Last month I took the younger of my two youth groups out on their first summer trip; an overnight trip to Tahoe.
We set out on our long road trip after loading up the truck, stopping at In-And-Out and then continuing on to the cabin. The boys were split, three and three, in each of the vehicles. Both cars steamed along with great conversation heading up, including little games like ‘Never Have I Ever”. The theme of sex happened to come up a lot in both vehicles, largely in the ‘oooo gross’ sense.
As the weekend progressed, this theme kept coming up amongst the boys. We did remark that despite the ‘yuck, gross’ sentiments shared, by bringing it up constantly, it was clear that the lads were curious about the topic! One of the boys mentioned that it felt weird to talk to their parents around the subject, and that it was nice to have a space to share about it. Another huge theme was that of confidentiality, which we discussed a length with the lads. We again reiterated how we would share themes and activities from the weekend, without naming names or identifying who said what. The boys ought to be able to read this summary and not feel outed for anything said, so hopefully we are walking the line on this topic!
Jumping back to our narrative timeline: we arrived at the cabin and settled in for the night. Getting the lads to sleep was a challenge, as anticipated. Four hours in a car, in a nervous/exciting new situation with a group, and being early teenagers… It isn’t hard to imagine. Eventually we had to sit in the landing between the two rooms and declare that we weren’t moving until the lads were asleep.
The next morning we set out on a short hike in the Sugar Pine State Park surrounding the area Bob’s cabin is in. We got to smell the awesome butterscotch delight of the Jeffrey Pine, as we hiked into the park. While only a three mile hike the boys were very clear in their displeasure of having to trundle even that far! Across the group, that seems like a mix of boredom and then just aversion to having to walk so much. Well, I hope our relationship to hiking and being in nature will evolve a little in the coming years! We played lots of eagle eye on the hike, a form of hide and seek and one of my favorite parts of the weekend was facilitating the sound stalk with Dan; blindfolding the lads out in a field and having them try to silently find their way to Dan, who would periodically ring a large bell we brought along for the occasion.
Towards the end of the hike, we sat briefly for a short ‘swear-word/curse-word’ council. This was prompted by one of the boys expressing a difficult with the use of curse words by other boys in the group. We wanted the group to share what their experience (and their parent’s perspectives) on curse-words, so that we all knew where we stood and that it made some of the group uncomfortable. We agreed to strive to avoid making folks in the group uncomfortable. This was both an excellent chance for the group to share about how their actions impacted each other but also to continue to learn more about the structure and place of council.
After the hike, we headed to the lake for a very refreshing cool dip. Everyone got into the water! There were certainly some fears and anxieties expressed before we arrived to the lake: did everyone have to get in? Will it be too cold? I don’t want to get wet.. Etc. But everyone joined in, without the prior reluctance. After the lake, we returned to the cabin, for a little more nature time, then dinner and finally a camp-fire out behind the cabin.
The camp-fire started with smores, of course. As the fire burned, the banter and silliness gave way to a deeper space. We did eventually fall into a council of sorts, using one of the marshmallow prongs as a talking piece. The boys got to answer a prompt about one thing their parents didn’t know about them, or one thing they hadn’t told the group.
Many of the girls groups in stepping stones integrate themes around the moon and menstrual cycle into their rite of passage work, as a potent and tangible facet of their lives at this time. For boys groups, fire can be a great similar metaphor or theme for youth. We introduced this idea to the boys; that learning about fire and tending to fire will be a theme of our time together. Over the course of the coming years, we want the group to keep coming back to the question: “What fire are we tending to?”, to help them reflect on what sort of person and inner-flame they are creating in themselves and others.
After another rambunctious start to bed-time, we slept, woke up early, ate, cleaned up the cabin and made our way home. Over the weekend, we saw a lot of bonding, and also had spent enough time together to see some of the edges of our personalities bump into each other. Overall the group feels pretty good, coming together nicely, with a few dynamics for Bob, Dan and I to keep an eye on.
After the dust settled, we heard back from one of the families. The lad who had had difficulty with the swearing in the group was, in reflection, quite dejected about the whole weekend. They had also struggled with the noise and boisterous nature of the other boys in the group, during the trip. Their parents relayed, very neutrally, how this lad had felt singled out in the council process; since he was the one most impacted by the swearing. And that the boys were willfully swearing near him and then sarcastically hugging him sorry as a consequence, perhaps in following the letter but not the spirit of the agreement to not swear near this boy. During our informal council at the campfire, he had wanted to share this feedback with the group but had held himself back. It seemed from the parent’s retelling that the lad had some resentment that we had not come out and declared swearing wrong and off limits. His folks don’t quite know where his disdain for curse-words stems from, being they are not anti-curse word themselves, nor religious.
Our experience of this lad has been that he finds the company of his age-peers difficult. He has to be talked through strong emotional reactions to the idea of hanging out with age-peers, and orients towards the adults of the group. He has had several good day-longs with the group, however his experience of the weekend trip, with some highs and certainly some lows for him, is dominated by his low experiences.
We will be meeting with him in the coming weeks, to try and hear his story directly and give him some reflections on his choice to either stay or leave the group. In my mind, it is a challenging choice because he can either speak his truth to a smaller group of his peers, with the leaders support, and we can collectively find a way to be together in greater harmony and respect. Or, he can opt out, leave and then try to figure out how to relate to his peers, effectively on his own. He won’t get this sort of support in his school and I don’t believe he is getting professional help from a counselor or therapist. I don’t envy his choice or consider it an easy one; imagine feeling completely alienated by boys and girls around your age, finding interacting with them stressful and having only one main strategy, avoidance, to navigate group situations. Some times we do need to run-away, and recoup or find a situation that is better for us. But if we are always running away, where do we end up? I hope this lad can find his peace, in the group or out of it.
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