Jeff Carter is the Director of Rockbrook Camp for Girls in Brevard, North Carolina. He attended Davidson College, earned a master's from Harvard University, and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in the History of Religions. He has taught at Vanderbilt University, Davidson College, and the University of South Carolina. He received a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Nigeria, is an All-American college athlete, and a published author. Beginning in 1988, he also worked for eight years as a hiking and rock climbing guide at Rockbrook.
Say hello to Casey Blair, Rockbrook’s new Program Director!
Everyone at Rockbrook is thrilled to announce that Casey Blair will begin serving as the full-time Program Director at camp. If you’ve attended camp recently, you already know Casey because over five years she has been a cabin counselor, Line Head, lifeguard, and most recently the Staff Coordinator. In addition to joining the team of directors, she now will be planning and organizing camp activities and summer events, managing the equipment and supplies for activities, and assisting special program staff members.
Casey was born and raised in Louisville Kentucky. She attended Centre College in Danville, KY, where she received a Bachelors of Art, majoring in studio art with an emphasis on ceramics. After that, she did an internship at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, working with school groups. From there, she went to University of Louisville, where she received a Master’s in the Art of Teaching (MAT) degree, becoming certified to teach elementary school grades K-5. She did her student teaching at Farmer Elementary and worked with 1st and 4th graders.
Casey is very excited to work at camp year round. She is eager to start planning for next summer, and “getting to talk about camp everyday.” She explained, “the campers keep me coming back— getting to know them, seeing what they have learned at camp and watching how much they have grown throughout the school year is always fun.”
When asked what she loves about camp, she said, “It’s the people. I really love the kind of community that we cultivate here. It is open, welcoming, and encouraging. And of course, I love the North Carolina mountains.”
There’s probably no need to discuss the concept of “helicopter parenting” with camp families. Odds are good they already know how some parents can be “overprotective” or have an “excessive interest” in what their children are doing. Like a helicopter constantly hovering above, parenting can become excessive if children aren’t allowed to branch out on their own to try things without mom or dad always quick to swoop in to the rescue. It can be difficult for parents to “let go” like this. Camp parents, though, are presumably different. After all, they are choosing to “let go,” to send their children away into an environment where they will make many decisions for themselves, confront regular challenges on their own, probably struggle, and perhaps even fail at times. The independence gained, along with the feelings of confidence on competence that come with it, are valuable assets as a child grows up. I’d recommend reading How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims to better understand this modern phenomenon. I can also recommend her 14-minute TED talk if you are really interested.
This is not to say camp parents are completely immune to helicoptering influences. We can’t really help but wonder how our girls are doing when they’re away at camp. Are they eating right? Are they remembering to take a shower? Brush their hair? Wear a clean shirt everyday? Are they having a good time? That’s the big one, right? Camps like Rockbrook understand this impulse and realize that all parents, to one degree or another, need some kind of reassurance that their kids are OK when they are away. That’s why, for example, we have our cabin counselors write letters to parents updating them. It’s also why we maintain a daily photo gallery, and post the occasional videos during each camp session.
At the same time, checking the photo gallery can become an obsession for some parents, multiple times a day, combing through every photo for even a glimpse of their child. From afar, this form of helicoptering interest seems harmless enough as long as the child at camp is unaware of it, and the parent can resist the instinct to reach out and help in some way. We don’t want the photo gallery to energize the parental snowplow, so to speak.
One form of this helicoptering goes too far, however, and when parents fall into this trap, their child’s experience at camp often suffers. So let me warn you so you can, I hope, resist the urge to over-parent your child’s camp experience like this. The trap is to establish some hand gesture, like a “thumbs up,” that you tell your child to flash when their photo is being taken as a coded signal home about how camp is going. Akin to a “pick up deal” where a parent promises to “come get you if you’re homesick,” this kind of messaging might seem innocuous, but can be a real burden for the camper. It effectively is removing her from the moment, distracting her from the people and activity around her with thoughts of evaluation rather than true participation. When sending your daughter to camp, it’s simply best not to tether her to home in this way, and instead to send her off by reassuring her that you are confident in her ability to handle life at camp independently.
I’m sure you know that camp is the ideal place to practice this independent self-efficacy, and this is one of its main benefits. Oddly if we’re not careful, our parental instincts can undermine the opportunity for our girls to grow while away at camp. Some camps are so concerned by this signal phenomenon, they have banned campers from making signalling gestures and instructed their photographers to delete photos that appear to have them. My hope is that Rockbrook parents will see the problems associated with all of this, park their helicopter for a few weeks, and trust that their children and our staff at camp can work through any problems that may arise, and together ultimately create a rich, rewarding, and enjoyable camp experience.
Meanwhile, we’ll continue to enjoy camp! Your girls and their friends will splash and scream with delight rafting the Nantahala River. They’ll climb the Alpine Tower and Castle Rock. They’ll swim and float in the Rockbrook lake, tie increasingly elaborate friendship bracelets, shoot more arrows, and sing even louder songs. They’ll be surprised by hidden talents and creativity. They’ll find kindness and caring permeating their days, a refreshing tech-free, authenticity to what they’re doing and with whom they’re doing it. Surrounded by the beauty of these wooded mountains, they’ll explore and be amazed by what they find in the natural world. They’ll laugh harder than they have ever laughed before. They’ll learn a lot about themselves, and be proud of who they are and what they can do. They’ll make more fond memories and best friends than you can count. They’ll be at camp.
Robbie Francis of Go Swan Filmworks (and Rockbrook dad!) has returned this summer to film and edit more of his occasional highlights videos. Each video provides a fascinating 2-minute glimpse into life at camp, the buzz of activity, and the sweet friendships blossoming all around us.
Here is Robbie’s first video for the third session. Take a couple of minutes to watch. We think you’ll really enjoy it.
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.
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.
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.
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!
It’s the latest from Robbie Francis of Go Swan Filmworks. Late last week, Robbie spent a day filming at camp, and with his careful editing, has again produced a fascinating glimpse into camp life. You’ve seen the photos in our daily online gallery; now see (and hear) camp in action.
At less than 2 minutes, I think you’ll really enjoy watching.
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.
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 girls 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!