Birds of a Feather— A Mom’s Perspective

Bentley Parker
Rockbrook Camper, Counselor, Camp Mom

The Parker Girls

It had never crossed my mind that new situations involving unfamiliar people or circumstances could be uncomfortable for some, especially friends I knew well. I thought this was a skill acquired by adulthood, one that came with age. I had obviously taken for granted these social skills that I acquired at camp, where I’ve been coming since I was 7, which required me to meet new people and try new things every summer.

A Break on the Range
Synchronized Floating
Yoga on Tutu Tuesday
Just Hanging Around
Happy Camper

I’ve realized I have been mistaken in assuming situations like this were easy for all, as I have often purposely met other moms outside of school, meetings, and sporting events to prevent them from feeling uncomfortable by walking in alone. I’ve recognized that the inexplicable confidence and laughter still comes naturally for me, as I was the only mom who stuck to the dress up plan and showed up to the premier of Hunger Games with pink hair. I’ve come to better understand that the unfamiliarity of people and situations surpasses the comfort zones of many, making the prospect of walking into a room with strangers and making a friend seem impossible.

I’ve now developed an even better appreciation of how these skills are developed as I’ve gotten the privilege to watch your children cultivate friendships and give birth to these character traits here at RBC. I recognize the confidence they develop when they come to camp not knowing anyone and yet leave with lifelong friends. As a mom of 3 girls, these are skills I can’t teach my children. These are skills that I’m grateful they have had the opportunity to gain here at Rockbrook.

I’ve also come to the realization that some of the tightest bonds I’ve formed have been with friends who were “camp girls,” long after our camper days were over. They were instantaneous friendships, because we immediately knew we were alike in so many ways. We had survived screened cabins, appreciated nature, respected various personalities, experienced new things, desired leadership, and possessed camp silliness.

If you are a parent of a camper reading this, let me assure you that you are providing a lasting legacy for your daughter. This opportunity is equipping her with a skill set that may seem invisible at first but that she will utilize throughout her lifetime. There are no words to adequately describe the bond camp creates or the traits acquired here, but the experience speaks for itself. She will continually reap the benefits of her camper experience throughout her life, and it will shape the person she becomes as a grown woman.

Camp birds are of one type of feather, and the bonds of the flock will always keep them together!

“How did we come to meet pal? What caused our paths to blend? ‘Twas fate we came to Rockbrook, and you became my friend.”

Succeeding at Failure

Kayaking Success

When I was a junior in high school, my drama teacher set my class two challenges, each designed to get us thinking creatively:

  1. Write down as many uses for a brick as you can think of.
  2. Draw three creatures that do not exist, and that are combinations of a bunch of different animals. Use as much detail as you can.
Thinking Creatively

The first challenge was a cinch. I’ve been writing fiction ever since I could hold a pen, and still can switch on daydreams as real as a TV show whenever I get bored. If you ask me to use my imagination to think up impossible things, I’m on solid ground.

Sure, I listed the usual (boring) uses for a brick: house construction, paperweight, impromptu dumb-bell, etc. But then came the fun ones: a piece of a giant’s Lego set, an impenetrable fortress for ant-armies, Twinkie-holder, napkin ring at a brick-layers’ convention, etc.

All this is to say, if you’re looking for something to do with that pile of bricks you have lying around your house for some reason, I’m your girl.

But then came challenge number two. Sure I could think of imaginary animals—how about a zebra-striped cow, with the head of a horse, the legs of a mini-elephant, and the horns of a water buffalo? Oh, and it can talk like a parrot! Oh, and maybe it can jump like a kangaroo! Oh yeah, the ideas were coming fast.

There was just one problem. I can’t draw. Not at all. Even stick figures are a struggle for me. I stared at that blank piece of paper, listening to the excited pencil-scratching coming from my neighbors’ desks, and my cheeks began to burn. I was the only one not drawing.

Venturing Out

I just sat there, with my head down, until the activity was over. I couldn’t even let myself try. I couldn’t even permit a doodle. I couldn’t take the risk that the beautiful image I had in my head might not translate onto paper. Better to be scolded by my teacher for failing to complete the activity, than for it to be known that I might be less than excellent at something. So I just sat there, almost in tears, until the papers were collected.

I’ve thought about that moment a lot since then. Why hadn’t I even tried? Why had I assumed the result would be that horrible, without taking the simple step of just beginning? Why had I decided by the end of elementary school that I Am Not An Artist? End of story, no question about it, no need to try.

So many times, both in camp and out of camp, I see young girls give up on things before they’ve even begun.

“No, I can’t take pottery, I’m not artsy.”

“No way am I going to try out for basketball, I’m not athletic at all.”

“I can’t take the swim test. I’ve never been much of a swimmer.”

Taking the Leap

Somehow, it has become part of our mindset that our talents, our levels of intelligence and understanding, and our potential for achievement are set in stone from the very beginning. The thoughts that were racing through my mind that day in drama class consisted entirely of, I was bad at drawing in elementary school. Therefore, I am bad at drawing now. Therefore, I will always be bad at drawing, no matter how hard I try. Therefore, I should not try.

I know I’m not the only one that thinks this way. We have become so afraid of failure, because we think that that failure defines us even more than the successes that come afterwards. Sure, we know that da Vinci didn’t paint the Mona Lisa the first time he ever touched a paintbrush, and yet somehow we still think that if we fail the first time, then we will inevitably fail every time, with no shot at improvement.

But this is wrong. This is so wrong! Why should I, at 23 years old, have already decided which categories I belong in (Good Writer, Good Reader, Not-Good Drawer, Not-Good Dancer), and given up on changing any of them? Why should a 10 year old camper stand frozen at the edge of the dock on swim demo day, just because somebody told her one time that she wasn’t a very fast swimmer? Why should we throw away the chance to surprise ourselves with new, enjoyable experiences, in an attempt to save our pride from the sting of failure?

Dancing Queens

So here’s the challenge (you knew this was coming): allow yourself to be bad at something once a day. It can be a brand new experience, or an old one that you gave up on long ago. If you’re a bad dancer, then dance like a crazy person with your friends, and laugh when they tell you you’re not so good. If you gave up on piano after one lesson, sit down and bang out “Chopsticks” on the keys, and laugh when you hit a bad note. If you have always wanted to be a poet, then write down that poem that you have bouncing around in your head, and then laugh when you realize it sounds more like a Hallmark Card than Emily Dickinson.

That’s right: laugh. Train yourself to find the joy in failure. When that sinking feeling comes along that tells you to run away from the challenge before it becomes too much, then laugh it away, and try again. And again. And again. And again. Sure, maybe you’ll never be dancing at center stage in Radio City Music Hall, or tickling the ivories like Stevie Wonder, or becoming the next US Poet Laureate—but hey, maybe you will. You’ll never know unless you embrace the possibility that you might just fail, and then go for it anyway.

As for me, I’m still not a great drawer. But I hope that Mr. McFarland will accept this late addition to the creativity project. May I present, the Zebreleffow:

The Zebreleffow

Heartfelt Euphoria

Counselor and Camper happy together
Girls happy at summer camp

Lately, it’s been tour season at Rockbrook, with families, often 2 or 3 at a time, visiting to learn more about camp. Over the last week, I’d say we’ve had more days than not with tours scheduled. This is great because we are always pleased to show off a little of what makes Rockbrook special, and to hear what prospective families find remarkable. For example, tour groups are often surprised that “everyone is so friendly around here.” It’s true, walking around camp creates a chorus of greetings, waves and smiling faces, no matter what time of day. Also though, a parent today commented that everyone at Rockbrook seems so “genuinely happy” and this got me thinking again about why this is the case. Everyone knows that camp is a happy, fun-filled place where girls can spend their days enjoying activities, being with friends, and playing outside in a beautiful setting. But I don’t think happiness at camp can be traced simply to these kinds of outward characteristics, to the activities, the camp facility, the quality of the food, or even the experience of the directors, though certainly all of these are important ingredients. Also, the kind of happiness we’re talking about here, the kind that brings out the best in kids, can be elusive elsewhere. Outside the haven of Rockbrook, even when every material need is met (and sometimes luxuriously met), the pure joy we find at camp can be missing. And that’s what stands out; there’s a heartfelt delight (even euphoria!) at camp very different from the mere pleasures and comforts of ordinary life.

Waterfall Camp Kids

So what’s the secret?  What is it that happens at camp that might be implemented or encouraged at home and school to make our kids more “genuinely happy?”  While not the whole story, I think Rockbrook succeeds in this way because it is foremost a community of caring people who appreciate and respect one another. The girls here know that they belong. They know that wherever they go in camp— to their cabin, to an activity area, to a picnic or an assembly on the hill —and no matter who is there joining them (an old friend or a new face, camper or staff member), they will be enthusiastically welcomed, sincerely encouraged, and fully supported. The deep happiness felt at camp blossoms from the positive relationships formed among everyone who is a member of our community. Free from competition and criticism, the way we interact here is uplifting and in important ways liberating. We talk about the power of community a lot, and this is yet another of its rewards.

Rock Climbing camp kid

Much like you and me, children need to feel liked. They need to feel that they are appreciated and that they are essentially good. This makes them keenly aware of how others, other children (their peers) and adults (parents, teachers, and camp counselors, for example) respond to them. It’s when these responses are affirmative and approving, as opposed to grumpy, demeaning or even just spiritless, that the magic happens. Put most simply, a child will begin to find genuine happiness when she feels those around her are likewise genuinely happy to see her, to be with her, and to love who she really is. Perhaps surprisingly, this kind of happiness derives not from what we do or what we have, but from who we’re with. If they are caring and kind, “sweet” and reassuring, enthusiastic and encouraging, we will find happiness. This kind of collective spirit, so beautifully embodied by Rockbrook, is a powerful force.

And it’s something that builds upon itself in a community.  Beginning with our staff and then with our campers, caring inspires care, kindness calls forth further kindness, and happiness leads to the happiness of others. We can already see that the girls this session are helping each other in this way. As they grow closer, support and encourage each other, as they become more comfortable with each other, and as they feel genuinely appreciated, the fun of camp intensifies. It’s no wonder that the girls love it here.

How do you show you’re happy when your kids are around?

An Appetite for Adventure

Crew of girls ready for the camp zip line

The girls at Rockbrook have it— a true appetite for adventure. They first of all have plenty of opportunity to step out and challenge themselves with high ropes and rock climbing, whitewater kayaking and rafting, canoeing, zip lining, and water slide rides at our lake. There are both in-camp activities and optional out-of-camp trips available each day for the girls to choose from. Depending on their mood, and often on what their friends are doing— there is often a herd mentality to activity selection around here, but that’s one reason why it’s so important to be free to choose for yourself —the girls can climb high, be splashed and wet, or race down from a great height. They can face a real challenge, one where adrenaline gets your heart really pumping.

Zip Bridge Canopy Tour Element

Why, though, are these girls so enthusiastic about it? Why do your girls love the feeling of outdoor adventure experiences? Beyond their enthusiasm for just about everything here (yes, even the dining hall and cabin chores, believe it or not), what can explain all this climbing, paddling, zipping, hiking, and sliding? If you ask them, the girls say these activities are simply “fun” or “awesome.” That’s certainly true. In addition, part of the answer could be the adrenaline thrill that accompanies being up so high, moving so fast, and crashing so fiercely through a whitewater wave. It’s simply exhilarating to do these adventurous things. Yes, they are extreme, and that alone is quite exciting to experience.

Girl Camp Rock Climber

Beyond the thrill of outdoor adventure activities, there’s something more that leads girls to seek adventure at camp, and in the long run, it’s something that can stick with a young person and serve her well later in life. It’s the feeling of confidence that is strengthened, proven real, when a girl summons the courage to engage an adventure activity.  Because adventure activities appear risky and frightening, they require courage, courage to be upside down in a kayak, to trust your foot balanced high above the camp on Castle Rock, or even to sleep in a tent far away from civilization, for example. Being courageous like this, facing the challenge rather than shrinking away from it in fear, requires you to trust your own abilities and be confident that you’ll be OK. At camp, of course, we have expert instruction, top-notch safety equipment, consistent encouragement, and excellent role models to help our girls meet these adventure challenges, so things always turn out fine. Successful adventure activities help develop that confident sense of “I can do this.”  They provide an experiential lesson connecting courage and results, and thereby build greater self-confidence. And that feels really good. It’s a positive feeling that keeps girls coming back, building an appetite, for more… One more route up the Alpine Tower or ride down the water slide.

Learning to roll a whitewater kayak

Years from now when first learning to drive a car, or starting her first real job, this confidence to trust her abilities is bound to prove valuable. With all of the fun, the cheering and laughing that punctuate each day at camp, it might be hard to see these deep lessons your girls are learning. But they are there. When your kayakers, rock climbers and zip liners return home, they’ll have great tales of thrilling adventures, but keep an eye out for something more important— a greater sense of confidence.

More Reasons Kids Need Camp

Excited Camp Kid

Around here at Rockbrook, we’re big fans of discussing why summer camp is so great for kids. There’s no doubt that spending time at camp is super fun and kids love it, but it’s also important for their personal, physical and social development. In so many ways, camp is something our modern kids need more than ever because it provides relief from unhealthy habits. It serves, as we’ve said before, as a “haven” for children.

Over on the Web site What’s Up for Kids, Kathy Alessandra just posted an article entitled, “Five Reasons Your Child Needs Camp.” Reporting information from the American Camp Association and several well-respected studies, the article is a nice reminder of some very significant ways kids benefit from camp.

Here are the 5 reasons listed.

  1. Campers gain positive life skills like “making friends” and “trying new things.”
  2. Campers stay in motion, enjoying physical exercise.
  3. Campers have experiences that help them back at school.
  4. Campers reconnect with nature.
  5. Campers engage in creative free play.

Of course, there’s a lot to each of these, but perhaps most importantly, this article is another reminder of how rare and valuable a summer camp experience is for our kids. Definitely a great thing!

Raising Happiness

camp girl smiling on a horse

Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, recently spoke at a summer camp conference about cultivating an environment of happiness at camp. Camp plays a key role in teaching girls how to live a happy, fulfilled life. During her presentation, Carter illustrated three main ways camp grants girls the skills to embrace a life of happiness.

How to Raise More Joyful Kids

  1. Camp celebrates the role that failure plays in success.

    If a camper doesn’t quite make it to the top of our climbing tower or has trouble folding like a pretzel in yoga class (who doesn’t?) she learns that it’s ok. In fact, it’s better than ok- it’s great! Because camp operates under the mindset that girls grow and learn from mistakes and risk-taking, these so-called “failures” are praised at camp. They are marked as part of the learning process for our campers. So rather than a fixed mindset such as, “I can’t climb” or “I’m bad a Yoga”, our campers think “I’m so glad I didn’t give up!” while the look down at camp after making it all the way to the top.

  2. Camp creates a culture of gratitude.

    Gratitude is a social emotion, acknowledging something that is outside of oneself. Often times we focus so much on the cloudy skies that we never even notice that the sun is trying to peek out. For example, before camp, it’s easy to think something like, “Wow, my trunk is so heavy! What an annoyance!” Then suddenly, at camp, it’s “I am so glad I have a trunk, this is a great place to store things!” In an instant, a girl sees the value of the things in her life, and, more importantly, the people in her life. Camps helps girls realize, understand, and reflect on all the things they have to be thankful for.

  3. Camp models kindness.

    Camp broadens a girl’s “giving vocabulary.” Not only do girls reflect on what others did for them throughout the day, but they consider what they did for someone else. Girls leave camp with an understanding that kindness does not have to be a grand, over-the-top event every time it occurs. There are lots of little things we can do for one another every hour of every day.

So give three cheers, a thumbs up, and a high five for camp because it’s a great place to be! And the perfect place to help raise more joyful kids.

Camp Teaches Resilience

Everyone experiences setbacks now and then, the occasional failed effort or unexpected misfortune. But what happens when you kids trip up or get knocked down? Do they stay down? Sink lower, and let that moment of failure defeat them? Or, do they bounce back, maybe learn from the experience, and gain a new dimension of confidence to face the next challenge? Put differently, how resilient are your kids?

Girls Resilience at Summer Camp

Dr. Michael Ungar, a Social Worker, Family Therapist, and University Research Professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada has thought about this question a lot. He is a co-director of the Resilience Research Centre, an organization coordinating experts from around the world in sociology, psychiatry, education and medicine in a broad project to understand the cross-cultural similarities and differences in how resilience is understood, and to explore ways we can help children and young people be more resilient.

Several times before we’ve discussed how summer camp helps kids grow and how becoming more resilient is one of the clear benefits of camp. Now Dr. Ungar weighs in with a nice Psychology Today article entitled, “Summer Camps Make Kids Resilient.”

I encourage you to go read the article, but I wanted to summarize his main points here as well. Perhaps most importantly, Ungar identifies summer camp as a place where kids learn to do things for themselves without the kind of careful orchestration parents ordinarily provide. It’s a place where, instead, they can try challenging activities and take manageable risks, all while being provided encouragement and positive role models to help them learn to cope with disappointments.

Speaking from his research on resilience, Ungar pinpoints 7 important components of the summer camp experience children need to develop these coping strategies. These are seven things camp provides that help kids when they experience setbacks later in their lives.

  1. New friendly relationships
  2. Regular moments of pride and self-confidence
  3. Experiences of competency and self-efficacy
  4. Relief from unfair social treatment
  5. Healthy physical activity and nutrition habits
  6. Belonging to a meaningful community
  7. Opportunities to reflect on cultural values

There’s so much more to each of these, and I suspect interesting mechanisms that make them effective. What’s important to realize is that all of them are core ingredients of the camp experience here at Rockbrook. The program activities, staff training, and overall camp philosophy here work together to insure that our campers enjoy these beneficial experiences. Of course, we’re having a really great time together as well, just as we strengthen our powers of resilience.

Researching the Benefits of Camp

Sending kids to camp allows children to grow and learn good citizenship, social integration, personal development and social development, exploring his or her capabilities and being in a safe environment where they can grow, gain independence and take risks.”—Troy Glover, the director of the University of Waterloo’s Healthy Communities Research Network

Summer Camp Lodge Porch Girls


It’s pretty easy for those who have attended camp to speak enthusiastically about how much it’s meant to them. Campers themselves are full of glowing stories about their summer camp experiences, but even adult camp alumni, many years later, can trace aspects of their personal success back to their time at camp.

For others, though, how camp provides these important benefits, and what types of benefits to expect from a summer camp experience, are not apparent. It was this fact —the general public’s unawareness of what makes camp great for children— that prompted a team of Canadian researchers to study and evaluate the impact of a camp experience.

Working with camp directors, staff, campers and camp alumni, the researchers conducted surveys and compiled observations focused on what a summer camp provides and how that affects children over their time at camp.

Camp helps children learn to take appropriate risks
Confident Risk Taking

The research aimed to demonstrate and understand the initial, intermediate, and long-term value of the summer camp experience, and found several significant outcomes. Most importantly, the study was able to pinpoint what “children first learn at camp, what they do with that learned material and what impact it then has on who they become.” The researchers were able to identify 5 main areas of this growth.

  1. Social Capital
  2. Risk Taking
  3. Environmental Attitudes
  4. Physical Activity
  5. Cultural Capital

There is, of course, quite a bit to explain about each of these areas, so I encourage you to read more about the study’s findings on their site.

This is exciting stuff! We’ve often discussed the benefits of camp for children, so it’s nice to see this kind of organized, methodical verification. Now spread the word! Let’s help others understand how uniquely “camp is a place for kids to grow.”

How Camp Helps Build Self-Esteem

self esteem girl camper

How does summer camp help children gain self-esteem?

Parents know it’s important for children to feel good about themselves, to be proud of their abilities and accomplishments, and to be accepted socially. That’s why we take such great care to provide experiences where children will succeed. Music lessons, organized team sports, even the “right” haircut and clothing— we hope all of these will help our kids be more competent, confident, and ultimately happier in life.

Many times this strategy works. Our child may find a talent, rise above the ability of others, gain some praise and recognition for it, and thereby feel good about being “good.” Being recognized for an outstanding ability, winning the competition for social attention, can be a real boost to a young person’s self-esteem. But what if a child doesn’t quite measure up, and she’s not the prettiest, the smartest, the most athletic, or the most talented in some way? What about her self-esteem? Is winning some unspoken competition the only way to feel good about herself?

Fortunately, there’s more to self-esteem than just individual success. It’s also about feeling competent in the face of life’s general problems, having a sense of “personal capacity.” It’s also about being able to simply have fun with others, to be able to make decisions for oneself, and feeling included in group endeavors. Interestingly, self-esteem is also about cooperation and community. In an environment defined by encouragement, mutual respect and collaboration, it’s not important if a child doesn’t stand out as an individual because of some extraordinary talent. Instead, a sense of self-worth and dignity can arise from doing something great together, from being a part of a group accomplishment.

And that’s why camp is so ideal for helping children grow their self-esteem; it is exactly this kind of environment. On the one hand, summer camp is a place for kids to make their own decisions, try new things, and discover individual achievement.  There are small moments of personal success everyday.  And on the other, there is incredible community spirit at camp, with groups of kids working together to solve problems, taking care of each other, and collaborating on creative projects. Regardless of their age or ability, their experience or talent, children at camp are reminded everyday that they can do it, and that they can believe in themselves. Everyone’s in it together at camp, and while we each may not hit the target with every arrow we shoot, there’s laughter and joy among friends no matter what. It’s through building this kind of community that all the girls at camp strengthen their self-esteem. Around here, you can count on it!

Teens Seeking Sensations

Girls Camp for Teens Thrive on Sensation

If you spend time around teenagers, it’s easy to see them exhibit “sensation seeking” behaviors. They thrive on new experiences and stimuli of all kinds, and tend to take surprising risks. In fact it’s widely accepted within psychology that this personality trait is a dominant force in the lives of teen girls and boys. This sensation seeking is thought to be an evolutionary skill, something that helps teens learn new things, become more independent from their parents and to increase their social competence. Overall, it’s a good thing.

On the other hand, chasing novelty like this, even if they’re unaware of it, can sometimes get teenagers into trouble. As a young teen girl or boy is bombarded by urges to experience new things and to be included in their peer group, they may lack the cognitive development to temper risky behaviors, or blindly hold the perceived benefits of that behavior supremely important over everything else. For example, a girl may experiment with drugs at the urging of her friends, effectively ignoring the personal, legal and health consequences of that decision, because she values the approval of her peer group more. Put differently, it’s thought that risky teenage behavior can be understood as “sensation seeking” run amok.

It’s a dilemma; we want our teenagers to experience new things and meet new people, and thereby to learn and grow from that novelty, but we also want them to choose less risky behaviors and seek out positive experiences and peer influences. How to land on the right side of that equation?

Summer camp is well suited to provide this kind of positive sensation seeking for teens. Everyday at sleepaway camp, girls can enjoy new experiences, whether they be climbing a rock, the excitement of shooting a gun, or just making friends with new and different people.

Camp is a pool of positive peer pressure. Chock full of excellent role models, it promises to help teens channel their urge for novelty and their desire to connect with friends. Camp is also a place where teens can take acceptable risks, challenging themselves in exciting new ways, even as parents can be assured their children are kept safe, encouraged and supported. It’s just an ideal environment for teens seeking sensations. It’s no wonder they love it so much!