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November 7, 2019

Repeated Phrases Tell a Story of Their Own

If we truly listen and respond when people repeat certain phrases, something deeper may be opened up.  A boy named Jason helped me understand how that can happen.  

At age 19, I was a counselor at a Fresh Air camp.  A Fresh Air camp is for inner city kids, many of whom were sponsored by the Children’s Aid Society or other community groups. 

At Teen Camp, I had the youngest cabin of boys (12- and 13-year olds).  Jason was one of these campers. Jason was teased because Friday fell on the 13th that week, and his name reminded the others of Jason from Friday the 13th (the horror movie). I tried to stop the teasing, but the campers found ways to do it out of earshot of me.

Jason did not want to participate.  He did not want to make any choices regarding camp activities, and his recurring phrase was, “I don’t care,” spoken in a barely audible whisper or as an angry shout– “I DON’T CARE!”

On the last night, the entire camp hiked to a clearing in the woods for a bonfire. At one point, Jason began to dangerously toss things into the fire, so I pulled him aside to talk as other staff members watched over my cabin of boys. Throughout our conversation he repeated, “I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care.”

I responded, “I do care.  I care that you are safe and that all our campers are safe.”  He continued to shout, “Well, I don’t care!”  

“You need to care,” I said, and asked, “Is there anything that you care about?”  When he replied no, I asked, “Is there anyone who cares about you?” This turned out to be a hard question for him to answer, so I gave examples of people who cared about me. Finally, Jason said that his grandfather cared about him. He calmed down, promising to be safe around the fire, and we rejoined the group.

The next day, Jason returned home. I had no idea if the conversation had helped him. All I knew was that it had gotten me through that campfire. To be honest, I didn’t think about the conversation again until the next summer.

That next summer, I was the canoe instructor of the camp and worked with kids of all ages.  Jason returned, and I felt a bit on guard when I first saw him. But I soon realized he was different this year.  His counselor reported that Jason was often the first to pick activities for the cabin and was flexible if other cabin members wanted to do something else. He threw himself into everything—crafts, scavenger hunts, swimming, canoeing, skits, and even clean-up.  

On the last day of camp, the two of us, with Jason at the bow, canoed on the lake in the early hours of the morning. I told him how amazed I was at what I saw in him, how happy I was to see him enjoying camp and asked him what was different. 

He was quiet for a moment as he stopped paddling and turned his head to look back at me. “I care now,” he said.  Then he described how he had reached out to his grandfather and felt closer to him. Things in life were generally better for him now.  

Recalling this moment brings tears to my eyes.

It has been my experience teaching and parenting kids with learning challenges that children who find it difficult to express themselves verbally can exhibit certain behavior patterns—stomping feet, looking away, hitting—all of which are forms of expression. These behaviors can also be the “repeated phrases” to watch for and listen to.  

How many of us have experienced the gift of someone who has noticed our repeating phrases or stories? How has this precious way of caring affected us? My heart opens as I recall all who express their care for me in this way.  

The experience with Jason is one that brought me to the field of coaching. In coaching, we listen for repeating phrases and stories, watch for repeated movements and postures, and invite clients to do the same. I invite you to get curious about words or phrases  you repeat, words that may make you feel smaller or less engaged in your life. Like Jason, you can change your life through exploration, moving from “I don’t care” to “I care now.”


  1. Janet Johnston says:

    Thanks for writing this story, Brian. It illustrates the importance of bringing compassionate attention to repeated words, phrases and gestures. It sounded like a challenging situation and I loved reading that the boy was touched enough to find caring for himself.

  2. What a beautiful story! Thank you for sharing it. And it is such a simple but really important question to notice those habitual phrases or stories that keep us distant. I’m definitely going to be listening to see if I can identify one the next time my type 3 voice gets activated. I’m sure I won’t have long to wait! Warmly, Courtney Pinkerton

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