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

Camp crew whitewater rafting

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.

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

A Camp of Goddesses

Leaves in nature goddess hair

Everyone knows that Rockbrook is a “fairyland of beauty” home to countless forest spirits who work tirelessly to enliven our experience of nature and make the camp magical. Just glance to the side anywhere around here, and you’re bound to see something beautiful.  Today Rockbrook was also a land of Greek goddesses.  With a little help from the Hi-Ups, each cabin was given a particular goddess to follow— dress according to her characteristics, use her symbols and icons, and playfully emulate her personality. For example, Selene, goddess of the moon, Gaia, goddess of the earth, and Hecate, goddess of magic all came alive at camp today. Keeping it kid friendly, we selected about a dozen goddesses in all. The costumes ranged from elaborate dresses with crowns and golden jewelry, to delightfully homemade adornments. Ate, the goddess of folly used lots of feathers, while Gaia had leaves, moss, and twigs woven into clothing and hair. Antheia, the goddess of flowers was definitely the most colorful. When all of our various goddesses arrived at their activities, the counselors played along asking them to demonstrate their qualities and special personality. It turns out that goddesses are right at home here at Rockbrook, easily enjoying all the action and inter-action that defines our days.  The girls happily bestowed more magic, folly, nature, flowers and success on all of us.

rocking chair camp crafts

So how is it possible that these girls were so terrifically excited to become goddesses for a day, to dress and behave in costume for everyone to see? Isn’t that just weird, or embarrassing? Honestly, it is, and outside of camp, most of these girls wouldn’t dare walk around with leaves in their hair, or a necklace of clover flowers, or wearing a full-length cloak. At the same time though, there was no awkwardness in this for the campers. They seemed instead to revel in the opportunity to express themselves so freely, to laugh with each other, and to explore untapped aspects of their personality and who they are deep down.

This makes sense when you realize that Rockbrook is a haven for girls, a special place where they feel safe, supported, and valued. It’s an intentional community built upon positive relationships— cooperation, communication, encouragement, generosity, respect and care. Led by a fantastic staff of adult role models, this camp community listens and accepts and has an amazing power to bring people closer, foster confidence and grit.

In this special environment where it’s easy to relax and be our true selves, it’s also natural to find friends, enjoy the tiniest adventure, and have the time and encouragement to try new things. It’s a recipe for what the girls simply call “fun.”

It’s also worth recognizing that all too often girls experience the opposite in their daily lives the rest of the year. Life at home and school comes with social ideals and standards, and often kids thereby feel pressure (even anxiety) to perform and even look a certain way.  In the face of competition and lacking genuine community support, our kids ordinary experience can inspire insecurities, self-doubt and unhappiness.

That’s why we were a camp of goddesses today. And thank goodness! These days more than ever, your girls need time and a special place like Rockbrook for them to feel good about being their true selves, to put aside social pressures, to play and to grow.

It’s a daily joy for us to see it all unfold so beautifully.

girl camp buddies

Dealing with Uncertainty

For quite some time now we’ve used the phrase “a place for girls to grow” as a tagline describing the Rockbrook experience. By this we mean, in addition to being a “really great time” for girls, camp is a remarkable context for learning things that can really help them later in life. Camp is fundamentally educational, “transformative,” even enlightening for the children here.

girl camp friends

Knowing that camp matters like this, it’s fun to consider how girls grow from the experience, how they benefit from their time at Rockbrook. Everyday we see the benefits of summer camp at work— growing independence, blossoming social skills, newly found interests, resilience in the face of setbacks, burgeoning care and kindness toward others, an appreciation of community, and so forth. There are so many amazing opportunities for our kids’ best qualities to be energized and bolstered by camp!

Today a conversation I had with a new counselor helped bring another trait to mind. We were remarking that the newness of camp, the fact that so many things here are different from life at home, requires girls to be brave, in particular, to conquer any fears they might have about the inherent uncertainty that comes with a new experience like camp. Now, thinking about it more, I believe it’s true; camp teaches girls how to deal with uncertainty.

pottery girls on the wheel

Particularly at first, uncertainty colors a great deal of the camp experience for girls as they encounter all sorts of novel and unfamiliar things. There’s our immersive outdoor setting, thrusting everyone into direct contact with the weather, with bugs, little creatures, the complex beauty that resides all around us. Also at camp, there’s the multi-layered social dynamics of cabin life, the idiosyncrasies of bunkmates and the necessary communication, cooperation and compromise such close quarters demand. There’s the perhaps strange foods being served. There’s the immediate independence that accompanies being away from home, far from the comfort, support and problem solving parents are quick to provide. Every new camp activity likewise includes a layer of uncertainty: the concepts and skills needed, the essential personal qualities that make participating possible. There’s the overall culture of Rockbrook too, its odd lingo, traditions, and expectations for behavior.

Each of these aspects of camp life are bound to bring up questions with uncertain answers. In nature, “Will that bug bite me?” In the cabin, “Who of these girls will be my best friend?” “Will I like the vegetable soup for lunch?” “What should I do with my free time?” “Will I be any good at playing gaga ball?” “What is the Dee Ducky?” “Is it really OK to sing that loud?” These and so many other potential questions make camp rife with uncertainty.

gaga ball game kids

But here’s the thing; these Rockbrook girls are completely handling it! Despite the very real uncertainty woven through life at camp, they are answering all of these questions by simply being here. These girls are exuberant, not afraid of what might happen, or too anxious to jump right in. With bravery and often real confidence, they manage to stay positive in the face of whatever is happening. There’s a unique power at camp helping girls put aside uncertainty, move forward with very little hesitation and embrace a range of outcomes. Girls at camp deal with uncertainly so effectively it’s rare they even acknowledge it!

The source of this power at Rockbrook, how we might explain camp’s unique ability to encourage girls to deal effectively with uncertainty, is another complex question. I suspect though that this power springs from the forces of community here and the values that define our culture— kindness, caring, and generosity. When you feel included, respected, supported and cared for by everyone around you, not knowing what will happen, not knowing the answer to those types of questions, becomes far less worrisome. In this community, its just easier to trust things will be OK.

Finally, I think this ability to deal positively with uncertainty at camp is what makes all the other areas of personal growth here possible. It simply makes embracing what’s new, trying new things, and connecting with new people more exciting than scary, more a fun opportunity to seize than an experience to avoid. Yes, camp is a place for girls to grow. It’s a special community where they find the power to deal with uncertainty and experience the benefits of that habit.

Girls camp zipline crew

Easy Going Excitement

Camp Painting Class

This first week of camp continues to settle into a comfortable pace just as it seems also to energize with enthusiasm. We could call the feeling “easy going excitement.” That may sound odd, but it’s one of the magical aspects of camp life. It starts with the people here at Rockbrook. There’s such a strong sense of community glued together by kindness, caring and cooperation, it’s typical for our daily encounters with everyone to be encouraging and positive. It’s part of the camp culture. We do what we can to help each other, with, for example, cabin chores or getting ready for an activity. We share— gosh almost everything! —costumes for skits, friendly greetings, songs, and virtually non-stop conversation, for example. There’s very little competition to distort this sense of bonding, no real ranking or struggle for power over someone else since noncompetitive, just-for-the-fun-of-it play rules the day.

With this kind of easy, pleasant personal interaction being the warp of your day, when you can count on this kind of true community encouragement, the weft of new and perhaps challenging experiences are perfectly supported. Instead of being scary or “too difficult to try,” new activities become intriguing opportunities. The comfort, care and support of the camp community makes new challenges exciting, even thrilling because any sort of “failure” that might follow is easily cast aside as a first attempt, as an opportunity to be silly or to laugh with friends. Knowing you’re accepted by those around you helps soften insecurity and defensiveness in the face of imperfection. In this way, the inevitable struggle, whether minor or major, we all encounter when grappling with some new activity, skill, or emotional situation becomes a concrete opportunity to learn and grow rather than something to duck.  This fabric of support and challenge, woven from the newness of camp and a mindset engendered by a positive, relationship-focused culture, makes true what we’ve said for decades; “Rockbrook is a place for girls to grow.”

zip line girl ready for launch

You might by familiar with the notion of a “Growth Mindset,” coined by Stanford professor Carol Dweck in her best-selling book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. It has become a well-known concept championed by all sorts of educational institutions. Contrasting with a “Fixed Mindset,” which combines a relatively deterministic worldview with a belief that innate personal abilities like intelligence, creativity and talent are static, a “Growth Mindset” begins with the opposite core beliefs, that individuals can grow and learn, that obstacles, criticism and challenges are valuable opportunities to develop, change and grow. Dweck found that people with a strong growth mindset are more inclined to work hard, apply novel strategies, accept input from others to continually learn, and as a result tend to achieve more while enjoying a greater sense of free will. You can see why educators love this notion and are always advocating a growth mindset in their students.

Rockbrook too! Living here at camp, buoyed by the caring supportive community of friends, it’s much easier for our girls to adopt a growth mindset and to experience the feeling of success that often follows. We’re not worried about innate talents here. Instead, there is a real spirit of experimentation, of knowing that what’s new and challenging can also be surprising and fun. When we’re always ready to celebrate simply being together, no matter what the outcome, the process of stretching ourselves becomes a constant joy.  Camp proves it everyday; a growth mindset is fun and rewarding.  So cool!

Before I sign off, I wanted to mention the awesome trip the Senior girls took to Sliding Rock this evening. We first headed into the Pisgah Forest for a dinner picnic and a few group games. The girls loved playing “I’m a Rockbrook Girl” and dashing about in the grass. At Sliding Rock, the water seemed colder than usual, but that didn’t discourage most of the girls from zipping down the rock multiple times. We had the whole place to ourselves, so it was easy for everyone to slide as many times as they liked. And all that cold water didn’t cool the girls’ enthusiasm for a stop at Dolly’s and a cup or cone of their favorite ice cream. For everyone, it was a classic camp night out with good food, lots of shrill laughter, some challenging outdoor adventure, and time with our very best friends.

NC Sliding Rock Kids
Girls Sliding Rock

Deeply Encouraging

Girl Horseback Riding
Girl Horse Riding

As our first week of camp hit its stride today, the campers seem to have simultaneously relaxed and energized. It makes sense when you think about it. After these first few days, any initial jitters have been calmed by the friendly atmosphere here, the smiling counselors who are always ready to encourage, the overall feeling of openness and acceptance that colors everything. At Rockbrook, there’s simply no pressure to measure up; we don’t compete for awards or recognition for being the best at something. Instead— and this can take a few days for girls to realize —the camp environment, Rockbrook’s culture, substitutes caring for criticism. It finds friendship before judgment, silliness and laughter before concern.

Within the structure of scheduled activities and periods of free time, the girls here have the freedom to try new activities (climbing, shooting, weaving!), to follow their whim meeting and playing with scores of wonderful inspiring people, and to explore what they enjoy, expand what they know, and develop who they are. It’s a strange but wonderful feeling of deep happiness and well being that springs simply from being in this kind of genuine supportive community.

Camp Zip Line Thrill

Out of this relaxation bubbles energy and excitement. It’s inevitable; with this freedom comes all sorts of activity, from thrilling outdoor adventure activities like screaming down the RBC zip line course, to the concentration and creativity that combine to tie friendship bracelet patterns. Letting go at camp inspires you to overcome challenges, to join a big group playing gaga ball, for example. It stiffens your nerve at the top of the 50-foot tall water slide. It elevates your voice to sing louder in the dining hall. Suddenly, wearing a crazy costume, or making up a dance with your cabin mates, or lying on the grass in the dark to stargaze, or getting really dirty in the creek— all seem perfectly normal. Relaxing into camp life, fully embracing the contagious kindness of our camp community, is deeply encouraging.

Ceramics Camp Girl

Of course, this all adds up to what the girls simply call “fun.” It’s fun to have friends like this, to be with them all day and night, to get to know each other this genuinely. It’s fun to feel supported by everyone around you, and thereby find the confidence to step far beyond what you thought was your limit. It’s fun to make things, to be this active all day, and laugh this much. It’s fun to exercise your personality so thoroughly, to empower your creativity, your compassion, your awareness of the world around you. It’s fun to have a break from “real life,” from (yes, believe it or not) the distractions of technology, and thereby discover so much to experience and appreciate. The girls will say it was fun to roast s’mores over the campfire, to ride horses, and to swim in the lake, but I think there’s something more fundamental and lasting at work.

Today, after just a few days, it was so entirely clear. For your girls, camp provides the freedom they crave, the challenges they need, and the full-bellied fun they love.

Camp Party Costumes

A Haven of Encouragement

Camp dancing girls in mirror


I was talking with a CIT (17-year-old “counselor in training”) recently, and she told me something interesting. She said, “Rockbrook taught me how to dance.” She had been a camper for many years before this summer training to join the Rockbrook staff, so I wasn’t too surprised, thinking that she had probably taken our dance activity and learned different moves there. But she went on explaining that before camp she was too shy to dance at all, “so embarrassed,” she remembered “hiding at middle school dances.” And then she said something really profound. “Rockbrook proved that I’m stronger than I think.”

What a wonderful affirmation of our mission at Rockbrook! Driving everything we do— from the program activities, special events, adventure trips, to the silly songs we sing at meals, for example, there is a camp culture that emphasizes kindness and generosity, attention and care for all those around us. For the counselors and campers alike, camp is a haven of encouragement, perfectly suited to foster self confidence, resilience and ultimately self esteem. Our goal for everyone here at Rockbrook is for them to realize that their authentic self, who they really are, is strong and beautiful. We hope camp provides real experiences proving that deep strength and beauty. You might think, you can’t dance, because maybe someone once gave you a funny look, but let’s try it and you’ll see you can! Figuring that out, and applying that confidence to other things, is such a fantastic lesson for young girls to learn, and camp makes it possible.

girls horseback rider in two-point position

A trip down to the horseback riding facilities of Rockbrook, down past the Carrier House, through the tunnel, and left at the French Broad river, never fails to impress. Members of the equestrian staff (all nine of them) will be hustling with barn chores, working with horses and campers preparing for the riding lessons that happen throughout the day. With 30 horses in the RBC herd this summer, and at last count, 88 girls taking horseback riding lessons this session, there’s a lot going on! Many of the girls are brand new to riding, but have by now learned how to tack up, mount, and feel comfortable on a horse. Most have quickly progressed, confidently walking and steering their mounts, over poles and in the two-point position. This photo shows instructor Gabby leading Coby, a 20-year-old, chestnut Thoroughbred gelding, as he helps a camper experience her first trot. It’s a great example of how the Rockbrook riding instructors are excellent and genuinely love introducing girls to riding, teaching them new skills, and helping advanced riders grow stronger and more confident. With this kind of quality instruction, these Rockbrook girls are really getting good!

camp water slide splashing

On the far side of the lake where the waterfall splashes in, there’s a dock and bridge leading to a set of stairs up a 30-foot tower. The top of that tower is the launching point for our water slide, affectionately known as “Big Samantha” (for no other reason than a few years back a Junior camper named it that, and it stuck). Made of soft vinyl that’s nice and slippery when we run a little water down it, the slide provides a 50-foot screaming, cool ride into the lake. One by one, the girls climb the tower, hurl themselves down the blue vinyl tarp, with spray splashing up, and finish by shooting out into the lake below. A short swim back to the exit ladders awaits, and then it’s back around for another slide!

indoor climbing wall camp girl

When it turned drizzly late this afternoon, the climbing instructors moved from the Alpine Climbing tower into the gym so they could set up the climbs on our indoor climbing wall. The wall takes up one corner of the gym stretching about 25 feet from the floor to the rafters. Being in the corner, one route up uses both walls, teaching the girls a climbing move called “stemming” often used in a dihedral (inside corner). The wall has colored tape marking six different routes which vary by the size, shape and placement of the holds. The most difficult portion in slightly overhanging, which requires significantly more finger strength just to stay on the wall! Today each girl who signed up for climbing picked 2 different routes to attempt. The instructors coached them along the way encouraging the girls to focus on technique rather than simply getting to the top— balancing, shifting weight, and making each move slowly and smoothly. It was great to see the girls understand this coaching and climb beautifully.

Girls Camp Campers

This is Me

Pair of Camp kids
Camp Counselor Camper Girl
Canoe Trip Kid

Last week I wrote about how the many examples of “imperfection” and “incompleteness” around us at camp— in the environment, in our abilities, and even in our personality and appearance —can be understood as beautiful. I suggested that the Rockbrook camp culture, as it celebrates our differences and eccentricities, parallels in some ways the Wabi-sabi aesthetic. Camp is a place that loves our quirks. It’s a safe place for being “who we really are,” a special place where everyone can proudly say “This is me!” and feel they belong, are supported and loved.

We understand this and work hard to make Rockbrook that kind of haven. Instead of suggesting all of us should fake it to align with some “perfection” of personality or appearance, camp is a community built upon authenticity— real selves having real relationships in the real world. Here at Rockbrook, we know the value of honest communication, spirited cooperation, sincere generosity, mutual respect and care. As I’ve mentioned before, these values make this an extraordinarily friendly place where relationships are knitted tighter than what’s ordinarily possible. I believe this is what makes camp so much more than just “fun.” It’s what makes camp meaningful, and ultimately transformative for the girls here.

Put differently, Rockbrook is a place where we all can feel comfortable being vulnerable. The camp community, as it both celebrates and supports our individualities, inspires the courage we might need to open up and expose who we really are. Life at camp isn’t so scary, but instead feels joyful and liberating.

All of this brings to mind Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2012), and its argument for cultivating a habit of vulnerability. The book observes that most people spend too much time “armoring” themselves against social criticism (and its associated feelings of shame) and as a result tend to be isolated from the people and deep experiences around them. Brown argues also that learning to accept our vulnerability can enhance our relationships with others, inspire us to be more creative, and make our everyday work more enjoyable. Retaining a spirit of vulnerability (which is different than weakness, by the way) is a powerful means of personal growth.

Sound familiar? We know camp is “a place for girls to grow,” as we’ve often claimed, and now we have Brown’s research and writing to explain how it works. It’s particularly interesting how she argues that vulnerability is “absolutely essential,” and that “we can’t know love and belonging and creativity and joy” without it. If so, and if Rockbrook is a safe place for young people to feel comfortable with their imperfection and incompleteness, to be proud of their true selves (… “This is me!” …), to be vulnerable, then camp life provides a great benefit far beyond the activities and special events recorded in the photo gallery each night. It may just be the perfect place to learn not only about your authentic self, but to explore what it means to live a “Wholehearted life” rich with true connections.

If you’d like to learn more about Brené Brown and her research, you can watch her TED talk. So far it’s been watched more than 45 million times!

Camp Group of Girls