Will attended an overnight camp for boys for five summers. The fifth summer everything went wrong. Will had just turned 13. I interviewed him five years later, when he was almost 18. Will was very reluctant to talk about his experience. At the beginning of the interview he explained, “It brings back so many bad memories. It’s so hard to talk about.” Then Will took a deep breath and continued, “Every year at camp this one kid, Matt, had control over me. He chose his victims carefully—those who didn’t put people down, those who were nice. I was nice to everyone. I was an easy target.” That fifth summer Matt was Will’s bunkmate.
The story begins a few weeks into camp when John, one of Will’s bunkmates, went on a trip, and left his game boy out on his bed. Everyone took turns playing with it. The camp director saw the kids playing with it, and took it away because you weren’t allowed to have video games at camp. When John came back and heard that his video game was gone, Matt blamed Will. Will told me, “Matt knew it was everyone’s fault, but John was tough and Matt didn’t want to mess with him.” Suddenly, everyone followed Matt’s lead and ganged up on Will. They said Will took it out of the drawer, played with it, and caused it to be confiscated, even though this wasn’t true, and really everyone was at fault. That was just the beginning. They called Will a “thief” and a “stealer,” and yelled things such as “Where’s my hat? I bet Will took it. If Will borrowed someone’s sandals, the kids would ask if he stole them. Will was constantly the target of mean jokes. His bunkmates stopped hanging out with him. His friends were afraid that if they stood up for him, they would become targets. Will became isolated, afraid, and very unhappy.
One of the counselors heard about the situation from some of the campers, and tried to be extra nice. But he didn’t try to help or intervene. He didn’t know how, and he didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation. None of the counselors did anything. Will said, “They didn’t care.” The bullying escalated over a three week period. Will went from having lots of friends and loving camp activities to losing all his friends, wanting to go home, not wanting to participate in activities, and crying a lot. He was afraid to tell anyone because he was embarrassed. He thought somehow it was his fault—that he should be able to figure out a way to make the bullying stop. He was afraid to tell his parents—at visiting day, during phone calls, or even after camp was over, because he thought they would look down on him, and think he should be able to deal with it. Back home, Will was used to being socially accepted at school; he had never had to deal with a situation like this.
Will did not return to that camp the following summer. At his new camp, Will saw kids begin to bully other kids. He saw how other kids would easily join in the bullying. He said, “I didn’t join the crowd, because I knew how awful it felt.” But at this new camp, it was very different: The counselors were well-trained to deal with bullying situations. They quickly spotted the bullying behaviors, and stopped them before they escalated.
Will explained to me: “There’s always a hierarchy in kids’ social world. Guys especially mess around and make fun of other guys. But, there’s a difference between good-humored teasing and real bullying. It’s important to see this difference, and understand when it becomes bullying.”
Will continued: “It’s my worst nightmare. I’ll never forget about the feeling of being teased and put down to that extent. It will always stay with me. I will always make sure to stand up for kids who are bullied now, and later in life.”
And then Will concluded the interview with this final reflection: “People don’t understand. Those three weeks hurt more than any punch in the face could hurt. It took my breath away, and my whole self-confidence.”
What can we learn from this story?
This story illustrates seven key factors that program staff and parents need to pay attention to.
- If adults and children don’t step in to stop it, bullying escalates quickly, especially in camp settings.
- Bullying hurts. It has devastating and long-term effects on children physically and emotionally.
- It’s important to take bullying seriously. If adults don’t take it seriously, neither will children.
- Don’t ask or assume children will work things out for themselves. Bullying is different from an argument or conflict; it involves a power imbalance that requires adult intervention.
- Bystanders can play very powerful roles in a bullying situation. Will’s bunk-mates turned into hurtful bystanders, joining in and escalating the bullying. They could have become helpful bystanders, telling the campers who were bullying to stop, getting help from an adult, and continuing to be Will’s friend.
- It’s critical that camps and other youth programs set clear expectations, rules, and policies about respectful behavior and bullying, and create an environment where everyone understands that bullying is not acceptable, will not be tolerated, and there are clear consequences for bullying behaviors.
- Camp staff needs to be trained to recognize bullying, and know how to intervene to stop it, or seek help when they can’t.