Sangamon and the teen-age boy.
Who they are, what we do, and why it works.
- Mike Byrom
The letter reads, “Help!” My teenage boy has turned into someone I don’t know!
He has entered a dark place and I don’t understand him anymore. My wonderfully active
and inquisitive learner has become apathetic and disinterested. My sweet-tempered little
boy is suddenly unpredictable, irritable and often rebellious. My formerly open and
happy son has closed himself off and won’t communicate, except with a few friends, who
have become the focus of his abbreviated world.”
I get a couple of those letters every year. In my 18 years of classroom teaching
and 30 years of camp work, I’ve worked with, and mostly enjoyed, close to 3000 teen
boys. I’ve got a couple of college degrees, but most of my real knowledge comes from
living with, observing, and interacting with the boys. Here’s what I think I’ve learned.
A central challenge for the young teen boy is his need to identify himself as an
individual, and separate himself from his folks and other adults in his life. The first
fledgling step for many boys is to establish who they are not – which creates instant
conflict with their parents. Boys begin to define themselves by NOT being their parents,
seemingly rejecting much of what their parents represent. Family life with a teen often
becomes difficult, fractious, and frustrating for everyone.
The teen years often represent a diminishing of a boy’s confidence base – the
sand is constantly shifting under his feet. If given the opportunity, not many men would
willingly repeat their teen years, (even if it came with a 1958, 2 seat, turquoise,
Thunderbird…well, maybe I would…) Some of us grow too fast and lose coordination,
some don’t seem to grow at all. Just as we discover romantic interest, we develop skin
blemishes, facial hair, and body odor. Boys are constantly comparing themselves to older
boys and men and finding themselves to be less…(supply a word). And salon-enhanced
media “hunks” certainly don’t help a bit.
Early teen boys may suddenly get conservative, rejecting new ideas and
adventures, particularly those advocated by their parents. In many boys, this seems to
result from wanting not to fail or wanting not to stand out in a crowd too much. They
proclaim independence, but ironically, they dress alike, wear their hair alike, and try hard
to fit into the crowd. They look for the safest route to anywhere. They gravitate toward
things they are good at, and won’t risk trying new and unfamiliar ventures. They bring all
this “baggage” with them to camp, and they are a challenge for us too.
Ttoday’s Sangamon was purposely designed to fit these boys –Everything they
do, all day long, is the result of their own choices. They have a wide variety of options,
and they are ALWAYS personally responsible for what they’re doing. The Sangamon
program grew out of the “child-centered” education reforms of the 1920’s and 1960’s.
The ability to choose what they they’re doing every period, all day long, and to make
each day different, is almost unique in the summer camp world. And it works really well
for the teen boy.
Sangamon boys have voted with their feet. Twenty-five years ago, we totaled 18
boys, aged 14. At that point, we changed the program to “all-elective”, and reworked the
program options, adding and enhancing the instructional activities. We added
responsibilities to their lives, and asked more leadership of them. The older group kept
growing and we moved them to the three cabins on the Hill. Then we added a second Leadership year. Eight years later, with a more than a dozen first years Leaders and eight
or ten second years, we added a third Leadership year. Still, we keep growing. This year,
we’ll total 89 boys ages 14-17.
Our program challenges traditional approaches. Traditional societies often
required that parents push their sons, choosing which trade and tradesman they would
apprentice to. Today, that push is more often towards a sport, or a camp, or a part-time
job, or a college, or a major. But the push is still there. The traditional standard is to force
teen boys to try new things, to get them out of their “comfort zone”. This sets up a strong
tension between the boys who are trying to work at things where they will succeed, and
their parents, who are pushing them to try new things. Sangamon’s all-elective approach
is tremendously appealing to the boys, but it can make parents uneasy, and I get a couple
of anxious letters about it each year, from parents wondering how to make their sons try
new areas which the parent thinks ought to be interesting to the son. I urge them to relax
and let their son’s interests evolve.
We do the exact opposite of pushing – instead, letting the boys make their own
choices, and letting them move at their own speed, building skills and confidence. We
put them in charge of their lives, guide them where they want to go, build on their
successes, and applaud them with great enthusiasm. We let them move at their own pace,
deciding when and if they risk something new, but always dangling a diverse bunch of
“carrots” out in front. We provide multiple opportunities, but we let them choose.
Wherever we can, we accommodate them, rather than forcing them. (We even moved
breakfast to 8:30 am to allow the teen boys more time for deep sleep.)
Sangamen move at their own pace – sometimes relaxed, but also sometimes fast
and furious - some boys go on every hike out of camp, or kayak or mountain bike every
day, or play tennis and shoot archery or ride a horse at every opportunity. Some boys
become totally dedicated to an art or craft - spending every available moment in the
woodshop, or pottery, or rocketry, or photography, or arts and crafts, or weaving.
Sometimes it means connecting with the natural world at the garden and at the farm.
We have almost no “Renaissance” boys at Sangamon in the older camper ages.
The great majority of the older boys will not take advantage of Sangamon’s wide range
of activities. That’s really not why we offer so many options. We offer the wide range for
the older boys so that somewhere in all those activities, he will find a couple or three to
actively pursue We have a whole lot of boys who have gotten extremely good at one or
two things. At awards, they all show up as eager “beavers” – the kids who are always at
Pottery, or Woodshop, or Riding, or Kayaking, or Archery, or Rocketry, or Hiking, or
Drama, or cooking with Darcey in the kitchen. They absolutely LOVE the fact that they
were allowed to concentrate in something and begin to “define” themselves as distinct
individuals, different from everyone else, and really good at something. Every activity
has its teen-age “beaver” and each of them is a different boy.
So what is the result of summers spent with us? Most of the American staff at
camp are former Sangamon campers. They love what Sangamon did for them, and they
want to pass the torch. Most of them are now the Renaissance Men that their parents
hoped they would be as teen-agers. By traveling at their own speed, gaining confidence
as they moved along, they broadened their interests and skills well beyond what one
would usually expect, and I firmly believe, well beyond where anyone could have