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

Our Common Spirit

Counselor and two campers

Earlier this week I had an interesting conversation with our Education Intern Hayley about motivation, specifically about how we as educators can motivate children. This internship is focused on the concept of “Social Emotional Learning,” an approach to education that holds central both the emotional lives of children and the social landscape they navigate as they grow. SEL simply recognizes that educational efforts should address the “whole child,” not just her intellectual development. In fact, many educators are recognizing that ignoring kids’ emotional triggers and social conflicts is a serious impediment to their academic learning, and perhaps more importantly, to their ability to make responsible decisions. In classrooms, schools, and even some school districts there’s a growing awareness of the importance of SEL if we are to help our kids gain the wide range of skills they’ll need to be more successful and content later in life.

One important point to make in all of this— and it’s the reason we offer an internship in social emotional learning here at Rockbrook —is that SEL has a lot to do with community, with the nature and quality of our relationships with those around us. And you see, as we’ve said many times, camp is also about community. It’s about being aware of each other, about practicing a common spirit of kindness, caring and generosity so that we treat each other with respect. We talk about being a “Rockbrook girl” as someone who contributes enthusiastically to this positive spirit, who is encouraging and helpful as a result. What’s neat is that there are so many people here modeling these values, the character is contagious. It becomes a powerful force that not only inspires girls to be their best selves (particularly in how they treat each other), it also deepens their relationships with everyone in the community and draws us all closer together.

Grinning sliding rock camp girls

For this reason, we believe Rockbrook is an ideal environment for social emotional learning. In addition to what we do together and all our shared experience, Rockbrook is a tight-knit community defined by how we relate to each other: again, with an explicit ethic of kindness, caring and generosity. When girls join this sort of intentional community, when the culture of camp inspires everyone to be more kind, caring and generous toward each other, they naturally grow more self-aware and develop greater social awareness along the way. This community builds relationship skills like cooperation and compassion, and of course all these forces are what drives the incredible camp friendships your daughter is enjoying.

So the answer to Haley’s question about motivation springs from this focus on community. Around here, girls are less driven by extrinsic rewards and goals, and more motivated by how an action will affect their relationship with someone. We discussed how girls make decisions within this web of relationships, and are generally careful to consider the emotions and needs of others. Thanks to the powerful community spirit at camp, behaviors are motivated by being a “Rockbrook girl,” being the caring, kind, generous, and sympathetic person we all admire. It’s what we mean around here by “RBA:” “Rockbrook Appropriate.” There’s a culture defining ethic at camp we all understand, and that serves to both motivate us and guide our decision making.

I may sound like a broken record when it comes to talking about the benefits of camp, so please forgive me. I’m just constantly made aware of how great this experience is for girls. Even though it’s wrapped in the guise of silly fun, thrilling adventure, and liberating creativity, camp really makes a difference in these girls’ lives. And it’s my daily joy to be a part of it.

A group of adventurous girls signed up for a special stand-up paddle boarding trip we offered today. It was a short drive from camp south to the Dupont State Forest where they met Charmaine Saulsbury of Dancing Trees Yoga, who would be the girls’ instructor for the morning. Charmaine teaches “SUP” and other yoga classes here in Brevard, and is one of the few yoga instructors in the country certified by the American Canoe Association.

With absolutely perfect weather, and with enough boards for everyone, the group made their way to Lake Julia, a gorgeous forest lake with a mostly undeveloped shoreline. This lake is also usually deserted, as it was this morning, providing a wonderful, quiet, calm setting for the paddle boarding. After giving them a few simple instructions about standing and balancing on the boards, Charmaine led the girls out in the water where they practiced several yoga positions. Attentive balance is already important for yoga, even more so when perched on a narrow floating board! The whole morning was a nice blend of relaxation and physical activity in a beautiful setting, something completely new and engaging for the girls.

Camp girls with eye and ear protection

Cultivating Who We Are

Girl camp drawing

Do you know how to draw? What about play tennis? Paddle a kayak? Sing? Tell a joke? Act in a skit? Cook a meal? Do you have the personality, the talent, the physical or intellectual abilities to handle the challenges of these activities? Speaking about yourself, you probably have quick answers to questions like these. You might think, “I’m terrible at drawing, but I know how to play tennis,” for example. Over years of experience, now as an adult you probably think you have a good sense of your inherent traits, your likes and dislikes, your abilities, where you feel “smart” and where you don’t. You’re an old dog who’s learned your tricks… Thank you very much.

But what about your kids? Have they figured all of this out? Gosh, I hope not! We don’t want our children to decide who they are too soon, or conclude, based on their limited experience, that they are not creative, athletic, funny or smart in some way. That would be antithetical to every educational principle we hold. Believing that children are born with an immutable set of traits, a static personality, or inherently finite abilities, is preposterous. After all, we want just the opposite for our kids; we want them to learn, develop and grow.  For this reason, as parents, we do our best to provide all sorts of experiences that might inspire them, and guide them as they grow physically, emotionally and intellectually. We hope that through these experiences our children will gain skills, become more capable, and be happy and successful when they grow up.

Girl kayaking in whitewater

Of course, sending them to camp is a great example of this. The experiences they have here, away from the habits of home and school, are ripe for self-development. Everyday at camp there are physical challenges to meet —paddling boats, pulling back bowstrings, and swimming in the “freezing” cold lake, for example. There are opportunities to grow emotionally, like handling frustration or a twinge of homesickness that might creep in during rest hour. There are daily moments to be creative, to play with options, to dabble and engage new activities and experiences. One moment the girls might get a good closeup look at a spider in the shower, and the next, sample Rick’s tabouli (made with quinoa) along with their turkey sandwich. We want the girls at camp to embrace these challenges and to see them, even if they seem scary or “too hard” at first, as normal, even good. We hope the girls will realize it’s OK to struggle with these new experiences— perhaps to find painting a still life difficult, to completely miss the target in riflery, to feel nervous performing, or to decide that tabouli is weird.

This is an important attitude, and it’s one we emphasize here at Rockbrook. It’s what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” It’s “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

camp girls weaving outside

This is a joyful attitude that celebrates new experiences, embraces differences and challenges. It assumes neither the world nor ourselves are fixed, and that we can always learn and grow. When faced with struggle or criticism, a growth mindset holds onto a notion of improvement and future understanding. A growth mindset keeps “not yet” in mind.

So at camp, “I’m a little scared to go on the zipline” means “I haven’t yet had the courage for the zipline.” “I didn’t hit the target in archery” means “I haven’t yet hit the target.” “My drawing isn’t very good” means “I haven’t yet learned to draw better.” None of this means, as a “fixed mindset” assumes, “ziplines aren’t for me,” or “I’m no good at archery”, or “I have no artistic talent.”

With somewhat silly abandon, with “just for the fun of it” energizing everything, camp inspires this approach to life. The Rockbrook community is so encouraging, the friends around us so accepting, the girls here are often eager to try again when they feel there’s more to achieve, like mastering a more complex weaving pattern, clearing a higher jump at riding, or sampling a new kind of tabouli, for example. With this attitude, there’s always more out there and more within each of us.

Living in this community we all realize we are cultivating who we are, not discovering something that’s already set in stone.  We are learning that we can always learn more and be more. For our children, and I’d say for us parents too, that’s a really valuable approach to adopt. And through their time at Rockbrook, they’re getting a great head start.

Camp girls talking on porch

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.”

SUCCESS Act – H.R. 5963

Summer Camp Girls Success

Have you heard of the SUCCESS Act (H.R. 5963), a bill introduced last year by US. Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York? “SUCCESS” is an acronym for (promoting) Students Using the Camp Community for Enrichment, Strength, and Success. Essentially this bill would direct the Secretary of Education to fund pilot programs exploring how the summer camp experience promotes physical activity and healthy lifestyles among children and youth, reduces summer learning loss, and promotes academic achievement.

It’s long been known among summer camp professionals, and among camp parents, that children who attend camp receive unique and valuable benefits. Because of camp, kids are better prepared for school when they return, are more physically fit by virtue of the activities at camp, and are more socially adept and emotionally mature (confident, independent, resilient). Likewise, it’s clear camp kids struggle less with childhood obesity and summer learning loss, two issues that are rampant and negatively impacting today’s children in America.

This legislation recognizes these benefits of a camp experience and aims to study how they can be more broadly known, made more widely available to children throughout the country, and how they can be more tightly integrated with school curricula. We know camp is powerful, but let’s talk about how and let’s get more children involved so they too can benefit from the experience. This bill would be a good step toward that goal.

The American Camp Association is promoting the SUCCESS Act as well.

Unfortunately, this bill “died” in the Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities during the 111th Congress, and thus far in the new 112th congress, it has not been reintroduced. In today’s federal budget climate, it’s hard to imagine this new congress being too excited about bolstering our nation’s public education, in even the small step the SUCCESS Act was designed to achieve. That’s a shame, you have to admit.

How to Raise a Humane Child

Our friend Tom Rosenberg at Blue Star Camps recently turned us on to Zoe Weil, the author of several books on “Humane Education” and the president of the Institute for Humane Education. He quite rightly claimed that the experience of camp is a powerful and effective way to bolster this kind of education for children. But what makes education “humane?”

Camp Counselor teaches children to be human

Looking at the Institute’s Web site, you find “Humane Education” instills:

the desire and capacity to live with compassion, integrity, and wisdom, but also provides the knowledge and tools to put our values into action in meaningful, far-reaching ways.

Humane education aims to inspire children to be curious, creative and thoughtful in their approach to the world, and thereby fosters a kind of warmth and sensitivity whereby they can be better problem solvers, help others, and lead more meaningful lives. The Institute has developed a body of lesson plans, books, videos and articles to help educators incorporate these goals and principles.

Much of this revolves around the notion of community and that’s why camp is so well suited to encourage humane education. Coming to Rockbrook means joining a close-knit community where campers and counselors alike agree to cooperate and respect each other. We live together in cabins, share chores, resolve disagreements, and experience firsthand the importance of honest communication. It’s the power of community that heightens our awareness and inspires humane values while at camp.

Most children experience far too little humane education and as a result fail to respond to many of the issues and challenges of our day. Camp can be one way to help raise a humane child. It can be a real lesson in community, in compassion, and in respect. We already knew camp was a special experience; now we know another reason why.

Zoe Weil doesn’t mention camp, but you can get a great sense of what she’s doing from this TED talk.

Clyde Wins Outstanding Teacher Award!!

Clyde Carter Outstanding Experiential Education Teacher

We’re so pleased and proud to announce that Clyde Carter, our amazing Outdoor Adventure Director, has been named the Outstanding Experiential Education Teacher of the year by the Association for Experiential Education (AEE). This is an international award recognizing that Clyde has “demonstrated an active passion for experiential education principles and theories,” has “practiced innovative, experiential educational methodologies,” and has consistently shown “the highest ethical standards in working with students.” We knew Clyde had been nominated for this prestigious award, and recently that he had won. In late November, he accepted the award at the AEE International conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

In addition to working full time in the summer as Rockbrook’s Adventure Director, Clyde is an Associate Professor of Recreation/Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education at Brevard College. In 1989, with encouragement from Jerry Stone, Rockbrook’s Director at the time, Clyde came to Brevard to establish the College’s Outdoor Leadership major, one of it’s most popular offerings. He helped develop Brevard College’s Voice of the Rivers (VOR) program in 1997 and led expeditions in 1999 and 2008.  Throughout the year you can find Clyde teaching courses on Risk Management, Experiential Education, Wilderness Leadership, as well as Rock Climbing and Kayaking.

Congratulations Clyde!

A Teacher in Everything

For quite some time now, we’ve talked about summer camp providing children valuable lessons, unique opportunities to learn that can’t be recreated in traditional educational contexts. If you mention this claim to just about anyone associated with a summer camp, you’ll find full agreement. Summer camps are “Youth Development” organizations. Camps are heaps of fun, but are also something kids need to foster their growing up.

Kids Learning Camp

The American Camp Association has articulated these educational benefits of camp most extensively. Following broad research initiatives and years of collecting data from summer camps across the country, the ACA continually makes a strong case for what children gain from a camp experience. The list of these “outcomes” and “competencies” is now well-known: self-identity, self-worth, self-esteem, leadership, self-respect, compassion, contribution, commitment, caring, honesty, generosity, sharing, resilience, resourcefulness, ethical awareness, responsibility, and communication skills. We have discussed many of these benefits on this blog, here and here for example.

The next question to ask, however, is not “what gains do children make at camp,” but “how does camp provide these benefits?” There is a lot to this, of course, but let me point out one crucial reason summer camp has this unique educational power, and again, power above and beyond what traditional classroom educational settings offer.

Residential summer camps are uniquely educational because they are first and foremost communities dedicated, through first-hand experiences, to broad personal, social and physical well being. Camps are experiential learning communities. Led by admirable, caring adult role models, summer camp communities are tightly-knit groups of people who not only live (eat, play, make) together, but also grow personally by virtue of experiencing so much together. So many of the “outcomes” and “competencies” above, those personal qualities we all recognize as valuable— honesty, compassion, responsibility, generosity, etc., can be traced to what individuals gain from fully participating in a vibrant positive community. Summer camp communities are dedicated to, thrive upon, and thus foster, these kinds of personal traits.

Equally important is the full-time nature of the summer camp community experience. These aren’t lessons taught sitting at a desk in idealized abstract language. This is learning that’s lived. At camp, the “teachable moments” actually happen, involve real people, and carry real personal consequences. Just about every moment at camp is this kind of “teachable moment,” an opportunity to learn from the interaction with others and the natural world. At summer camp, there is a teacher in everything!

Being at summer camp is almost non-stop fun, but it also brings out the best in kids by asking them to pay attention to the people around them, and to build positive relationships of all kinds. It’s this kind of direct experiential community learning that gives camp the power to shape young people so profoundly.