Parking the Helicopter

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.

climbing girl dressed in blue

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.

girl camp friends

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.

The Magic of Camp

Today campers began a new rotation of activities, and experienced a regular Monday at camp. While this may seem pretty unexciting, a typical day at camp is actually when that camp magic happens. Although adventure trips and special Rockbrook surprises are important and provide unique experiences for campers, there is something special and valuable about having a regular day of camp.

Tennis Playing camp girls

In activities, girls are able to connect with other campers and counselors of their age group, or line, who may not be in their cabin. They get to practice and learn new skills at the same time as building relationships. Campers don’t need to go on the zip line or a hike to be pushed out of their comfort zone. Swimming, curosty, or climbing at camp can challenge girls and allow them to grow, while being alongside their peers and counselors.

Free swims are also valuable because twice a day campers can choose their own adventure. For example, they might go to the lake to swim mermaid laps, join in with Rockbrook runners club to run on the trails, or simply sit on the hill and make friendship bracelets. The options are only limited by campers’ imaginations! It is important for girls to have this sense of independence and ability to make their own decisions as they are growing up. These free times throughout the regular camp day allow girls to have the social and physical space to be themselves as well as the space to let their imaginations run wild.

Tunnel at summer camp

A regular day at camp also leads campers to some special places around Rockbrook’s property. One path leads past the tennis courts, the Carrier House, and lower pottery to a tunnel that goes underneath Greenville Highway, so girls can safely get to the barn. It’s a fun experience to walk down the wooded path, through the darkened tunnel, and pop out on the other side to a scene of green pastures, the horses, and the winding French Broad River. Up in the main part of camp, girls absolutely love to play in the two creeks at the foot of the hill. One creek is diverted from Rockbrook Falls and feeds into the lake, providing us with fresh mountain water to swim in. The other creek comes from Stick Biscuit falls, and winds its way underneath the Dining Hall, past Goodwill, behind Curosty, and down the mountain. There is almost no need to ever leave camp for trips, as we are fully immersed in the beauty of nature right here at Rockbrook!

Trips and special events are certainly beneficial to the overall camp experience, but it is important to remember how special a regular day at camp can be all on its own. The small moments, the in-betweens, the laughs and friends—these are what add up to create a camper’s Rockbrook experience. The magic of camp is already present in the people, places, and spaces at camp, so we hope the campers take every moment they have to experience that magic.

The Start of Something New

buckskin horse and girl wearing helmet and blue shirt

Now that Second Session has officially begun, campers have eagerly jumped on all the opportunities for fun and adventure at camp. Every day except Sundays, campers take activities that they can choose themselves. Mondays at camp are always full of new experiences because they are the first day of activity rotations. Today was especially delightful because it is the first day of the fist activity rotation, and it is the second day of the whole session.

Every Sunday and Wednesday night after dinner, campers choose their next round of four activities that they will take for three days. Some campers enjoy taking the same activities every time because they want to continue building their skills, they particularly enjoy being with those activity instructors, or they are just big fans of that activity. On the other hand, some campers choose new activities every rotation in order to try the most they can while at camp, since many of our activities are things that are often not available at home. Either way, campers practice decision-making and independence when they pick activities and challenge themselves to try new things.

teaching weaving by the creek

For instance, today in Curosty, our weaving activity, campers sat by the creek and learned how to make baskets that they will be able to take home and use. 

Meanwhile in Yoga, campers not only practiced different poses and breathing techniques, they also learned about yoga philosophy and history in order to ground their yoga experience and relate it to their lives.

No matter the activity, campers are able to take something away with them when they leave camp. Whether it is a freshly honed skill in knot tying, an experience on horseback they’ve never had before, or a new friend they made in needlecraft, each camper heads home with more than they arrived with. The combination of immersion in nature, working with activity specialists, and daily opportunities to build both skills and relationships make activities at Rockbrook a unique learning experience.

Immune to Imperfection

Rockbrook took over the Nantahala River again today as the final group of Middlers and Seniors went rafting. We offer the trip to everyone, but since it means missing their regularly scheduled activities, it can sometimes be a tough choice to make— rafting vs. working on that weaving project, hiking to play in the water below Rockbrook Falls, or learning to canter over cross rails in the horseback riding arena, for example. With so many things going on at camp, it’s impossible to do everything, but that’s OK because the girls revel in the choices and really enjoy following whatever whim they and their friends decide. For example, about 23 campers chose to combine their rafting adventure with an overnight camping experience as well. We drove over to the river the night before, having plenty of time for dinner, singing songs, eating s’mores, resting and meeting the RBC rafting guides the next morning.

teen girls rafting

It was a little misty when the first group hit the water around 10am, not cold, but not sunny either. Right from the start, the girls’ overall excited mood, however, prevailed, helping even more as the sun began to pop out occasionally. After our picnic lunch with both the morning and afternoon groups (about 80 people total!), the weather turned rainy just as the second trip began. Here too, you might think these girls would shrink under such imperfect conditions, their enthusiasm literally dampened, their spirits wilting in what at times became a solid rainstorm.  But you’d be wrong!  Since this rain didn’t include thunder and lightning, the guides kept the trip going and the girls happily kept having a whoop-it-up great time.  Paddling hard provided some warmth, just as their camaraderie provided mutual encouragement and cheerfulness, despite the added challenge. It was an impressive display of grit and determination.  Today the river provided just as many whitewater thrills, plus a few extra chills along the way.

dance camp girls

One of the raft guides put it this way. He said, “There’s something special going on here. These girls seem so happy and together on things. It’s obvious that they love camp.” What’s cool is that he noticed this when the girls were uncomfortable, some even shivering. I too heard a senior girl yell “I love camp!” right when her boat was blasting through the final rapid. It’s incredible that it doesn’t take smooth sailing to have a great time at camp. It doesn’t take luxury —our cabins, after all, are not air conditioned, have only a couple of light bulbs, no electrical outlets, and probably a spider or two. It doesn’t take gorgeous weather, a diet of favorite foods, or constant assistance when things are difficult. There’s a magic to life at camp that makes us immune to imperfection, and a power easily stronger than these sorts of discomfort that could otherwise taint an experience. And your kids embody that power because they love camp.

Why girls love camp, is another topic dear to our hearts and a discussion for another day. But for now it’s simply worth noting that your Rockbrook girls are gaining a valuable skill while here— the ability to see past what’s less than ideal, to enjoy an activity even if it includes a degree of discomfort or disappointment, to navigate around what might be frustrating or seen as an obstacle to fun.

girls aiming rifle

It’s also neat, perhaps even astonishing, that your girls are maintaining these positive attitudes, enjoying life at camp despite the occasional challenges and discomforts, without your help… on their own. They have not needed (nor wanted, I’d bet) anyone to remove every imperfection, smooth every bump in the road, or plow the path for them. Away from parents who might be quick to plow, camp provides this valuable experience of girls having a chance to feel proudly independent, capable and confident. It’s such a great life skill!

My hope is that our Rockbrook girls can carry this skill back home to their lives at school, that they can recreate some of the conditions of camp life that provide that special cheerful power we see here.  How they might do that is yet another topic, but for now, we can’t help but be amazed.

Consequences for Confidence

The other day a father said to me that the break from technology use, particularly the break from “being on a smartphone,” that camp provides is “one of the best things about it.” While I was sympathetic, as I think most parents are these days —all of us wishing our kids weren’t so tightly tethered to their phones— I was surprised this dad had singled out this camp policy as a benefit. It’s odd that there’s something many of our kids use everyday during the school year, that when taken away, it’s considered a good thing.

archery bullseye target

Why Rockbrook prohibits smartphones at camp is obvious in some ways. We want girls to focus on camp, not be concerned about what’s going on otherwise. For example, being able to communicate with friends and family “back home” could lead to more severe bouts of homesickness.  For many, the allure of their smartphone would be a distraction from, if not a serious impediment to, all that camp has to offer. Camp life means bodily inter-action with real friends, stimulating exploration of the natural world, the challenges and rewards of living in a close-knit community. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this is the opposite of the virtual, filtered and idealized world portrayed on our tiny screens.

But I think this dad was implying something more serious. Perhaps he was expressing the hunch many of us share, namely that our smartphone use is causing personal damage, something like smoking was for a previous generation. There are consequences lurking among the conveniences.

climbing tower kid

We’ve already seen this argument being made, that smartphone use, particularly among adolescents, is a public health concern. For example, Professor Jean M. Twenge has attributed the high rate of teenage depression and suicide, anxiety, unhappiness and loneliness to current smartphone trends— particularly as social media has become a substitute for face-to-face socializing. I wrote about this last summer.

OK, but there’s something else, another reason why putting down their smartphones, taking a break from the flicker of social media and Internet entertainment, is a good thing. And it’s because there’s another more subtle, and therefore more insidious, consequence to their use. It’s this:

a significant weakening of self confidence.

I believe too much time residing in the virtual world of the Internet, ingesting the narrowness of social media posts, relying exclusively on passive electronic entertainment, and limiting one’s knowledge of the world to what’s been edited, photoshopped, or curated according to unspoken biases, are habits that sow feelings of doubt, inadequacy, and often anxiety. There’s an inherent distortion to what is learned from these sources that make one’s personal abilities, possessions, even appearance seemed flawed or deficient. I think there’s real power here, and over time, who we are can be shaken and our confidence undermined.

girl at needle point class

For young people who are at a critical time in their lives when they are developing a sense of self, I think the negative effects can be even more severe. Using your phone can too easily be a crutch, an escape from challenges, a constant lifeline effectively crippling one’s sense of independence.  You can see why using this technology can become a habit; it’s what comforts you when things get tough, and while that may satisfy, it can likewise create further anxiety that deep down you aren’t capable. This seems to me to be a dreadful consequence.

So yes, it is an important benefit to camp life. Ditching technology not only allows our campers to focus on camp, to boost their independence living away from home, and to engage the real world and real friends, it also gives them a break from the confidence killing forces that come with smartphone use. Camp life boosts girls’ confidence, and excluding technology is an important part of that process.

All of this makes me wonder what we should be doing the rest of the year when the communication benefits of smartphones are too important to give up. There seems to be no choice but to accept the negative consequences that come with the technology. At the very least, if we recognize those consequences, we might protect our children when they are most vulnerable by limiting their access to smartphones, and providing them more camp-like experiences.  We know why camp is great. Let’s do more of that.

after swimming at camp

Accepting Adventure

We jumped right into some outdoor adventure today, only the second full day of the session, by taking more than 90 people whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River. Since the early 1980s, after the US Forest Service issued us a permit to run the river (we’re the only girls camp to have one!), Rockbrook girls have been taking this exciting outdoor trip. It’s a fun two-hour run through the Nantahala Gorge over several well-known, named rapids as well as calm sections ideal for splashing and goofing around with the others in your boat. Over the years, rafting has become the most popular out-of-camp adventure trip we do with I’d say almost 90% of the Middlers and Seniors choosing to go.

Camp crew whitewater rafting

There were actually two Rockbrook trips down the river, splitting the number of girls to make more reasonable sized groups.  The first chose to add an overnight camping experience the night before at our outpost camp located near the river’s put in. The girls came prepared with sleeping bags, a change of clothes, flashlight, brushes for hair and teeth, sprays to block bugs and the sun.  A few stuffed animals came along as well. We enjoyed a quick dinner of mac-n-cheese and still had time for a campfire and s’mores before heading off to sleep in the platform cabins. The second trip elected to ride over from camp and raft in the afternoon, finish up and be back for dinner.

Happy camp adventure rafting

The weather was ideal for both trips— hot and sunny. This of course made the “extra-cool” (close to 50 degrees) water feel both exhilarating and good. There were “high-fives” with paddles, chances to “ride the bull,” surprising bumps followed by sudden swims, and plenty of screams and laughter all day long. Check out the photo gallery to see shots from both trips. They were great!

There’s more to these rafting trips than simply the thrill, the ride, and the fun. For example, rafting is a real adventure, something that’s a little scary (because something might go wrong— like falling out of the boat), perhaps a little uncomfortable (that cold water!) and certainly a physical challenge. It promises to be fun, but really does take courage for girls to sign up and agree to go. And when they do go, endure the discomfort, power through that twinge of nervousness, and use their muscles in new ways, there’s inevitably success that feels really good. There’s accomplishment built into rafting and thereby it is a great self-confidence boosting experience. Through their own independent choice, their own agency, the girls learn they can do something (often with expert advice and special equipment) even when it looks difficult, uncomfortable or scary. Rafting can be a step toward feeling more confident and capable in other ways. Instead of shrinking from challenges, these camp girls will be more open to moving forward, accepting adventures, and proving once again that they can do it.

Camp is wonderful in this way, and this is just one example of how being independent, making choices, accepting challenges, and finding real success is our daily bread at Rockbrook… all wrapped in a thick layer of fun.  Such good stuff!

Nantahala rafting camper girls

Toes in the Water of Independence

summer ice cream cones

One of the many amazing benefits of attending Rockbrook is the opportunities offered for girls to make their own decisions. Every day, our campers get to spread their wings of independence in choosing exactly what to do, both in their activities and their free time. For two hours each day, one hour before lunch and one hour before dinner, campers must decide how to spend their Free Swim. During this time we open the lake, but ultimately it is up to the campers to decide what to do. Some girls flock to the lake day after day, some choose to stay active by running or walking Charlotte’s Loop, a 1.5-mile loop through camp, and some choose to simply spend the time with friends or counselors, reading or playing in the creek. No matter how campers choose to spend their free time, the joy we see on their face when engrossed in play they are passionate about is unrivaled.

Several of the more organized opportunities that Rockbrook offers during each Free Swim allow campers to work toward a certain goal and enjoy the rewards of their efforts. Many campers choose to participate in these clubs since the reward is so sweet — an extra trip to our favorite ice cream stand, Dolly’s! The Mermaid Club rewards campers who swim a certain number of laps across our lake, determined by their age and the amount of time they are at camp. Campers who participate in the Marathon Club clock miles running or walking Charlotte’s Loop until they meet their age group’s goals.

child with ice cream cone

Today, we loaded up all 49 mermaids and marathoners and drove across town to Dolly’s! It’s pretty amazing that out of all the things that campers can choose to do during their Free Swim, these girls chose to work on this goal. Rockbrook girls are inspiringly ambitious! Although everyone was full from an excellent lunch (tacos!), I could see the pride on each girl’s face as she chose her favorite flavor to enjoy. Everyone was in a great mood — smiles and laughter were contagious, and we proudly sang Rockbrook songs at the top of our voices while eating. As we drove back to camp to return to normal activities, I watched girls of all ages laughing and talking together. These moments happen all the time at camp — immediate bonds over a shared experience, no matter how big or small.

Letting Go

“Letting go” is a phrase that seems particularly apt when you consider life at camp, even more so at an overnight camp like Rockbrook. In so many ways, the campers let go of the familiar while they’re here. Think about it. They find themselves sleeping in rustic, 90-year-old wooden cabins with eight or so other people. When they look up in their bed, they more than likely can spot a spider or two. Instead of the whir of an air-conditioning system as they fall asleep, the sounds of crickets and other nocturnal forest creatures linger in the background. Even what they eat— homemade hummus, grilled barbecue tempeh, corn tamales, and strawberry white chocolate muffins, for example —is foreign to many of the girls. All of their familiar screens— TVs, computers, smart phones, and tablets —gone! And of course, most of the activities at camp offer new experiences, from shooting a real gun, climbing a real rock, and using a vintage floor loom, to diving into the freezing cold water of our lake. With so many new things, it’s impossible to cling to what you already know.

Girls Aiming Archery bow and arrow

There’s more. Camp girls, simply by virtue of being away from home, also let go of their parents in certain ways. Free from the prescriptions, intervention, and inspections of mom and dad, this means making all kinds of decisions on their own. It might mean deciding to adjust certain habits of personal hygiene (brushing hair or taking a shower less often for example) because more important (i.e., more fun) things are happening like a ga-ga ball game before lunch or great conversation before bed. Being at Rockbrook, girls don’t depend on their parents to fill their free time, to dictate what always comes next, or to solve every problem. Of course, there are excellent counselors here, wonderful people to guide this freedom, but camp gives girls the opportunity to experiment with things and gain more confidence after seeing how their decisions turn out… good and bad.

Camp Yoga Kids

Asking the campers themselves about how they feel at camp, I’ve heard the older girls say camp is their “happy place” where they can let go of their worries.  Different from the competitive atmosphere of school and the insecurities it can breed, the Rockbrook community is defined by compassion, kindness and generosity. Camp is a place of encouragement where, instead of being left out, ignored, or put down in some way, girls feel supported, respected, and affirmed. In this kind of community, girls don’t worry about how they look, whether or not they’re “good” at a particular activity, or if they’re “cool” enough to be included. All those worries fade away at camp when the point of things has nothing to do with evaluation and everything to do with simply having fun.

Letting go of worries like this also empowers a girl to let go of her polished persona, that “face” she believes others want her to be. Joining a camp community like Rockbrook, knowing she’s truly a part of it, trusting the people around her and caring for them in the way they care about her, inspires her true personality, spirit and character to shine through. It can be a remarkable transformation for a person. By being so supportive, camp opens up a space for a girls’ authentic self to emerge and grow.

So after letting go of all these things at Rockbrook, what’s left? Simple stuff: Authenticity, Nature, Friendship, Joy, Creativity, and Community… a life that feels really good. That is camp.

Zip Line Camp Kids