“Good for the child” is not always good for the group

Emmie spent every afternoon last week at a girls’ science and engineering camp at Southern Methodist University (probably the best bargain on that campus—only $50 for the whole week, and two days included lunch!).  She really enjoyed rubbing elbows with professional female engineers, learning more about the different types of engineering, working on projects, and making friends with girls from all over the Dallas area and even from as far away as Houston, ranging in age from 12-18.  The only thing she didn’t like about it, which she complained to me about every day, were the girls who talked all the time to each other and didn’t pay attention, making it hard for the few that wanted to pay attention. And unfortunately, there were only a few who really wanted to pay attention. Emmie says that on the first day, when the facilitator asked each girl to tell the group why she was there, many answered with some version of “Because my mom made me.”  And of course, those were the ones who made it hard on the rest of the group every day thereafter.  Emmie was shocked that there were so many who didn’t care, because to be at this camp, she had received a recommendation from her math teacher, and she was honored and excited to be there. (“Mom, one of those girls wore a T-shirt that said, ‘I May Be Bad, But I’m Perfectly Good At It’!” she related in disgust.)

I know that parents have good intentions when they force their children to do certain group activities (“I don’t want my child to be a couch potato”,”This will be good for her”, “He needs to make new friends”,  etc., etc.) but do they ever think how their child might act once there?  Do they ever realize how much life is sucked out of a group when a child doesn’t want to be a part?

I told Emmie I could totally relate to what she was saying. I’ve been a Girl Scout volunteer and troop leader for over 10 years, and the girls who don’t pay attention most often, have the most behavior problems and cause others to misbehave are usually the ones who are being forced to be there.  When I was a kid, I remember the kids at summer camp who “rained on everyone’s parade” were the ones not there of their own free will; in college, the most messed-up students I knew had their college choice (and their major) forced upon them by their parents.

I know I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I think it’s okay to require kids to do certain extracurriculars like music lessons in exchange for letting them do something else they like, but music lessons, sports skill-building, and other private lessons are often one-on-one, child and adult, not affecting other learners—and if it was a group lesson instead, I’d definitely think twice about forcing a child to participate, especially if the child wasn’t practicing his instrument (or tennis serve, or script lines) in between lessons.  Yes, sometimes a kid can come around, and suddenly “get into it” and be glad he’s part of the group, but I think if that magic doesn’t happen quickly, it’s time to change plans, especially with older children. Unfortunately, however, with brief activities like week-long summer camps, there’s not enough time to find out if your child will “come around”, and there’s not usually an “I made the wrong parenting decision” clause in the refund policy.

Maybe summer camps and other group activity applications should include an extra line that asks, “Are you enrolling your child because he/she really wants to be a part of this, or because you want them to be?” Not necessarily with the expectation that parents would answer honestly, but simply because it would make them think.  And if they did answer honestly, it sure would help teachers/counselors plan ahead…