I was working in a boys’ group one summer. We had a number of defiant teens creating cliques within the group. Some of the kids who were considered “cool” began to subtly divide the group. This division was the same pattern that played out in their home environments, so it wasn’t surprising. I was concerned, however, because many at-risk teens learn how to create a hierarchy within their social settings by using manipulation and bullying. Many depressed and anxious teenagers are bullied. Because they don’t know how to stop these patterns, the bullied victim role can follow them throughout their lives.
As I saw these patterns begin to play out in this group of boys, I decided to perform a wilderness intervention to help them come together. I began by telling the group we were going to play a game of tug-of-war. Their excitement stalled when they realized no one had a rope big enough with which to play. I reassured them that we could still play, they just needed to help me first. We went to work collecting long strips of juniper bark from the hundreds of trees surrounding our camp. We laid all the bark in a garbage bag and then poured water in with it. As the bark soaked for a few minutes, I taught the principles of making “strong cord” by twisting two strands of fibers together using opposing twists. This creates a binding effect that increases the combined strength of the individual fibers. If you were to just twist two strands together without using opposing twists, the rope would easily untwist and the fibers would have to rely upon their individual strength.
After a brief tutorial, the boys divided into different roles and everyone took turns contributing to the construction of a rope. During this process, I noticed some kids putting great effort into making sure the two different strands were a comparable size, twisted evenly, and wrapped tightly — while other kids would just grab and twist. I allowed the kids to employ both methods — this was an important part of the lesson. When we finished, we had a 15-foot-long juniper bark rope that was about three inches thick. All of the boys were excited to play, so they separated into teams and began. Of course, the group divided themselves along social lines; the cool kids grouping up on one side of the rope and the other kids gathering on the other side.
It didn’t take long for the rope to break at one of the weak spots, causing both teams to stumble and fall to the ground. This surprised and frustrated the boys. They had been working on this for several hours, so I invited them to grab some food and water and sit in the shade of a large tree while I talked with them about what just happened. I brought the rope and showed them the section that had broken. I asked them why they thought that section broke first. One of the boys explained that it was weak because it wasn’t the same thickness as the rest of the rope and it was wrapped loosely. “Exactly!” I said, “And your group is doing the same thing.” I went on to explain that, because their group was fostering a “better-than/worse-than” community, they were creating weak spots in their group culture. “And this isn’t isolated to your wilderness group — for many of you, the same thing is happening at home. The disrespect, the lying, and the manipulation that exist within your family systems creates the same weak spots at home that we just experienced.”
The boys’ eyes flickered with recognition. “A strong cord is made up of opposing but EQUAL fibers whose bonds make them stronger than they are as individual strands. Your group can be the same way. We are all different, but we are equal. If your group were to treat each other’s differences with respect instead of contempt, your group would pack up more quickly in the mornings, have more fun playing games, and get more out of group sessions. The way this group is going right now, you’re not far from landing on your backsides after your rope breaks. But you can strengthen the weak spots if you support one another.”
It was apparent that the message had resonated with them, so I talked to them about the importance of a handshake. “A handshake is a physical gesture that two people would follow through on an agreement. This rope is your handshake. Fix this rope and play again, this time with mixed teams, to show yourselves, each other, and your families that you’re going to follow through with an agreement to strengthen your group/family instead of weaken it.”
With that, they untwisted several feet of the rope on each side of the break and spliced in more juniper bark to strengthen it. They played several more rounds of tug-of-war with teams made up of kids that were not better or worse than each other, but equal.