Trusting Kids... The Freedom Not to Bully

Bully Map

Bully Map

Bullying Sucks! And it is a huge problem in schools, camps, sports teams, prisons and basically anywhere people aren’t free to do go where they choose. Where some authority figure decides for you where you have to be. At camp we work incredibly hard to create a community where campers aren’t bullied. We talk about it on the first day. We have zero tolerance policies, create a safe environment where campers feel comfortable telling a counselor if bullying is happening, and spend huge amounts of time training staff to supervise effectively and recognize bullying. All these things help. There is almost certainly less bullying at every camp in the country than almost any school, but I don’t think we got to the crux of the problem because against our best efforts bullying still happens and I don’t believe any kid is born a bully or even wants to be one. James Davis, the director at Vanderkamp Center in Cleveland, New York, has taken a radical approach that has lead to 86% retention and a lack of bullying. 

Contrary to the classic group or team building camp model, popular at most camps, Vanderkamp never forces campers to be in groups they don’t want to be in. Vanderkamp has deliberately chosen to focus on individual growth as opposed to team building. Kids are constantly free to choose their own activities through out the day and because they sleep in cool old mansions not in small cabins they are never forced to be with a small group of children where power positions can lead to bullying. This increase in freedom in general helps campers and people feel less anxious. As James puts it

“If I am free to do whatever I want, why on earth would I spend my time tracking down someone to pick on? If I'm in a love centered environment where there are basically no rules, why would I break a rule that so clearly makes sense?”

This flies in the face of the “bully the bullies” scenarios that zero tolerance policies create. James again..

“The reason to bully is no longer "I don't want to hurt someone else," but "If I hurt someone else, someone else will hurt me even more." It's that might-makes-right attitude which fails every time. Even if the mightiest person has good intentions, he is doomed to send the unintended message that the reason not to bully is that there is a bigger, more powerful bully around the corner.”

Much of the philosophy is based on Unschooling and the Sudbury Valley School and played out in the journey of the one ring below

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Laura and I have never seen Vanderkamp in action and certainly will never know unless we do if this radical approach really creates a bully free environment, but Vanderkamp saw an impossible problem and came up with an impossible answer. James explains the lack of bullying at Vanderkamp here.