Opinion & Essays - August, 2001 Issue #84
AND THERAPEUTIC WILDERNESS
- A Different Philosophy
Boot camps are in the news again: another death, allegations of
horrific abuse, and an after-the-fact investigation. This time it involves a program called Buffalo Soldiers in Arizona. To my mind,
it is the same old, same old. [Earlier stories can be found in Woodbury Reports online archives, Boot Camp Programs #23, August 1993;
Boot Camp Violence #73, September 2000; NC Boot Camp Closed #72, August 2000; Boot Camps Lose Luster #65, January 2000; Alleged Abuse
in Georgia Boot Camp #76, December 2000]. I think reports of boot camp tragedies are going to increase for two reasons.
The first reason I anticipate an increase in boot camp tragedies is that the media has popularized them as a panacea for youth who
are making poor decisions. Almost every time a TV program features a program about interventions for teens making poor decisions,
they discuss and even recommend juvenile boot camps as the solution. It’s a plausible perspective, at least at first glance. In fact,
an important part of President Clinton’s crime bill of 1993 was the promotion and funding of juvenile boot camps, which precipitated
the explosion in the number of public and private youth boot camps around the country. The photo-ops are wonderful for a TV media
that thrives on dynamic and simplistic solutions. Watching the kid who has been making other people’s lives miserable through his
or her selfish actions, being harangued by a drill sergeant and put through the harsh discipline of forced marches satisfies the public’s
desire to “teach them a lesson; they deserve to be punished.” We’re now at a point where the first thing many parents consider once
they’ve decided to do an extreme intervention, is a boot camp.
The second reason more boot camp tragedies are likely to occur is due to confusion about the way in which they are being marketed.
The term “boot camp” has become extremely popular on Internet search engines and in calls to educational consultants. In fact, some
programs and referral businesses are marketing themselves using that term even if their program is something entirely different. My
online discussion board reflects this confusion. Critics who post on my Discussion Board assume all the programs discussed there are
variations of harsh punishment oriented programs like boot camps. This hostility to boot camps and other harsh punishment oriented
programs causes critics to extend their condemnation to the entire residential child-care industry, including all the private emotional
growth and therapeutic schools and programs in existence. It is extremely important that the different kinds of programs available
for struggling teens are clearly and aggressively explained. Otherwise, we are in danger the public will conclude, by means of their
elected representatives, that all programs that use the outdoors and wilderness are boot camps and should either be highly regulated,
or closed down, to stop the harsh punishment and its resultant tragedies. If a draconian type of regulation occurs, the real tragedy
could be the reduced effectiveness of safe emotional growth and therapeutic schools and programs because they are “lumped in” with
potentially more dangerous and often less effective boot camps.
Adding to this confusion is the degree of respect military schools have gained as a method of fostering discipline. Also, many people
had a boot camp experience when serving in the military. Many people think, “boot camp and/or military school, did me a lot of good;
maybe it will help these troubled teens.” Sometimes they are right, but only when considering a particular type of child who has a
specific set of problems. A military type program can help the child who is essentially intact psychologically but is floundering
and could benefit from some direction. However, a military based program is very poor at helping the child who is in open rebellion,
and feels “everything would be fine if my parents, (that is, authority) would just get off my back.” Putting this child into an extremely
authoritative program is asking for trouble and ineffectiveness.
So just what is the difference between boot camps and quality wilderness programs? Boot camps and military schools are based on a
punitive structure. When a student makes a bad choice, a staff member determines the punishment. The resulting pain is supposed to
teach the child to stop doing what caused the pain. This works for any mature adult who has mastered the concept of cause and effect,
and will tend to work with most teens with at least somewhat age- appropriate emotional maturity. For these children, Military schools
and Boot Camps can be very effective and a good growth experience.
Punishment, however, is likely to backfire when a teen is openly rebellious and hasn’t learned the relationship between cause and
effect. The rebellious teen will not see how his or her actions had anything to do with the resulting punishment. Instead, the lesson
learned by a rebellious teen will either be to be more sneaky, so as not to get caught, or to be angry at the staff for picking on
him/her. The teen might argue, “I am being punished because that staff member doesn’t like me,” or the teen might make a manipulative
accusation: “That’s not fair!” or, the teen might resolve to do something even more objectionable: “I’ll show them!”
This type of teen truly doesn’t get it when it comes to living life effectively, which is why punishment-oriented programs are ineffective
for them. In addition, the rebellious, obnoxious and unreasonable attitude shown by many teens can cause otherwise decent adults who
are unprepared to respond to this attitude, to react with even more severe punishment. “If 50 laps didn’t teach you that lesson, then
let’s see if 100 laps will get your attention!” “Let’s see if you still have that attitude after a day without food or water.” When
someone who isn’t prepared for it, or doesn’t understand how rebellious children think, is in charge of dealing out the punishment,
it easily can become abuse. Sometimes a power play can unintentionally be set up by trying to force a resistant child to do something
he or she doesn’t want to, which can turn into a tragedy.
In contrast, a wilderness experience is one based on structured consequences and perhaps therapy, especially natural consequences,
rather than punitive efforts to force the children to do something. Every year millions of people participate in wilderness activities
for the healing and experience of growth they provide. This includes the various Outward Bound expeditions, NOLS expeditions, and
numerous individual, family, wilderness organizations and community organization trips into the outdoors.
By the early seventies, a number of people had learned that children with negative behaviors improved their attitudes and behaviors
after a wilderness experience. Building on that knowledge, they began to use the wilderness experience in conjunction with quality
staff, personal growth concepts and therapeutic knowledge. As a result, techniques were developed to make the experience even more
powerful and better suited for rebellious and resistant children whose decision-making abilities could cause them to otherwise pose
a danger in these situations.
The key difference between a boot camp and other punishment oriented programs that incidentally happen to occur in the wilderness,
and an Emotional Growth or Therapeutic Wilderness Program, is the use of force. A Boot Camp will force a child to do what they are
supposed to and things will run smoothly as long as the child cooperates or “goes with the program”. Tragedies have occurred at those
times when a child resists and the punishment is then intensified. A quality wilderness program, on the other hand, has learned how
to structure the experience so the child learns why it is to his or her advantage to alter their behavior. For example:
A child sits down in the trail and refuses to move. This is usually a power play by the child, since it disrupts everybody. A boot
camp or punishment oriented program will confront the child, perhaps loudly, possibly accuse him or her of malingering, and eventually
have him or her picked up bodily so the group can continue to move on to the camp site. The bottom line is forcing the child to do
what the staff wants. This seems to be the blind spot of boot camps, since it seems they sometimes miss the times when the child has
stopped for a legitimate physical reason.
An Emotional Growth or Therapeutic Wilderness Program will respond to the same situation in a radically different way. First will
be peer pressure; the other students will encourage the resistant one to start hiking again so they won’t have to fix dinner and set
up their tents in the dark. The students and the staff might ask questions to see if a fear or some other issue has arisen in the
resistant child that he or she needs to talk through, perhaps initiating a counseling session and/or a spontaneous group. After a
time, the rest of the group might continue down the trail to the campsite, with one staff staying behind to make sure no harm comes
to the resistant child, creating a form of isolation from his or her peers. In each scenario, the child creating the power play has
an opportunity to choose whether or not to go with the program, understands the strong reasons for continuing on to the campsite,
and the staff has a good opportunity to make sure there isn’t a legitimate physical problem. To be honest, a physical problem causing
this kind of interruption is fairly rare. Experienced program staff tell me that sooner or later, the child always decides to start
hiking again. The only time a child is forced to do something is when there is a clear and present danger to the child or the group.
Boot Camps and Emotional Growth or Therapeutic Wilderness Programs are philosophically different. It would be a travesty to confuse
them. A boot camp approach we have found is not all that effective with many at-risk children and sometimes even dangerous for the
rebellious, out-of-control immature struggling teen, even though it might work with a cooperative child. However, Emotional Growth
or Therapeutic Wilderness programs are proving themselves to be effective and safe for all children, including the rebellious, out-
of-control immature struggling teen. Let’s be sure to keep the differences in mind.