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 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

The Growth Zone

You may be familiar with the idea that kids should be encouraged to go outside of their “comfort zone.” And that at camp, there are many chances to do that. It’s almost inevitable, in fact. New activities, new people, new food, new weather— life at camp is very different from the “comforts of home.” For most children, all that newness is bound to be challenging in some very unexpected ways, especially when it occurs without one of the main sources of comfort in a child’s life: her parents. But after all, that’s exactly the point. Because it’s so different, camp is not supposed to be entirely “comfortable.” It’s supposed to be (appropriately!) challenging. Some of the magic of camp comes from that fact, and when combined with a supportive, encouraging community, it’s a powerful force… even transformative.

camp counselor with children

My hunch is that most parents who send their kids to camp already get this. They don’t want their kids to sit back and coast through life always choosing what’s the easiest. They don’t want their children to develop a habit of complacency, to always need a road map of conformity to feel safe. They don’t want their children to be afraid to explore, or be tethered too tightly to what’s familiar and predictable. They don’t want their kid’s world to be that narrow and fragile, that strict and ultimately stale. Even though it might feel good at first, the “Comfort Zone” is ultimately unfulfilling. The irony is that it’s us parents who effectively build this trap for our kids just as we care for their needs. We are the ones who supply the comfort zone, making it extra plush, and some us are darn good at it!

Of course, the opposite should be avoided too. We don’t want our children to be in danger, to be faced with extreme consequences, or to risk permanent suffering. There are situations where attention to safety warrants taking specific, careful action to protect our children from harm. Certainly, we do our best to help our kids avoid being in the “Danger Zone.” We don’t want the challenges our children face to be so extreme they become discouraged. We don’t want them to take on so much risk that there is no way to recover. We don’t want for them to explore so much that they become lost.

There’s a sweet spot, however, between comfort and danger. There’s what’s been called the “Growth Zone.” And it’s where we try to dwell at Rockbrook. There are plenty of challenges to be found here, for sure. There are bound to be moments when your daughter will struggle, experience some kind of minor setback, or feel frustrated by something not going exactly like what she’s used to. There are challenges built into the activities too: hitting the target in archery, reaching the top of the climb, threading a needle, centering your clay on the wheel, and so on. And there are even challenges to just living at camp and being part of this community: doing cabin chores, working through personal disagreements, handling the crickets that find their way into the cabins, and trekking up and down all the hills, to name few.

Waterslide child at summer camp

I hope you can see how all of these challenges are appropriate, ones where the girls here can successfully develop the skills, confidence, and perseverance to overcome them and grow. That’s where the the camp community is crucial. All around us at camp there are helpful friends. There is encouragement and support. There’s coaching and plenty of good role models to demonstrate how attitude and effort can make a big difference in moments of discomfort. And when so much of camp life is also incredibly fun, there’s a unique power inspiring girls to carry on and accept the challenges that come. The result is recognizable personal growth in self confidence and resilience. Over time, adapting to challenging situations becomes normal, expected. In this special environment, camp girls develop a sense of who they are— capable and strong. They begin to understand that what’s new and different is potentially an opportunity. They realize that stepping out of their comfort zone, but not so far to be in danger, is a recipe for growth. They learn that growing, not comfort, is what makes life fun.

Will your girls describe their camp experience like this? Certainly not in so many words, but I’m sure they are absorbing this idea. They’re living in the growth zone everyday while they’re here at camp. I love the idea that amidst all the action and silly fun you see at camp, there’s something lasting and beneficial happening too. Such good stuff!

girl learning archery at camp

Magically Gratifying

easy life for kids at camp

Today I had an interesting conversation with one of our staff Education Interns about the different ways she saw life at camp supporting the social and emotional needs of the girls here. New to Rockbrook this summer (She is not a former camper or counselor.), she has been struck by how most everyone at camp has such an easy going attitude, happily engaging the different camp activities, but also content to just be at Rockbrook, no matter what the day would bring.  The girls sign up for their own set of activities, but they don’t seem too obsessed with doing any particular thing.  Sure there are accomplishments to strive toward— bullseyes in archery and riflery, reaching the top of the Alpine Tower while blind folded, throwing a pot on the potters wheel, making a powerful overhand serve in tennis, weaving a particular shaped basket, for example —and there are favorite trips to join (like rafting), but it almost seems like the girls could be doing anything and still tell you “I love camp.” She said, “It just feels good to be here,” no matter what we’re doing.

kid throwing on the potter's wheel
challenge tower climbing kid

Being someone interested in Social Emotional Learning (SEL), she explained this feeling in those terms. She said Rockbrook’s “friendly community helps girls improve their relationship skills and be more self aware.” It’s true; “how we define our community is key to how it feels to be here,” I added. We agreed that being a part of a “relationship-based community” like Rockbrook, one dedicated to the core values of kindness, caring and generosity, is what “feels good.” The community provides an important context, one that fulfills our social and emotional needs, and hence is magically gratifying (what the girls will call “fun”) no matter what we’re doing.

This is exactly the point of this internship. We believe children at camp can learn to “respond to emotional triggers, engage with diversity, manage conflict, and make responsible decisions” when they join a community like Rockbrook. Our daily experience provides opportunities to practice “self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, and relationship skills.”  Life at camp is ripe with moments where these skills are exercised.

We also talked about why girls are so “loyal to Rockbrook,” why they so often want to return to camp summer after summer.  Here too, we pointed to the easy feeling of being at camp, the authentic relationships of friendship we have here, and ultimately to the special community where we know we belong. Again, it’s not so much what they get to do, the crafts or adventure for example, that makes the girls yearn to return. It’s the social and emotional context that encourages the deep relationships with the other people at camp. We could change many of Rockbrook’s activity offerings and I suspect most girls would still love camp and still say it’s “fun.”

Lastly, we talked about how we might integrate aspects of camp life in the outside world, say in an elementary school classroom, so as to enhance SEL. Integrating SEL into educational settings is a thriving area of study, but from our experience at camp, we thought it crucial to begin with a culture of kindness, to build a collaborative community that encourages empathy, decision making, and belonging. Taking time to establish this kind of community, we thought, could be crucial for learning, just as it’s the foundation of what makes camp a place girls love.

Once again we were reminded of the power of camp. In these ways, it is educational in the best sense of the word, more so even than most traditional school settings. I find it remarkable too that kids love this kind of learning.  They yearn for it.  They need it.  And fortunately for your Rockbrook girls, they have it.

casual comfortable camp kids

Caring Not Coddling


You may have heard the term “snowplow parent” by now, for example in the wake of the recent college admissions scandal that revealed certain parents were essentially bribing colleges and universities to admit their children. The term refers to well-meaning moms and dads taking too far their desire to help and guide their kids, and, like a snow plow, clearing away obstacles that might impede their path to success. This impulse to protect kids from struggle, to shield them from failure, to rescue them from anything frustrating or uncomfortable is apparently increasingly common, especially among more affluent parents who have the means to accomplish these goals. After all, parents “want the best” for their kids. We want to “give them every advantage” we can. Since the moment they were born, we parents have felt it’s our duty to assist and guide our children.

In their 2018 book, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt address what they describe as an increasingly prevalent “culture of safetyism” that leads to “fearful parenting” and stymied educational settings. While mostly concerned with events on college campuses, the book traces problems back to parenting and assumptions we parents hold regarding the experience of hardship, the infallibility of personal feelings, and the belief that “life is a battle between good people and evil people,” between us and them. Lukianoff and Haidt suggest these ideas lead to our coddling of kids, and yes to us becoming snowplows eagerly removing all forms of adversity for them.

The danger is that this form of safety-driven parenting, especially when established by these three ideas, ultimately hampers our kids’ development. Solving every problem for them (in some cases far into adulthood), swooping in to the rescue, “infantilizes them, emotionalizes them, and tribalizes them,” as Andrew Sullivan put it.  It robs them of opportunities to learn from experience, creating fragile, nervous, helpless young people who never grow up to be strong and independent.

I bring all of this up not to sling parent-shaming mud around, but rather to bring our attention to the dangers of being too focused on making our kids’ lives perfectly comfortable, safe, convenient, and entertaining.  This may sound strange coming from a summer camp director since we regularly work to create exactly this kind of experience for kids. We make sure camp is super fun. At the same time though, life at camp is so different from everything at home— different food, activities, relationships, and the general outdoor environment —it inevitably includes regular moments of challenge, struggle and adversity. And there are bound to be disagreements, even hurt feelings, in this kind of close-knit community.  Like life in the outside world, for both children and adults, we occasionally experience setbacks, at times feel frustrated, and perhaps wish things were different than they are.

whitewater rafting boat cheering

Most importantly though, there are no parents at camp, nobody to plow the road, to coddle, or smooth all the bumps from the path. Instead we have a supportive community of people that encourages girls to try things on their own, that allows a measured degree of freedom to explore, and that carefully guides us without fear of failure. Camp girls learn that they can handle these moments. They don’t have to wait for help. They don’t need someone to “pave the jungle.” On their own and away from mom and dad, camp girls cultivate a greater ability to tolerate discomfort. Without worrying, they grow more confident, build a sense of grit, and a habit of resilience.

In this way, I think life at camp is both incredibly fun and powerfully educational. Camp girls have daily experiences that prove they are competent and capable. They learn that they can address moments of hardship, confidently move beyond what’s comfortable, and make strides despite challenges.  Sending your daughter to camp is the opposite of coddling.  It’s trusting that she’ll be able, with perseverance and the support of the caring camp community, to meet the occasional challenge, tolerate moments of discomfort, and grow in the process.  No plow necessary!

cute girls dressed as animals

Relief from the Burden

One of the great things about the 4-week session at camp is that it gives us all more time to spend just hanging out with each other. It happens all the time: groups of girls casually sitting in the shade, chatting, working on a friendship bracelet tied to their water bottle. Between activities, before meals when we all have about an hour of unscheduled time, after dinner, and throughout the day: camp life provides an uninterrupted flow of friendly conversation. It’s a true luxury to enjoy spending time like this with the amazing people at Rockbrook.

Joining one of these impromptu groups is really pleasant too. The girls are so breezy and nice, curious and excited, silly and funny much of the time. I love asking the group questions and hearing what’s on their minds. For example, I recently asked a few campers what they love about Rockbrook that’s different from home. There are lots of answers to this question, and I believe it’s those differences that help explain why girls love camp. Many of the answers you might expect: “My camp friends… they know the real me,” “There’s so many fun things to do here,” “I love the food at camp.” One group of teenage campers surprised me when one said, “I like not having my phone,” and all the others chimed in agreeing. Teenage girls who happily give up using their smartphone? It’s a bit hard to believe, isn’t it?

You might expect the opposite, that the girls at camp are missing their phones, that they can’t wait to return to their Instagram accounts, Snapchat streaks, and Twitter followers. But it’s not true.  Back home though, we’ve all seen it. Their lives revolve around their smartphones, using them for daily communication, socializing and entertainment.  We’ve also seen this technology use effectively rule their lives, with teen girls spending an average of 9 hours per day on their phone, according to one study. Being constantly drawn to those little screens is a powerful force that we all deal with. As this sculpture “Absorbed by Light” portrays, our communication devices are effectively isolating us and distorting what we know about the world and feel about ourselves.

rockbrook camp girls

So why is camp different? If girls are happy to not use their phone here, why not at home too? That’s exactly what I asked the girls. They said at camp there’s simply no need for a phone. The authentic days of camp make any mediating device unnecessary. Here the community provides plenty of socializing, face-to-face communication, and rich real-world entertainment everyday.  People here have lots of free time, but are never bored because there are friends all around, always engaging things to do available, and no pressure to perform a certain way.  At home, unfortunately, all of this is less true, and their smartphones are used to fill the gap.

What’s amazing is that the girls recognize all of this. Living here at camp in this technology-free community has demonstrated for them that their smartphones, while convenient and perhaps even necessary in modern life, are also a burden.  They feel a real sense of relief giving them up and not needing them. They welcome reclaiming those 9 hours per day, freeing themselves to enjoy all that camp offers. These Rockbrook kids love camp because they feel fulfilled without needing their phones.

At home, where the tight-knit community of camp is absent, the challenge is to find a healthy balance between using our phones and the kind of real-world, fully-engaging experience I think we all crave. The challenge is to structure our time, identifying when using technology is a benefit and when it is distancing us from what we really want and need. The luxury of camp life is not available all year long, after all that’s why we love camp and return to it every summer, but we can recognize what it provides and with this awareness, implement elements of it more broadly.

Your Rockbrook girls are taking great strides in that direction, and we should all be very proud!

summer camp girl dancers