No Rewiring Here

I want to take a moment to discuss something I mentioned a few days ago— the notion that play is important at Rockbrook. In an earlier post, I described how activities at camp stress being playful (noncompetitive), how the culture of camp encourages friendly (kind and silly) relationships that promote play and community, and how the structure of our daily schedule provides significant blocks of free time for self-directed play. I also hinted that play is so fundamental to childhood, we risk our kid’s successful development if we don’t provide play as a regular part of their lives.

A new book by Jonathan Haidt makes this point by linking kids’ play and their mental well-being. The book is The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness (March, 2024). Haidt is a professor at NYU-Stern and is known for his 2018 best-selling book, The Coddling of the American Mind where he first notes the international trend of rising anxiety and depression among young people. In this new book, he digs deeper into this phenomenon and asks why it is happening.

He asks why, since 2010, have we seen in the U.S the prevalence of teen anxiety increase 134%, depression increase 106%, ADHD up 72%, Anorexia up %100? Why do these increases skew toward Gen Z (those born between the mid-to-late 1990s and the early 2010s) and away from those who are older? His thesis is in the title of the book. He claims that around 2010 we began a “great rewiring of childhood.” More specifically, this is when we, rather thoughtlessly, began moving away from a “play-based childhood” and toward a “phone-based childhood.”

Haidt points to several reasons for the decline of play among children. We have fewer communal spaces for kids. We spend most of our time isolated from other families, in our cars, in our homes. Parenting has become more paranoid as adults trust each other less, harbor (mostly unfounded) worries of abduction, and avoid the uncomfortable and risky aspects of the natural world. This “safetyism” has led us to spend most our time inside and away from others. Consequently, most Gen-Z young people are having less “life experience,” things like getting a drivers license, having an after-school job, or even a dating relationship. For both parents and kids, a defensive mindset that’s always scanning for dangers is undermining (“destroying”?) our ability to play.

Unfortunately (“tragically”?), there is a ready substitute for play: the smartphone. As I’m sure you know, for most people today, a smartphone is their constant companion —never going anywhere without it— providing ready entertainment at the slightest hint of boredom. Instead of hanging out with friends and doing something together in the real world, our kids are more likely scrolling through social media, playing video games, or watching videos online alone. They’re spending, on average, 7-9 hours per day online, in many cases disrupting their sleep. Grabbing your phone is always easier and “safer” than doing something real with other people, but has our desire for convenience and safety narrowed our kid’s lives to what’s available on a screen?

The consequences of this behavior (“addiction”?) is certainly a worthwhile topic on its own, and there are others who are working to better understand how this phone-based childhood is affecting our developing young people. But Haidt believes it’s making a whole generation of young people more anxious, nervous, and ultimately unhappy. It at least seems clear that, especially for kids and perhaps us adults too, there is opportunity cost whenever we choose to pick up our phones. We could be playing!

Our kids could be exposed to the marvelous wonders of nature. They could be overcoming simple fears— which, by the way, means taking simple risks… like trying a new activity, or sampling a new food, or meeting a stranger. They could be making things, imagining, exploring, discovering what they’ve never experienced before. They could be laughing with friends, helping each other, teaming up to be even greater than they thought possible. They could be dressing up and being silly, singing and dancing, leaping at every chance to feel emotions. They could be finding out more about who they really are and becoming more confident expressing it. They could be having a lot more fun. You can see, moving away from a play-based childhood takes away a lot… All these and more!

There’s a question about what is worse, and what is contributing most to the rise of an “anxious generation.” Is it the decline of free play, and the benefits associated with play. Or is it the rise of time online (social media and screentime) and the costs associated with that? One thing seems certain, and this is Haidt’s main point, it’s a terrible trade to make, the benefits of one for the costs of the other. But’s that’s where we find ourselves these days, and our kids are suffering for it.

Fortunately, we have camp, the quintessential play-based environment. We have a place like Rockbrook that ditches devices and gets kids back outside, back in the real world doing things. We have a place that’s all about self-directed play and the glorious unpredictability of that. Yes, it’s a place where we might get a scrape or a bruise, but we’re going to do it with people who care about us. And we’ll be alright. We’re going to be stronger, more excited about things generally, and more attuned to what might be possible if we try. We’re going to grow closer to the people around us, not shrink away, afraid of what might happen. We’ll learn that being playful makes life more fun, rich with amazing details. Camp is powerful like this! And that’s why we all love it.

wide-eyed-laughter on rafting trip

Independence and Well-Being

I’ve been meaning to share an article I found back in March. It’s an overview written by Emily Oster on a Commentary published in the Journal of Pediatrics entitled, “Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Well-being: Summary of the Evidence” (Published first online, February 23, 2023). The overview article is entitled, “What’s Behind the Decline in Teen Mental Health?”

camp fresh flowers

You may have read that different organizations are observing a troubling trend among young people, specifically a marked decline in their sense of well-being. Especially recently, professionals that work with children and adolescents are puzzled why reports of feeling unhappy, dispirited, and anxious are rising. The data shows that this trend began around 2012 (long before the COVID pandemic, by the way). This article attempts to explain why we are seeing this trend among our young people.

Essentially, it claims another trend is (at least partially responsible for) driving this decline in well-being, namely a “decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.”

The authors worry that kids nowadays have very little free time to act independently. Instead they are supervised in school for most of the day and then equally structured during after school activities like sports and clubs. They point out also that current parenting styles tend to emphasize safety so that children aren’t able to do things on their own. Helicoptering and snowplowing, these parents might be protecting their children, but they are also impairing their confidence and ability to act independently. They note similarly, contemporary kids are rarely given the opportunity to play with other kids without adults, to play freely on their own terms. Rare, they lament, are the kids who get to play outside all day until dark.

Smartphone use may be another force contributing to kids having fewer opportunities to act independently. The claim here is that time scrolling on your phone is inherently isolating. It’s a solitary, passive experience rather than a physical activity that connects you with others in the real world. If anything, kids nowadays are more dependent on their phones for their socializing, entertainment and knowledge of the world. Their sense of self is largely filtered through this technology, rather than built through the rich nuances of their five senses. Especially for kids, time on a smartphone is a tragic substitute for living. And as it steals your life, reducing your capacity for independent action, your mental health may suffer.

You can probably guess where I’m heading with this, and why this article caught my eye. Life at camp is the exact opposite of these modern trends, and so can be understood as a counteracting force. After all, kids at camp are extremely independent. Being away from home, they act independently throughout the day. Without their phones, they explore the world around them at their own pace. At Rockbrook they have hours of free time. Each day, they make a multitude of decisions, figuring things out along the way. Camp gives kids an incredible degree of self-directed agency, empowering them far beyond what most parents would grant. By the way, I think this is another reason why girls love Rockbrook; they really appreciate this kind of agency. With friends by their side, they feel good when they do things without the adults in their lives guiding every move. In so many ways, life at camp is custom made for independence. It helps build the confidence and even the desire to act independently in the world.

If all this adds up, then we’re really helping our kids by sending them to sleepaway camp. The opportunities they have at Rockbrook to act independently may be strengthening their overall well-being, serving as a buffer for some of the challenging influences of modern life. At the very least, we know that girls love camp. They’re both independent and happy while here. That seems like a great endorsement.

Camp whitewater rafting fun

Where Kindness is Contagious

You can’t hang out at Rockbrook for very long as an adult and not be amazed. What’s going on here is amazing of course— kids are happily busy with a huge range of activities, stretching and growing in marvelous ways. At any one moment there is a camper doing something impressive. It could be as daring as learning a back walkover in Gymnastics, or as mundane as sweeping the cabin floor in the morning before breakfast. It could be creative like painting a watercolor still life. It could require calm attention like aiming a .22 rifle at a target 50 feet away. Campers prove they are strong hiking up to the top of Castle Rock. They are persistent learning to throw a pot on the potter’s wheel. And they are coordinated when they figure out how to paddle their kayak in a straight line. Everyday, it’s incredible how many decisions campers make on their own, away from their parents. These are just a few examples— and there are many, many more —of Rockbrook girls doing amazing things.

That’s not too surprising. After all, Rockbrook offers a wide range of activities, and there are so many opportunities to try cool new things everyday. But there’s something else about these camp kids that’s even more amazing, something we adults rarely see (or experience ourselves). More than what they’re doing at camp, it’s their temperament. It’s how they’re doing things and how they’re treating each other along the way.

In this environment, kids are different. You can sense it. They’re more kind to each other, more respectful and more caring. It can take a few days for them to realize it, but at Rockbrook you can relax and be your true self without being afraid of “what others might think.” The Rockbrook culture celebrates this value of kindness, reinforcing itself so that over time every relationship at camp takes on a genuine sweetness. Different from other places, kindness is contagious at camp. Soon it spreads and grows stronger, infusing our community with a spirit that makes girls feel supported, valued, and loved. With incredible force, this spirit begins to color everything we do. And it’s lovely! Again, it’s amazing to see all these girls be so nice to each other, be so happy in each other’s company, and care so genuinely about each other.

Parents often remark about their children being “nicer” or “more helpful” when they get home from camp. In interesting ways, the positive habits of camp, how girls feel about themselves and how they relate to others, can be carried home after camp is over. Time at camp, and the growth it fosters, can have lasting effects.

The other day, I stumbled upon a research paper that suggests this, namely that a summer camp experience can significantly “increase children’s altruism.” The paper by Yves Gerber, Edouard Gentaz, and Jennifer Malsert entitled “The effects of Swiss summer camp on the development of socio-emotional abilities in children” outlines several psychological and developmental benefits of a summer camp experience, but found statistically significant affects on altruism. Put simply, the researchers conclude that time spent at summer camp can help kids be more kind and compassionate toward others. Seeing how things go at Rockbrook, I’d say we could provide data to support that conclusion. It’s nice to know that a peer reviewed study showed summer camp can enhance children’s altruistic tendencies.

So while they’re enjoying all of the exciting activities at camp, the special events, and out-of-camp-trips (like our evening adventure to Sliding Rock tonight), your girls are developing important personal skills too. They’re practicing being kind and receiving kindness everyday. They’re becoming more aware of the people around them, caring about them and for them. In the end, they’re deepening their friendships. They’re enriching their ability to connect with others through kindness, caring and generosity.

If you saw it here, you’d be amazed. I think you’ll be amazed when they return home too.

camp kids on sliding rock

Learning to Figure it Out

When I think back on my time at Rockbrook as an eight-year-old camper, there’s one moment that has remained clear across the many decades. I was hiking up the hill from horseback riding, and I stopped for a minute. Standing on that hill, I realized that I had no adults telling me where to go or what to do. No one was urging me to hurry up or change clothes. The feeling of freedom at camp was intoxicating. At the age of eight, for the first time I felt totally in charge of myself. And I really liked it!

relaxed summer camp girls

One of the things that makes Rockbrook Camp unique is that campers of all ages are responsible for getting themselves to their own activities, just as I did years ago. That may seem like a minor detail, but it’s much more than that. It puts the camper in charge of their self throughout the day, which is a significant and sometimes new thing for them. Counselors and staff are always around to help give directions and escort a wayward camper, but for the most part, moving between activities and showing up on time is their responsibility.  

Personal responsibility extends to life in the cabin as well. As a counselor, I remember constantly picking up the wet towels and bathing suits of my campers (grumbling in aggravation), until my wise co-counselor pointed out the error of my ways. After a few days of unhappy shimmying into cold and clammy bathing suits, my campers had figured out how to hang up their own wet items. Amazing how that worked! Sometimes it’s a new experience for campers to choose their own outfits each day and keep track of their own belongings. Sometimes that means there’s a lot of stuff on the “lost and found” table. But they always figure it out in the end (and hopefully wrote their name in their clothes!) 

confident camp girls

Campers are also given several hours each day of free time, with plenty of options as to how they can spend them. From my vantage point on the hill, it’s so much fun to watch kids wander around camp, perfectly happy alone or in small clumps. Some will race to the tether ball and start a heated competition. Others sit by the stream, quietly knotting friendship bracelets or reading their books. From a distance, I can hear the splashing and laughing at the lake of cheerful swimmers. 

Just like me as an 8-year-old, campers at Rockbrook Camp regularly have the autonomy to dwell on what they feel like doing in that moment and just go do it! They love the personal freedom and will have deep consultations with each other about the best ways to spend their free time each day. From my perch, I hear things like “Should we go swimming?” “No, I don’t feel like changing into my bathing suit, let’s go sit on the rock and talk.” “I’m going to go finish my art project.”  All these little snippets of conversation add up to kids realizing their own independence and exercising it.  

Watchful counselors and staff members are always making sure campers show up for activities, behave in a safe manner, and take full advantage of all the fun things available at camp. But as much as possible, they stay hands-off when it comes to campers making their own decisions and exercising responsibility. After all, that’s the whole point of going away to camp! Sometimes that means a yucky wet bathing suit or missing the first half of riding because you had to go back for your boots, but you learn and grow each time.  

— Miranda Barrett
Camp Mom, Former Counselor and Camper

happy summer camp friends

How to Help Kids Develop Courage

You’re probably not surprised, but my answer points to camp. I believe life at summer camp, especially at a place like Rockbrook, provides unique experiences that show kids how to approach things more courageously. It gives them daily opportunities to act bravely and to develop the confidence to be courageous in the future.

A conversation with a longtime camper yesterday evening got me thinking along these lines. At one point she came right out and said it. She said, “I’m always more confident and brave when I get back from camp.” Isn’t that great!? She continued, “at camp, I figure out how to be my best self, even though that’s hard at home.” Wow! Doubly great!

I do think Rockbrook’s unique culture and setting is ideal for developing positive character traits. Thinking of that motto, to be “kind, silly and brave,” camp provides a special form of encouragement, and loads of role models, for everyone here to practice and realize their kindness, silliness, and bravery.

We already know that camp teaches kindness, and practicing being kind is a practical strategy for being happier. The spirit of the Rockbrook community is rooted in this emphasis on kindness, caring and generosity. It’s the starting point for almost everything we do. Be kind! We also know that being silly, again something central to Rockbrook, helps us feel more comfortable being true to ourselves. At camp, there’s applause for your zany costume, cheers for the outrageous character you invented for a skit, and unrestrained affirmation for “you being you” all day long. Be silly!

But to complete the phrase— “Be kind, Be silly, Be brave” —what can we say about camp teaching kids to be brave? How does camp inspire children to develop courage?

Most explicitly, we are encouraging our kids to be brave simply by sending them to camp. We’re placing them in a new environment where they are, on their own, doing new things. It takes courage for a child to leave the safety and familiarity of home, mom’s food, comfortable private spaces, and nowadays for teenagers, the security of their personal smartphones. Camp is so utterly different from life at home, it’s by definition challenging and can easily be uncertain and scary. There are bound to be social challenges at camp too, lots of unfamiliar people to encounter and learn to be friends with. But at camp, all of this is completely normal, expected and encouraged. It’s supposed to be different from home in these ways; and that’s what makes it great!

Simply being here proves to girls, they can do it. Even when they are feeling scared, they can overcome challenges on their own. They can makes friends even when they don’t know anyone. They can try that homemade quinoa salad (it might be good!). They can entertain themselves by being creative even without their smartphones. They can share a room with nine other people, help clean up common spaces, and be interested in how other people are doing. They can sign up for a painting class even if they’re a little afraid they’re “no good at art.” They can let themselves be silly performing a skit in front of 100 people. Kids are courageous by simply being at camp. They prove their bravery by living their camp life.

summer camp rock climbing
Camp Whitewater Kayaking

This is also true with respect to many of the activities at camp. They take courage just to give them a try! Take rock climbing. Not only is it physically demanding to pull yourself up a steep rock face using just your feet and fingers, it’s scary to be up that high in the air. You have to be brave to overpower your fear of heights with concentration and determination. We can point to whitewater kayaking in a similar way. It takes nerve to strap into a tiny boat, and using just your skills and a paddle, face the power of moving whitewater. The risk of capsizing is constant, but here too, camp girls are facing it bravely. Every adventure activity requires courage since the outcome always includes some degree of uncertainty. Through these activities girls learn to tap into their courageous spirit when needed.

The art activities at camp teach another important lesson about courage. The girls learn that being “perfect” is not the goal, that “messing up” is OK because what’s most important is the process of doing. Art at camp is done for “the fun of it,” for the joy of creative expression, and for the guaranteed novelty of the experience. There’s really no way to “fail,” so camp art projects do wonders to lessen any “fear of failure” a child might harbor. It still takes courage to pick up a paint brush, since again, there’s no telling how your efforts to paint will turn out. But making that decision to try is the most important step.

It’s also important that camp is a place where children make their own decisions. Throughout their day, they are faced with choices, and after considering what different options entail, live with the consequences of what they decide. This agency is truly empowering and a great source of self confidence. Making decisions independently, and having them turn out fine, gives kids real life evidence that even in times of uncertainty, they can be brave and make a choice. They can lean in rather than shy away. Choosing what activities to take, weighing how to spend their free time, deciding to stand up for themselves in a difficult social encounter, making the leap to help someone, consciously just taking care of things— these are all camp experiences where girls show their bravery and prove they’re powerful.

In all these ways, kids are brave at camp. Different perhaps from at home, here they find themselves in situations that require courage and still, they act. They face their fears and tackle adventure. They learn that it’s OK to make mistakes and try again. They make countless decisions for themselves moving through a complex social landscape.

So what is it about camp that helps kids do all this? Yes, they’re acting bravely while here, but what’s special about camp life that gives them this nerve?

Here again, I think we can point to the camp community and its values as the source of this power to inspire bravery. It starts with a very explicit ethic to be nice, to be friendly, supportive and accepting. Rockbrook is also a place free from competition, and instead champions enthusiastic cooperation, genuine communication and joyful participation. Essentially, the camp community stands behind everyone here making the consequences of being brave (of doing uncertain things) less worrisome. There’s less to be afraid of when we’re not competing, when creativity is valued over perfection, and when we have friends by our side. Kids are brave at camp because we’re all being brave together, proving to each other that everything’s fine.

But when this kind of community support is missing, as it tends to be outside of camp, it’s of course more difficult to be brave. There’s simply more trepidation in the real world of competition, prejudice, and pressures to perform. Our hope though is that, like the camper who told me she’s more courageous right after camp, all of your girls too will have strengthened their nerve while they’re at Rockbrook. We hope they’ll remember all the new things they’ve accomplished, all the challenges they’ve overcome, and all the decisions they’ve made successfully— all on their own, independently from their parents. Seeing your girls be this brave at camp, you’d be very proud. Seeing their courage at home, even more so.

Real Camp Friends

Why be Silly?

It’s a phrase I’ve used for quite some time now. Instead of “see ya later,” say after a brief conversation, I’ll say, “Be kind. Be silly. Be brave.” It’s a bit of unsolicited advice I think can serve someone well as they go on to face their day. I’ll say it dropping off my daughter at school, and around here at camp, I’ll say it to a group of girls as they head off down the hill to free swim, or after lunch heading toward their cabin for rest hour. It’s an encouragement to be “great,” but with three different, more specific, ways to do that.

I like this phrase, in other words, because it pinpoints different ways that kids can lean into things, to be positive and open to the people and world around them. This is important, I believe, because each of these traits has real benefits when applied. Especially for kids, young people who are developing socially and emotionally, being more kind, silly and brave can help them be happier, more true to themselves, and more effective in the world. Over a lifetime, I’d even go so far as to say that these traits are instrumental in having healthy relationships of all kinds and ultimately more lasting satisfaction in life.

These are points of encouragement, needed reminders, because they take effort. It’s just easier to be the opposite. So without trying, people can too easily veer off toward being self-absorbed, too serious and perfectionistic, and afraid of everything that’s unfamiliar or challenging. You can see how that would be an unpleasant way to live, and would be an unpleasant person to be around. Likewise, wanting the best for our kids, we’d like them to be more kind, silly and brave.

A few years back, I wrote a post about how Rockbrook encourages girls to be kind, silly and brave. I tried to show how camp life provides regular opportunities for us to develop these aspects of our personality.  Rockbrook’s philosophy, its culture and emphasis on community and friendship are what powers this development. Acting on these values colors what we do here. It makes the fun of camp more formative and beneficial.

The importance of kindness and its link to happiness is clear, and the value of bravery is generally understood, but what about silliness? Is there something inherently good or a clear benefit to being silly? I think there is. Of course, there are times when being serious is important too, when a particular outcome is needed for example (“a job to do!”), but there are many situations when a cultivated sense of silliness will add to the experience.

We know that’s true at camp! We know that everything’s better when wearing a costume, or when singing— the more off key the better —at the top of our lungs. Skipping down the hill is better than walking. Dancing while doing chores makes the work more fun. Being playful, quick to smile and laugh, like Buddy in the movie Elf, injects a special exuberance into anything, even the most mundane routine. Being silly means giving yourself permission to let loose a little bit, to be joyfully creative, whimsical, lighthearted and open to the humor in things. This is the color of most things at camp, and the way we like to be!

Besides making things more fun and funny, there’s another important benefit to being silly. It helps you feel more comfortable with who you are. Silliness helps reduce the pressure kids often feel when they see things as serious, formal, or measured. Turning down the heat of expectations and opening up some space for silliness, allows the real you to participate. There’s a real freedom in laughter and being goofy. And when there’s no judgment of being silly, no worry about what someone might say, it’s a real boost to a young person’s self-confidence and creativity. It’s liberating and fun.

For adults, we might feel a little embarrassed to bust out a twitchy dance move on the subway, for example, but if you do, it’ll be the real you. And I bet it’ll feel good. It’s the same for these camp girls— it feels really good to be silly and at the same time feel supported as their true selves.

So, reminding someone to be silly, is like giving them a license to be their true self. It’s saying, “You be you; you’ll enjoy it.” Yes, that’s a lot easier at camp where people will cheer for your wacky costume, but it’s still true out in the “real world” for adults and kids alike. Maybe we should all be a little more silly more often.

camp teens hiking

Raising a Successful Child

What is a parent’s role in raising confident and successful children? What matters in a child’s life that helps them grow up and find satisfaction as an adult? What can we parents do to encourage the habits, character and understandings that children need as they face challenges later in life? We all want our kids to be successful grownups, but is there something specific we can do to give them the best odds?

kids yoga class

These are the questions asked by Margot Machol Bisnow in her recent article, “I talked to 70 parents who raised highly successful kids—here are the 4 hard parenting rules that make them different.” The whole article is online here. In her research for writing a book about “raising an entrepreneur,” Bisnow identified several trends in how successful entrepreneurs were raised as kids. Their parents provided certain experiences that made a difference for these kids as adults.

When I spotted the article it was clear that summer camp, certainly at Rockbrook, aligns perfectly with all four of these “parenting rules.” Our camp philosophy and culture inspire these same experiences, which we hope encourages the girls here to grow and be more confident later in life.

Here are Bisnow’s 4 “rules.”

1. Give kids extreme independence

Kids need to practice acting independently. When faced with choices, we want our kids to make good decisions on their own, without the guidance of authority figures like parents and teachers. Camp is great for this! The kindness and support kids find in the camp community bolsters their confidence to act independently. Everyone here is making independent decisions, and finding encouragement to give things a go. And with “success” at camp being defined more as process than a particular “win,” there’s less fear of failure and a more joyful approach toward new experiences.

2. Actively Nurture Compassion

Bisnow suggests compassion is a character trait that correlates with being a successful adult. This means being aware of how those around you are feeling, and responding positively with a desire to help. It means being tuned into the needs of others. This kind of compassion goes a long way, and at camp, it’s the core of our community. Here at Rockbrook, we are all focused on caring for each other, pitching in to help, and being friendly to everyone. We work to keep others in mind when we make decisions. We strive to include people, and to be generous with our selves. This air of compassion at camp is one the main reasons it feels so good, so freeing, to be here.

3. Welcome failure early and often

Most adults don’t do well if they focus too much on avoiding failure, or on removing personal feelings of discomfort or frustration. Life is bound to present occasional setbacks, and often great opportunities include an obvious amount risk. But if we are to grow, we need the courage to accept those risks and to lean into challenges rather than to retreat to the comfortable and the familiar. Here too, camp teaches this lesson everyday by presenting girls with chances to go beyond what they’re familiar with. Everyone here is expanding their “comfort zone” by trying new things and meeting the challenges that presents.  In this kind of caring community, “failure” is not even a concern. Instead, we’re resilient. We embrace the possibility that we might not “get it perfectly,” and just keep moving ahead.

4. Let go of control and lead by following

Kids need space to explore who they really are. They need the freedom to reveal their passions and talents. They need to be trusted to understand themselves without too much outside pressure to be a certain thing. Camp is the perfect environment for this too. It’s supportive and actively accepting. We celebrate different interests and applaud every kind of creativity. Simply sending your girls to camp, letting them go, allows them to tap into this authenticity and to know they are still valued. This is a really empowering step on their path toward being strong, confident and well adjusted.

tetherball smiles

All four of these impulses are woven into our daily life at Rockbrook. It’s the type of community we have here—rooted in kindness and generosity —that makes this possible. It’s this safe and supportive environment that is ideal for kids to build these character traits, to grow personally and socially stronger, and to experience first-hand that being a little brave pays off. Of course the girls love how all this feels too. They’re eager to experience it and grow in these ways. At least partly, it’s what’s “fun” about camp.

And all of this happens away from their parents, which is the other crucial component here. Practicing these four “rules” can sometimes be hard at home (hard on the parents!), but at camp, they’re easy.

So is there something we parents can do to help our kids be more successful later in life? Is there a way to inspire them to be more independent, compassionate, resilient, and true to their authentic self? There is. You can send them to camp.

Tuning Their Awareness

When Nancy Carrier founded Rockbrook 100 years ago, I wonder if she realized just how extraordinary the setting of the camp is. Her father had chosen the property for their family estate 25 years earlier after being attracted to its large rock faces, hills, running creeks, proximity to the French Broad river, and rich valley farmland. It included several hundred acres of forest surrounding the main house to the north, south and east up to the ridge line. When Nancy decided to build Rockbrook, she hired a local engineer and worked to arrange the camp buildings to fit the natural contours of the land. She used locally quarried rock and timber cut from the camp property to build the many buildings, adding to the feeling that Rockbrook was a natural part of these hills, almost as if it had sprung up organically and had always been there. She preserved and incorporated the natural beauty of the land, making it an integral experience for everyone who spends time at camp. Today, we all benefit from being close to its strong trees, its cool running waters, ancient boulders, and views of the distant mountains.

teen camp friends

Today I explored a remote section of the camp property with two different groups of Seniors. We went on a hunt for the elusive “Kilroy’s cabin.” This is an old, simple wooden structure, now dilapidated, where legend says a hermit character named Kilroy once lived. There’s a tragic story linked to Kilroy that involves love and loss, and a beautiful woman with red hair and light colored eyes. The cabin is said to be hidden and difficult to find unless the group searching for it includes a red-headed girl. There’s no trail that leads directly to the cabin, so groups hiking to it must bushwhack through the woods with hopes of finding it.

Hiking to the cabin is challenging. It’s mostly uphill with some parts being very steep. It requires ducking and weaving through thick bushes, sometimes literally crawling on hands and knees. There are muddy sections and briar patches to avoid, slippery slopes and small creeks to cross. All of this makes for slow going. It inevitably means getting dirty, sweating enough to soak through your t-shirt, and pulling twigs from your hair along the way. But it also means getting very close to the forest, crouching down low enough to notice more, touching the nearby trees, and encountering mushrooms, snails, spiders and other insects. Today we came upon two species of snakes, found several feathers, and stood at the base of a waterfall. The hike lasted two and half hours.

teen girl friends

In many ways, this experience is fairly typical at camp. I had a group of girls cheerfully engaged with the natural world around them, chatting, singing and laughing together as they exercised all their senses. These were teenage girls paying attention to each other, sharing stories as we “hiked,” embracing this challenging experience without a shred of complaining or whining. They were cooperating and communicating with the greatest of ease. They were bright and happy under these difficult conditions, whether accidentally brushing into thorns or sliding down a steep bank of leaves. Over and over again, I heard how the girls were having a great time. “I love this kind of stuff! Let’s do it again sometime soon,” one girl exclaimed to me.

Does this sound like the teenage girls you know? Do you regularly see this kind of enthusiasm, social confidence, curiosity and positive attitudes? Are the teenagers you know game to do things, real world things like this? I would bet not. I have a hunch that these girls are different when they’re at camp, happier yes, but also more outgoing. I also believe that for the most part they are less stressed and anxious at camp. There are things about camp life— things it uniquely offers, but also things it profoundly lacks —that have this real effect on teenagers, on their immediate health and happiness, and longterm personal success.

teen dance class

If you’ve been following my posts recently, you can probably guess one side of this. I’ve been claiming that camp is uniquely situated to add certain experiences to a teenager’s life, for example, to feel the support of a caring, noncompetitive community, or the joy of regular free time to create, imagine, and play. Camp provides that rare feeling of belonging and acceptance. It tunes your awareness of others. It’s built upon experientially rich, real-world interactions and meaningful relationships. It brings out the best in these girls as it brings them together. This is what camp adds.

The other side of this— what is crucially missing from camp life —came to mind after reading this opinion piece by psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge. I’ve written about their research in the past, making different points about self confidence and handling adversity, but this new article points at the same culprit: the smartphone. Once again we learn how “smartphones in general and social media in particular” are correlated with sharp increases in teenage loneliness, depression and anxiety. Their new research shows that this is a worldwide phenomenon affecting children everywhere. They ask, “Do individual teens who consume a lot of social media have worse health outcomes than individual teens who consume little?” And they answer directly; “the answer is yes, particularly for girls.”

There are no smartphones and no social media at camp. Instead your girls are making real connections. They’re looking around, engaging with the world around them, not looking down, scrolling mindlessly through some idealized version of reality. At camp they’re actively, not passively entertained. They’re making true friends, not superficial Instagram “followers,” or vain Snapchat “streaks.”

The girls here at Rockbrook know this too. They know camp life is contrary to what they experience on their phones. Oddly, they love camp, and actually love not dealing with their phones while here, but every one of them will likely return to their social media habits when they get back home (or even the instant they get in the car on closing day! …Here’s an idea. Leave her phone at home! You’ll be able to enjoy her camp personality a bit, and hear some stories before she take steps back into that virtual world again.). The allure of this technology is too powerful. It’s tied to too many aspects of modern life. Haidt and Twenge advocate for creating the conditions where kids learn to socialize in the real world, for example by banning phones in schools and delaying when young children begin using social media.

Well, your girls already have those very conditions; they have them at camp. On a daily basis they are counteracting the negative effects of social media. In the long run, I hope your girls can draw upon their camp experience to recognize when their smartphone use is diminishing their real world engagement. If so, I think that self awareness will benefit their relationships and longterm happiness.

camp teenager hangout

Rain or Shine

As the Rockbrook song goes – “dry or damp, we’re always having fun at camp.” This Sunday was no exception. Even with the leftovers of a tropical storm moving their way through, campers and staff alike were all smiles and greeted the day with that signature RBC pep and cheer. While some activities needed to be amended – both chapel and assembly on the hill happening in the gym – camp is all about flexibility and this was our day to practice that.

The day started with a chapel on friendship, where the junior and middler lines came together to remind us just how special the friendships we form at camp are. The most common analogy is the chocolate chip cookie friend; a friend who we may not see often, but when we do, we feel just as warm and gooey as a chocolate chip cookie on the inside! Camp, while only lasting a few weeks, offers campers the time and freedom to make some of their truest friends. Free from many of the societal expectations of the outside world and scaffolded with the trusting and fun space counselors provide, campers are able to relax and make these chocolate chip cookie friends with ease.

Our day rounded out with some unexpected sunshine and a Rockbrook surprise: Prom Night! Part of the fun and trusting environment Rockbrook provides includes lots of Rockbrook surprises. Costumes, fun, and camp magic are the three ingredients for success when it comes to a Rockbrook surprise. These surprises are special events thrown by counselors and other staff members and come as a surprise to our campers. 

Each line had their own special prom location decked out with streamers, twinkle lights, tunes, and of course, costumed counselors! The juniors created their own handmade corsages out of tissue paper while the middlers and seniors showed off the dance moves they’ve been learning in the Dance activity. Dances at camp are a must, and the carefree environment of camp gives campers the freedom to dance like nobody’s watching!

Just for Fun

Part of the joy of being at camp is having the freedom to do things just for the fun of it. It’s one part of what we mean in the Rockbrook mission statement by “carefree summer living.” We know that most children feel certain pressures at home and at school, perhaps to be productive (like adults) or efficient (also like adults). Camp is a special environment where girls are allowed to put aside those adult-like cares and concerns, and revel in the fun of this community of friends, active and outdoors.

shaving cream girls

A good example of this is a shaving cream fight, like the ones we held today for the three different lines (age groups). There’s no real serious purpose to the event. It’s girls in their swimsuits, a sunny patch of grass, a can or two of plain shaving cream per person, and the overall goal of smearing the slippery foam all over oneself and the others nearby. For some the goal might be to cover every inch of your body with the stuff. For others, it might be to completely lather your hair and then make crazy hairstyles. It’s also a chance to sneak up and surprise a friend with a handful of cream splattered on her back. You see, all of these are simply for fun, messy, slightly mischievous fun. Today we also pulled out a long piece of plastic to make a slip-n-slide. It turns out, bodies covered in shaving cream slide extra fast when sprayed with a little water from a hose. Again just for fun, but really big fun the girls.

camper dance class

“Just for fun” applies to a lot of the regular activities at camp, even ones that for some can be taken very seriously. For example, dance can be a serious endeavor for some girls, one that includes hours of training, rehearsals and performances. Dance can be someone’s profession! Our dance activity at camp is more lighthearted. It does include learning specific dance moves or a choreographed routine, but it’s intentionally a little silly. It’s meant to accommodate a range of talents and experience so everyone can feel good giving it a try. Not a great dancer? We want to prove that dancing can be fun no matter what your sense of rhythm or timing. Feel a little awkward on the dance floor? When something’s just for fun, you don’t have to be “good” to enjoy it. Encouragement and support in a non-competitive community make trying something new all the more enjoyable, no matter how it turns out. Girls who are serious dancers have told me they love dancing at Rockbrook precisely because it’s not serious. They love being free to experiment and be silly (since that’s not as celebrated ordinarily in their dance world). I’ve heard this same comment about tennis and swimming too. Even though they need to be serious at times, kids also need to do things just for fun.

summer camp sewing project

All that being said, what happens at camp is not “just” fun. The experience of being here is not simply some kind of fleeting entertainment. As I’ve said before, camp is “fun that matters.” In addition to the outward physical skills developing at camp— learning to sew, to do a cartwheel, to play gaga ball, to shoot a bow and arrow, and so forth —girls are improving their self confidence by accomplishing so much independently from their parents. They’re becoming more resilient as they deal with manageable setbacks or disappointments. They’re definitely improving their social skills living so closely within this small community. Perhaps most importantly, they’re discovering more about who they are and feeling good about their authentic selves. Wrapped in a thick layer of big fun, there’s a lot of really important, long-term personal strengths developing at camp as well.

good girls friends at camp