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.
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!
The Nantahala River today provided another perfect day of whitewater rafting for the Middlers and Seniors who just arrived at camp. We offered the trip to everyone, and probably 90% of the girls old enough were excited to spend the day paddling and splashing their way down the river. Our fantastic rafting guides arrived at the put in early to prepare the rafting equipment so that when the vans and buses of campers arrived, it took very little time to suit up (PFD, helmet, and paddle) and hear the safety instructions for the trip. Those instructions answer the girls’ questions about where to sit in the boat, what to do when you fall out of the boat, how to be rescued with a throw rope, and the whitewater swim position. Today the weather was hot a sunny all day, making both the morning and afternoon groups enjoy even more the cold water of the river. For example, an entire raft of girls decided at one point to jump out into the river at the same time, leaving just the guide in the boat! There are almost 20 named rapids along this stretch of the Nantahala, but the highlight of the trip is the final rapid called the “Nantahala Falls,” a class III double drop. This is a heart-pounding, eye-popping, scream-inducing thrill that always elicits cheers when the boats make it through successfully. This photo (and others in the online gallery) gives you a sense of what it’s like.
Meanwhile back at camp, there was a lot going on! Every building, every activity area, and even spaces in between, had groups of girls busy creating, joyfully playing, and engaging all the opportunities to try new things. And on the other hand, the daily schedule at Rockbrook provides regular times where the girls can slow down a little, rest, relax and explore as their mood and interests might inspire. Mixed in are times for nourishment, like an apple or peach grabbed on the go from the dining hall porch, or everyone’s favorite, a freshly baked muffin (Today’s flavor was divine… cranberry, white chocolate chip!) served mid-morning. There’s time to soak in the natural beauty of the forested mountain, trees and flowers, and the running creeks that surround us at camp.
So much of this, so much of what life at camp requires, involves self-regulation by the girls. Many times throughout the day, the girls themselves make decisions about what they would like to do (float in a tube at the lake during free swim or read a book in one of the porch rocking chairs, for example). Likewise for their scheduled activities, would they like to spend time being creative tie-dying a t-shirt, getting a little sweaty playing dodgeball in the gym, or feeling their feet tingle high up on a rock face during a climb? Should they pay attention to the drizzle-threatening clouds, to the cricket in their cabin, to how many days it’s been since their last shower, and to their score in riflery? What will they do when they feel tired, or a little too hyper, or maybe frustrated for some reason. How will they behave when it’s time to help with cabin chores, when their friend didn’t receive any mail and they got 5 letters, or when their cabin mates are arguing about who plays what role in an evening program skit?
Back in 2015, researchers at the University of Chicago published a report summarizing decades of theory and research drawn from the fields of youth development and education, and describing what children need to achieve “success” in life. Rather than academic skills, they identified four “foundational components” which underlie a child’s ability to fulfill his or her goals, influence the world around them, and have a clear sense of who they are. These four components are:
Self-regulation: the awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings, and management of one’s attention, emotions and behaviors to achieve goals.
Knowledge and Skills: information or understanding about oneself, other people and the world, and the ability to carry out tasks.
Mindsets: beliefs and attitudes about oneself, the world and the interaction between the two, which serve as the lenses through which individuals process everyday experiences.
Values: enduring, often culturally defined beliefs about what is good or bad and what one thinks is important in life.
If you are interested in this sort of thing, in thinking about the core foundations of child and youth development, there is a great infographic summarizing the report that I would highly recommend. For now, I hope it is clear why I bring it up; I believe a sleepaway camp like Rockbrook is a fantastic context to gain the sort of developmental experiences that bolster all four of these components. In addition to self-regulation, camp provides opportunities for practice and reflection on beliefs and values as they relate to the world and others. It offers numerous opportunities to gain knowledge and skills, and ultimately to develop a strong sense of self defined by “healthy relationships and a meaningful place within a community.”
This is the youth development work that takes place at summer camp. It hints at the invaluable learning that takes place here amid the zany, colorful fun. We know that girls love camp— just ask; they’ll tell you! Camp is also delightfully nurturing in these very important ways. It’s fun that matters.
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.
This is not something we hear everyday, or something we ordinarily tell children. For most, we’re not looking for failure; we want success! But if thought about differently, this is advice we don’t hear enough. Getting that C on your math test or missing the bullseye in Archery may seem like the end of the world, but they don’t have to be.
I majored in Comedy Writing and Performing in college. Junior year, as part of my studies, I spent a semester at the Second City, a well known institute for comedy in Chicago famous for turning out comedic stars like Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert. An important lesson we were repeatedly taught during my time there was that not only is it OK to fail, but you have to fail. You have to go in front of an audience and try your stand-up or sketch act and it has to at least fail a few times so you can figure out what is funny and what is not. Failing, in comedy, is how you find your voice. As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, it was the most freeing thing for me to hear that failing now and then was a good thing.
The American composer and music theorist John Cage had this to say: “Nothing is a mistake. There is no win and no fail. There is only make.” For him, especially in creative endeavors, what seems like a failure in truth contains the seeds of learning as long as one is determined enough to “do the work.”
That same lesson can be applied to camp. Accepting failure is especially important when, as a camper, you are learning new things all the time, whether it be in an activity or in learning to live within a community for the first time (communication! compromise!). Learning something new means expecting and accepting mistakes. It means you are going to fail once or twice or a few times before successful habits and skills come to be.
I teach Curosty, Rockbrook’s weaving activity, where girls are learning something new just about every time they enter the cabin door. For lots of campers, it’s their first time ever seeing a loom, let alone using one. For some, the act of weaving by hand is a new feeling completely. For them to expect to be perfect at it, not make a single mistake, from the get-go is a ridiculous expectation because they usually never are. They’ll have to tie and re-tie knots on their bookmarks a few times. All the potholder loops will pop out when they’re casting off their work. And there will usually be gaps in their first reed basket. But that’s the best way to learn: by failing. Correcting failure, seeing past it, always leads to growth. With the right attitude, moments of failure can blossom into real learning.
Camp is a safe place for this kind of learning too, because, no matter what, you know you are supported and encouraged by your friends and the entire Rockbrook community. Camp experiences keep us all experimenting, all discovering, and all failing now and then along the way. We’re all in it together. If there’s any place to fail and fail safely, it’s here.
“Most of us can remember how long the summers used to seem and how long it was from birthday to birthday. When we were five, it seemed we’d never get to be ten, and at ten it seemed it would be forever until we were twenty. So often is it only by looking back at where we have been that we can see we are growing at all.” —Fred Rogers
Camp is often thought of as an antidote to many of the things we miss in today’s society: it provides a slower pace, a place to have real conversations, a time to disconnect from technology and reconnect with people. Even reconnecting with people is unique. With more socializing done online and inside and less within the community, many of us only have strong relationships with people who are within the same age, or are family. At camp, however, we are constantly interacting with people, and building community with, people who are older and younger than us. These inter-age conversations give us so many advantages: we are able to see new perspectives and hear new stories, see how far we’ve grown or where we are growing to, and form a dynamic community where all ages can appreciate what the others are offering.
These relationships are woven into the fabric of camp. At dance today, for example, there were three juniors and two counselors dancing. The counselors were patient and kind as the campers picked up the moves, each representing their own unique personalities in their renditions. Then, when they took a break, I thought about how naturally the girls and counselors were talking. It was simple: they were talking about movies (the song “Thriller” was playing, which some of the girls recognized from Thirteen Going On Thirty), speculating about the upcoming banquet (a topic that is endlessly interesting), and about the upcoming dance show. Even though the conversations were simple, they were quietly profound; each girl was known, and was able to share her unique experiences with the group. There aren’t many other times that twenty-year-olds and eight-year-olds sit in the same room and talk about their lives and experiences.
This happens all the time, all throughout camp. It’s there when girls are sitting on the dock talking to swimming instructors after swimming in the lake. It’s there when seniors led the Luau on Sunday, welcoming new campers and inspiring their excitement about the activities. Maybe it’s best represented by the Hi-Ups, who have the most structured interactions with younger campers. Yesterday, I helped lead the junior overnight at the Rockbrook outpost, a ten-minute walk from camp. A few Hi-Ups (the oldest campers) were helping me build a fire. One of the Hi-Ups said she had not been out there since she was a junior. When the juniors came to meet us out there, she knew all of their names, and knew what to do to make the overnight incredible. Knowing her was clearly meaningful for the juniors; they all asked her to sit beside her, and the way she knew them made each of them feel special and valued. By getting to interact with people older than them, juniors are able to see role models of who they want to be as they are growing. Yet it was also meaningful for the Hi-Up. At the overnight, she was able to see how much she had grown in her years at camp, to help provide an experience for others that had meant so much to her as a junior, and to enjoy the new perspectives and sense of joy that come from talking to an outgoing and spirited cabin of juniors.
Counselors have told me they love talking to campers partly because of the way campers ask them to see the world. One counselor laughed as she was telling me about her cabin of juniors who told her they were missing Bobby. She did not want to seem so out of the loop that she did not know who (or what) Bobby was, so she asked a lot of questions about what he looked like. What does Bobby wear? A top hat and a rainbow striped outfit. Could he have wandered off? No, he has no legs and arms, but he could have rolled. What color is Bobby? Rainbow (we just told you that!). It turned out Bobby was a cork the group had decorated. The counselor dove head-first into their mission, and the cabin even made an announcement at a meal about how he had gone missing. In the end, it turned out that he was found in a Crazy Creek, not far from where he was last seen. As I type this, rest assured that Bobby is safe in his box, a nice place, similar to where you may find a charm bracelet, with a nice foam mattress and a construction paper blanket. On the lid, you’ll see “Home Sweet Home,” written in Sharpie. As we grow up, and are inundated by pressures and distractions, it’s rare that we get the opportunity to work together to find a cork in a big camp, and we remember how much pure fun the simple parts of life can be.
In addition to these inter-age conversations that happen between campers and each other, and their young counselors, this extends to an even greater range of people. A great example is Kathy Singer, who was a Rockbrook Camper from 1956-1957, and then came back as a counselor in the 60s. Now, she teaches the Folklore Activity, and she is beloved at camp for her stories about camp and also her stories about life. Recently, campers and counselors started the “Kathy Singer Fan Club,” complete with stickers, a testament to how much she has meant to the camp community this summer.
By continuing to have these inter-age conversations, we are keeping the traditions of camp alive; we are all a part of this larger community, and we take care of each other, knowing that this spirit will continue into the future. We also learn more about other people, the change in times, and how much we have grown. In a world where we are sometimes disconnected from other ages and perspectives, how lucky we are to come to camp and grow together.
Don’t be surprised if your daughter is far more interested in baked goods when she gets home from camp. Rockbrook has that effect on people, campers and staff members alike, because we enjoy freshly baked muffins, cookies, cakes and other desserts on a daily basis. There’s a full time baker (actually 4 that work in shifts) keeping our giant mixer and convection oven working first thing in the morning and long into the afternoon. The most sought-after item from the bakery has to be the muffins we serve every morning between the first and second activity periods. Sarah invented the idea of “Muffin Break” years ago thinking the girls would enjoy a morning snack to help keep up the active pace of camp. She also thought it would be fun to vary the flavors and make each day a surprise. The bakers enjoy inventing crazy flavors as well as repeating classics. One day it’s pumpkin chocolate chip, and the next it’s raspberry swirl, strawberries and cream, confetti, or oreo (yes, with half an oreo cookie poking out the top!). Word about the flavor spreads fast around camp when the muffins are ready each morning, and you can count on everyone swinging by the dining hall porch to grab one.
Let’s take all the Middlers (5th and 6th graders) and their counselors to Sliding Rock. Like rafting, this has become one of the signature trips for Rockbrook girls, something they look forward to every year. Tonight our crew of more than 100 people, including all the staff members and lifeguards, took over the rock for the evening, sliding two-by-two down the 60-foot natural water slide formed by Looking Glass Creek. And these Middlers loved it! Slide after slide, wide-mouthed screams, cheers of encouragement from friends, and satisfied smiles proved how something this simple (no batteries required!) can be this fun. As others in the south struggle with summer heat, these girls were gleefully chilled and thrilled with this classic mountain experience. With no complex agenda and only the fading daylight to limit us, I think most girls were able to slide 3 or 4 times before we gathered everyone for the short ride to Dolly’s Dairy Bar, our final stop of the trip. Of course the girls look forward to this too, a cup or cone of “the best ice cream in the world!” as one girl declared it. Whether it’s “Rockbrook Chocolate Illusion” or one of the other camp flavors, a frozen sweet treat after riding down a freezing waterfall, is ironically exactly right. Add to it a few dozen friends, and that shared experience creates something uniquely powerful.
It’s certainly worth repeating, but this unique power is another example of why camp is great for kids. The thrill of sliding down the rock is certainly active outdoor fun, but it’s also exceptionally educational, helping to build confidence, independence and social skills. Surrounded by friends, the girls pull each other along experiencing more as a community than they otherwise would. They’re learning to communicate, to consider others with kindness and generosity at heart, and to contribute to the larger group. Spending time in this kind of encouraging community, one focused on positive relationships and appreciative of nature and diversity, is inspiring for children. There’s curiosity, wonder and joy to be discovered and celebrated each day at camp. Ordinary school experiences don’t easily provide this kind of core learning, so more than ever, camp is a critical supplement for our growing children.
We take this educational responsibility seriously at Rockbrook, training our staff and strengthening our camp culture to encourage this kind of growth for our girls. Thank you for sharing them with us, and helping them help us make this experience so meaningful for everyone.
Part of the reason most of us come to camp is because we want to grow. Another way of saying this, of course, is that we want to be challenged. As I walked around camp today, I realized how unique Rockbrook is in giving each camper the freedom to make choices about how to stretch herself. Girls choose their own activities, and within those activities, there is a lot to do, but girls are constantly encouraged and given the choice of how they want to stretch their capabilities.
As I walked around camp today, I saw a lot of stretching. This was literal in gymnastics, because when I arrived, everyone was stretching their bodies, loosening up for the games ahead. The campers were excited to play the game “Stick It,” in which someone tells them a move right before they jump on the trampoline, and they have to stick it afterward. In the class, there was a wide array of ability levels. Some girls had grown up as gymnasts whereas others had never done a cartwheel. Everyone, though, had fun, and were able to challenge themselves. Whether they wanted to finish with perfect form, or whether they learned what a pike was, everyone stretched themselves in ways they chose to. The counselor was around the whole time, encouraging every girl, whether she was the star tumbler or the novice.
The same spirit was alive and well in sports and games. Campers were playing the game “Knockout,” which is a variation on basketball where girls are trying to shoot a basket in the hoop before the person behind them. If they don’t do this, they are out. What was impressive about this, though, was that the game was congenial the whole time. The spirit of Rockbrook is not competitive, so the mood was light as girls tried to shoot their baskets. When campers got out, they chilled out by the fan and the counselor (who had been playing, but got out) was carrying on conversation until a winner was declared. It’s this cooperative, noncompetitive spirit that enables campers to constantly support each other and feel safe stretching themselves beyond what they think their limits are.
This was especially true in climbing, where I met up with a group of juniors who were trying to ascend the Alpine Tower. I sat on the log next to a junior and asked her about her climbing experience in the past. She had never climbed at Rockbrook before, but had climbed a few rock walls at home. I asked her how she wanted to go up, and she pointed to the hanging logs, the hardest way up. “I’m going to try, even though I’ve never done it before,” she said. It was an impressive moment—for someone who had never gone on the Alpine Tower to go up the hardest way, she was excited to stretch beyond her comfort zone. As I looked around, though, I realized that Rockbrook was creating a great environment for her to be unafraid to try something hard. All around the tower, I heard cheers of “You’ve got this!” and “You can do this!” These were not prompted by the counselors (who were encouraging in their own ways), but something the campers did intuitively.
The atmosphere of camp is one that asks us to always lift each other up, and in doing knowing that others want the best for us and are not focusing on our failures, it makes it easier to challenge ourselves to do hard things. For some girls, even being at camp away from their parents is a challenge in its own way. Girls are leaving the familiarity and comforts of home, stretching their ability to be independent and make friends outside of their immediate surroundings. Today, now that girls are settled and we have a schedule, it was really fun to see girls who had a bit of homesickness yesterday start to really embrace camp, to think, “I can do this, and it’s going to be fun!” They are finding friends, and they are finding that they are being lifted up by counselors and friends who see the best in them and want to know all about them. As we continue to get settled in, we will continue finding new ways to challenge ourselves and grow in ways that only camp can provide.