line was, “You can have problems but you need to deal with them.” The huddle-ups were group meetings called by both staff and/or the kids if a problem arose. Everyone would immediately stop what they were doing and get in a huddle to discuss the problem. The huddle-up went on as long as needed to address the problem and insure that everyone was comfortable with solutions. Needless to say, Timmy MadDog had a large share of huddle-ups called on him.
We were in the second week, Timmy MadDog had reached the end of everyone’s nerves. We had a long and intense huddle-up. The kids, good problem-solvers by this point, had a list of changes they wanted Timmy MadDog to make. Their ultimatum was make these changes or leave the course. I respected the kids’ decisions – especially at this point of the course. I had really grown to care about Timmy MadDog and didn’t want their decision to be to kick him out of the course. Timmy MadDog sighed and said, “I really want to change but I have been acting this way for 13 years. How can you expect me to change overnight?” The group voted for him to say.
During the final days of the course, we saw subtle but significant changes. The baseball cap that he had worn so low it almost covered his eyes during all of his waking hours was no longer being worn at all. The other kids would often chant “Don’t treat your puppy like a dog, dog, dog (from the old tv commercial). You think you are a MadDog but you are just a puppy dog,” to which he would laugh and smile. Less huddle-ups were called on him.
The final night of the two week wilderness trip was marked by a graduation. The kids, after cleaning up and getting dressed up, went to a dinner in honor of their achievements. Their family members, social workers, and probation officers were invited to attend. To receive their graduation certificate, each had to stand up in front of the entire group and talk about what the course meant to them. It was Timmy’s turn. He stood up in front of the group and said, “I learned that I am not such a fuck up.” This wasn’t the most proper way to say it in front of all of these people but the message was huge. Timmy learned he had worth.
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