Sunday morning got off to a peaceful start with the sun shining, campers smiling, and donuts at breakfast. After flag raising, our chapel theme today was Individuality, and was led by our Senior line. Speakers were asked “what does individuality mean to you?,” and several cabins led songs along the same theme. It was apt to have the teenage seniors lead this chapel since they have had the most experience learning to be themselves at camp.
One speaker explained that, to her, you need to be comfortable enough first before expressing yourself. This idea of comfort stuck with me, because it illustrates the feeling that is needed in order for you to share who you are. You can be comfortable in your own skin, but perhaps not comfortable in your surrounding environment. Both levels of comfort are essential in order to express your individuality, and at camp we strive to cultivate an accepting, loving environment in which girls can freely be themselves.
Outside of camp, we are all faced with pressures to act, dress, speak, or be a certain way. Expectations from school, peers, family, or society as a whole can weaken our desire to truly express ourselves. Whether this pressure comes from an internal or external source, it influences our actions and thoughts all the same. At Rockbrook, we try to minimize these pressures. Part of our mission “is to provide a haven for girls, a place of their own.” We aim to provide a place where girls can practice being their own person—a space to be your most genuine self.
This afternoon, campers had a chance to practice just this at our Miss RBC talent show! Each cabin gets an opportunity to get on the stage in the gym and share a special talent. Some cabins create songs, dances, or even a non-talent talent show skit! Every act is unique, silly, and creative, showcasing the diversity of imaginations amongst the campers. The variety of costumes (avocados and tutus), goofy answers to questions (“dirt” as a new Dolly’s ice cream flavor), and the laughs from the audience (good-natured and frequent) were proof that Rockbrook is a place for girls to be their most unabashed, genuine selves.
Hey there! My name is Emily Schmitt and this is my eighth summer at Rockbrook! Six of those years have been as a camper and I’m now in my second year on staff, this year being my first as a full counselor. Last year, I lived the CIT (counselor in training) life and was not sure what to expect this summer because I’d be filling a role completely new to me.
I’m on the Middler line, leading a group of girls either going into sixth or seventh grade— so a very transformative period in their lives to say the least. I started coming to camp at this age. I was about to start sixth grade and though I remember a lot about my camper years, details of my activities and the small minutia of camp life have faded from my memory. The main thing I remember clear as day are all the interactions I had with my counselors. They were my world when I was at camp. I was so obsessed that even after my second senior year I made one of my counselor’s names my computer password! Yeah, I was that obsessed.
I was here for second session this summer and now that we’re officially in third session, which happens to be the session I attended as a camper, I’m getting daily confirmations of the impact that I’m making on my campers— something that surprises me every time it happens. Recently, we had Jugband, where the whole camp gathers together and we sing old camp songs, make silly jokes, put on our best southern accent, and use anything around us as an instrument. I took on the persona of ‘May,’ short for “Mayonnaise,” and soon after my campers started to copy me, and in the back of my mind I knew it was because they were following my lead.
I’m teaching tennis and riflery this session, and though I am experienced down on the riflery range, tennis is something I am less proficient in, although I’ve played casually before. This was rather daunting for me, but I knew if I was enthusiastic, then the girls would be too. So, when we were signing up for activities, I explained to my girls that I was doing something that made me slightly uncomfortable, but I was going to do it with all I had and encouraged them to follow suit. Many of my campers signed up for new activities like climbing and gymnastics, and I even got one of my girls to sign up for tennis! Another example was during our Animal Planet themed dinner, when I started singing along to the songs that were playing over the speaker. Soon my whole table chimed in, and we were all singing along to “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King.
It’s in the small ways that I know I’m making a difference in these girls lives, like when one of them will randomly give me a hug or they’ll call out my name as I’m walking down the hill, just to wave. Back when I was a camper, I didn’t know or realize that the small interactions I had with my counselors meant as much to them as it did to me. These girls are the reason I love this job and the reason I hope to come back for many more years to help create the magic of Rockbrook and make this place as special for my campers as it was for me when I was growing up.
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!
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 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!
It’s not too difficult to see that the girls at Rockbrook this session are having a great time. If you visit camp, all the action is what you first notice: the horseback riding at the barn, the rock climbing at Castle Rock, the kayak roll sessions in the lake, the spinning pottery wheels, clicking looms, nimble scissors, and busy knitting needles. Likewise, your first glance at the photo gallery leaves the same impression. The girls at camp are engaged in so many ways, happily active, smiling and chatting with each other.
That’s all good stuff, but on another level, there’s something remarkable also going on. It’s the culture of Rockbrook. It’s the way the girls treat each other, the assumptions and values that subtly guide them. It’s how it feels to be at Rockbrook, living and playing together in this tight-knit community.
It’s tricky describing this culture because it’s certainly multifaceted and complicated, but one aspect I think worth noting is the sense of belonging girls enjoy at Rockbrook. Almost immediately after they arrive, girls are comfortably in groups around camp, paying attention to each other, including each other no matter what’s going on. Cabin groups provide the backbone of this feeling, but it’s present everywhere. Free from the competitive social and academic pressures of school, this all-girls environment is devoted foremost to the quality relationships we have with each other. Simply put, the culture of Rockbrook, and by extension what it means to be a “Rockbrook Girl,” begins with being “nice” to each other.
Thinking about the traditional “Rockbrook prayer” recited during the “Goodnight Circle,” programming staff member Savannah put it this way:
The culture here at Rockbrook is one of optimism, respect, love, and altruism. The amount of kindness is astounding; people are always seeking out ways to brighten someone else’s day in any manner. Each positive encounter, no matter how small, can always somehow be traced back to at least one aspect of the prayer. The message encourages girls to stand up for what is right, to be their best selves no matter who is watching (or not watching), and to aim towards making the camp community even better than it already is. It allows us to feel a sense of support unlike anything else.
Campers are more than willing to take opportunities to “do a little good” by writing a friend a sweet note, picking up a piece of litter on the ground, or walking a younger camper to her activity. Everyday at camp is filled with these small, sweet moments.
I’ve written about why girls love camp, and there are certainly many reasons. But perhaps most importantly, Rockbrook is a place where girls feel they belong, where who they really are (and not who they think they’re supposed to be) matters. At camp, there’s mutual caring. It’s a place where we all value and rely on each other without any reference to our age, our intellect, or our looks. Nobody has to say it, but for these girls, Rockbrook is “a place of their own” where they feel safe and happy. And that feeling becomes the foundation for all of our relationships at camp, the root of the friendships, and the spark for personal growth.
More than ever these days, young people need certain experiences to overcome the forces of abstraction and isolation they face. Just think, for example, how all that screen time impacts their ability to communicate face-to-face, to engage the inevitable imperfections of the real world (compared to the edited and filtered online version of things), and to be actively creative and confidently engaged. They need a place of belonging where they can practice being more connected to those around them, where they can play, encounter new challenging experiences, and grow.
Change, change, change. It feels every stage of life brings more and more change. When I was feeling a bit overwhelmed this year with all the change around me, one of my peers offered me some (unsolicited) advice:” Change is the only constant in the world.” Although I beg to differ, I do know a place that will always be more constant than change in my life.
Exactly a year ago, I drove away from Rockbrook Camp for Girls and towards Ann Arbor, MI to start medical school. My life became busy with deadlines, schedules, exams filled with what seemed like endless memorization. To make things even more hectic, my schedule was different every week and change became my new normal. Needless to say, it’s been a busy year with so much change, and it seemed that as the year went on, I realized I didn’t take time to reflect on who I was and whom I was becoming.
When I made the choice to come back to camp this session—even just for 10 days—I wanted to make sure it was for the right reasons. I have spent so much of my year worrying about my own needs and filling my own cup that I wanted to give back to a place that gave me so much. Many of my camp friends and campers would not be present during this session, so I was nervous to come back to a place where so many of the people that made it special were no longer there. With those friends and campers that were at camp this year, I knew it would be important to avoid showing up with expectations of what I wanted my short time at camp to be. In a happy turn of events, my short time here has turned into so much more than I ever expected. When I arrived, I was expecting camp to feel different, and yet, camp hasn’t failed to bring the incredibly familiar.
As soon as I caught a whiff of the camp smell, it felt like I was home. It felt like for the first time in over a year, I was able to hit pause and look around. The crunching sound as we walk through the rocks at camp, the beautiful wooded mountains in the background, the chilly lake waiting for campers to jump in— how I took these simple sights for granted! In addition to these consistent sounds and scenes of beauty, I’ve realized camp brings other timeless qualities to new and old Rockbrook girls that make this place a home base for so many of us.
The best part about this familiarity is that I’m not the only one who feels it. A few days ago, I met an alumna from many years ago who described the sense of comfort that walking through camp brings her; she knew Rockbrook as the place that helped her know who she was and who she always wanted to be. So relatable! Just a few hours later, I heard the same words from some teenage campers on the senior line. They talked about how much they wanted to bring their camp self to their lives year-round because they knew that here they are their best selves.
How exactly do we become our best selves? While I think there are many answers, I have a hypothesis: Camp reliably brings us routine and, in that routine, so much comfort. This comfort gives us the space to be our best selves. This is a place where we build each other up and we begin to judge our successes based on the success of our community and not our own personal success. By investing in each other, we inevitably become the best version of ourselves.
How did I get so lucky? In a world that seems to never stop bringing change, it is so nice to know that we have Rockbrook to remind us of who we are. I get to have a place to come back to that will—without fail—always remind me of who I am and can be. What a gift. Thank you Rockbrook for another great summer. Thank you for all the new and old friendships. Thank you for always being more constant than change and never failing to be exactly what I needed.
Every Sunday, we attend chapel, which is not religious, but is more a conversation about a theme that relates to camp. This week, the camp mom Marie Brown wrote an incredible piece about community that was read aloud at chapel. It really captured the spirit of community at our camps. Here it is:
We live in a country, that loves to celebrate the individual. Its fun to idealize the greatness of the one. The wonder of their singular feats to seduces us. It’s exciting to see a human be remarkable. Serena Williams and her consistent prowess as a tennis giant is already amazing, and seeing her coming back to make it to the Wimbledon finals after a 13 month maternity leave…that is worthy of our attention. Simone Biles developing a gymnastics skill that no one had ever competed before and few fellow Olympic gymnasts can even do. Of course she won a gold metal for that. Of course that’s incredible. In pop culture, we pay attention to the newest star, and the biggest star, we listen to the news on Justin Bieber or Beyoncé because they have talent, and fame and fortune enough to make them seriously stand above the crowd. There is something authentically compelling about these individuals and their successes that earns them the attention.
But the trouble is, it is easy to forget that not a single one of those winners, stars, or firsts got their on their own. And its easy to overlook that the amount of attention we love to give them is actually really hard for them to tolerate. Humans didn’t evolve to be the soaring eagle, rising and flying alone in the glaring sun of that much attention. It takes even more strength in some ways to live a healthy full life when you are watched that closely. But we ignore that. We love the symbolism of the bald eagle all alone. But in our poetic use of that image as our ideal, we really fail to tell the whole story. We are pack animals. And like Wendy shared with us last week, we need touch, and hugs. We can not survive without them. And when we paint the picture as if we can, we not only set ourselves up for intense disappointment, we also fail to acknowledge that for every individual phenomenal success we adore, there is a whole network of phenomenal successes making up the community that played a part in growing these stars into the stunning athletes, or artists, or astronauts they become. In our hunger to put the Neil Armstrong’s on a pedestal for being the first human to walk on the moon, we often fail to honor the teams of exceptionally brilliant, hardworking men…and women, who’s stunning demonstration of collaboration and idea sharing, knowledge and innovation, mentorship and support, care-giving and service it took to make that kind of impossible dream a reality.
And so in our own lives and dreams, it is easy to feel like we must strive to be the One in order to be valued. And while that is wonderful to aspire to, it is good to remember to recognize even those idealized heroes are members of a community. The most astonishing of whom take their place in the spot-light to look back on their communities and give back, to lift up others, to serve one another, to collaborate and create more than any one alone could ever devise, to listen and empathize, to laugh, and to hug. My heroes are those who have the will to give, and the grace to receive love from a community that they both support and are supported by.
That is what is so refreshing about being here at Rockbrook. Lets take a moment to stop and recognize that we all are so privileged to share a brief time together in this magical place on the planet where being a part of the community is so easy. Where being a good community member is encouraged and celebrated. Where it is an honor to be given a task to give back to the group, or tasked with sometimes even really hard work. For example, the CA’s, High-Up, CIT, and counselors. I remember being a young camper how much we wanted nothing more than to get to be all of these respected roles. When what do they do? They work exceptionally hard to take care of their community. These are our Rockbrook heroes.
So when I say it is so easy to be part of a community here it doesn’t mean it is always easy here. Do not let me take away the sense of real struggle we all can feel at times when we are trying to be our best here. But do remember that the habits of community spirit we practice here at Rockbrook are so much easier to build where we all live, eat, and play together, where we struggle up the mountainside together, and stifle our cries of fear together at the sight of a skunk, or tolerate cold showers after a long line, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh together. Here we are interconnected on everything. So being a part of a community is a natural state.
But that is not often true in our worlds back home where all the screens, and cars, and modern conveniences distract and diminish our natural skills to interconnect as living, breathing human beings. So take this time here to build the muscles of your community spirit–your Rockbrook spirit–so you can feel them and find them when you are a Rockbrook girl alone out the “real” world. So you can demonstrate them to the rest of the world, and can always remember that striving to be your best includes being a community hero who gives as much as she receives, and (perhaps can still feel the faint memory of a string of well-earned Bend-a-Back Spirit beads proudly displayed around her neck.)