Girls and Camp: Fostering Community, Causes and Confidence - Washington FAMILY Magazine: Family Life

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Girls and Camp: Fostering Community, Causes and Confidence

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Posted: Monday, March 26, 2018 1:38 pm

I spent the first 12 years of my life in a sleepy, rural town in the northeast corner of Connecticut. With both of my parents working full-time, my summer mornings began near dawn as I filled up my backpack and headed to the bus stop a few houses down the road. I would wait patiently with a sense of giddiness at what the day’s activities at camp would bring. Holiday Hill Day Camp was my escape, my pure fun without requirements or judgments, and the freedom to choose whether I played Four Square after lunch or made gimp bracelets in arts and crafts.

Girls and Camp: Fostering Community, Causes and Confidence

Famed Stanford researcher Carol Dweck notes the trouble that can happen when children are praised for skill instead of effort; kids can cease taking risks for fear of appearing foolish. That, in a nutshell, was me at 7 years old. In school, I sometimes felt isolated and bored. I was academically advanced and often felt that I didn’t fit in. I was good at reading, so I read a lot. Math came easy to me, so I did problems in my spare time. I was physically taller than most of my peers, and reached my full height of 5-foot-3 (and back-row class -photo status) by the fifth grade. I tried to blend into the background and didn’t take many risks.

Until I went to camp, I didn’t realize how to have fun — unadulterated, no-points-in-the-grade-book, effortless fun.

At my first session at camp, I spent four days anxiously trying to determine whether or not I should stand in line to play Four Square. I had never played before, so I watched on the sidelines and tried to pick up strategies and tips. I didn’t want to appear foolish by being quickly eliminated, so I put off even trying. When I worked up the courage to play (and experience a rapid-fire elimination), I realized that the once overpowering sense of failure wasn’t actually so bad. Nobody was cackling at me. In reality, no one really cared. I got back in line, and within days, I owned that court.

What I remember most about those summers, other than the swimming and the juice boxes, were the massive camp-wide games that involved some version of capture the flag. It was a colossal team effort, one that built a sense of community for me in a way that hadn’t before existed in my life. Running around over that massive acreage, and helping out teammates I barely knew who were both older and younger in age, gave me a sense of belonging that had previously been missing.

I say all this with a sense of weary wistfulness. In the nearly three decades since I was a day camper at Holiday Hill, and in the 15 years since I started working with and writing about teens, so much in the lives of girls has changed — and yet so much remains the same. Understanding this sameness, along with the opportunity that camp gives girls to create a sense of community, develop their own sense of healthy risk-taking, and belong to something greater than themselves is something worth turning to time and time again.

Today’s girl world

One fall afternoon not too long ago, a seventh-grade girl came up to me as I was walking through her school’s hallway. She gently inquired if I had given the school presentation the previous week. I nodded my head and asked if the presentation, which discussed organization, time-management, social media and overall wellness in school and life, was helpful to her. Her glowing affirmation surprised me in its depth and authenticity. The girl went on to explain how she had spent the entire previous year on Ask.fm, an anonymous online profiling board where users set up profiles and others can comment and ask questions. (Generally, anonymous online profiles are a terrible idea, especially for middle school girls. Ask.fm has been linked to at least nine suicides, as young people are often unprepared for the vicious onslaught of meanness that anonymity can foster.)

Following my talk, the girl determined that the hours she spent on Ask.fm were draining her, and she decided to delete her account. Within days, she explained, it felt as though a huge weight had been lifted off of her shoulders. Throughout that past year, no adult — not her parents nor her teachers — knew about the meanness she encountered online. Her parents thought she was doing her homework in her room, and her teachers and school administrators were barely aware that Ask.fm existed, much less that their students had an active online presence.

When I first started working with teens in 2001, there was no Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram or Snapchat. The plethora of social media apps and online tools, many of which focus on anonymous, ephemeral interactions, create a challenging vortex where many girls are secretly growing up too fast and being exposed to too much without the adequate social and emotional resources to navigate their dual — online and “in real life” (IRL) — worlds.

Many pre-teen and teenage girls show up at camp today having spent nine months during the school year managing more rigorous academic, extracurricular and social pressures.

At the same time, they receive a never-ending flow of information on how they should act, feel and be. Teen girls send and receive approximately 4,000 text messages per month — that’s over a hundred messages per day, according to Newswire. Reality shows and a “cele-bratty” culture where celebrities glamorize toxic behavior and relationships create a new and complex dimension from which teen girls often inadvertently model their choices. It can be overwhelming for most adults to navigate this constant influx of information. For many teen girls, it can easily become fear-inducing, fun-preventing and anxiety-provoking. In many ways, the current culture of perfectionism enveloping many teen girls’ lives begins with the oversaturation of information. The need for digital detox and to be offline has never been greater, nor more challenging to accomplish.

What often results is that many girls and young women struggle to identify what they really like, often fear trying new things, and crave a sense of belonging and community because many of their regular, on-screen social interactions act as a barrier to genuine kindness and connection. Teen girls are twice as likely to be affected by depression and anxiety in comparison to their male peers. And more and more female campers come to camp with a heightened sense of anxiety and nervousness, which can be at especially high levels as they experience that initial detox from their devices and from the constant chatter of the outside world.

The crucial role of camp

For many girls, the role of camp certainly adapts to the world’s changes in some ways, but at its core remains unchanged from my simpler days riding the school bus to day camp in rural Connecticut. Campers (and counselors) are coming to camp with a new and different set of experiences based on the way they are forced to try and seamlessly juggle online and in-person experiences. Yet some of the crucial takeaways from camp still boil down to the three Cs: community, cause and confidence.

For many girls, establishing multiple clusters of community can be key to their social and emotional wellness. I coined the term “community clusters” in my book “The Myth of the Perfect Girl“ to signify the emotional importance of having different groups of friends — perhaps some friends or colleagues from work; others from school, church or synagogue; and some from an exercise group or activity — that make up each person’s own greater community. One of the greatest gifts that camp offers is helping young girls create and maintain multiple community clusters. Even if things are not going well with friends from school or on a sports team, girls realize they always have a community of supporters at camp. This inherent sense of belonging acts as a booster and a relaxant that allows girls to focus on finding their own cause and building their long-term confidence.

Girls and Camp: Fostering Community, Causes and Confidence

Much of girls’ anxiety stems from the culture of comparison, where everything (online and IRL) is subject to nonstop assessment. In the relative quiet of camp (and by “quiet,” I am referring to the absence of input from parents, teachers and media sources), girls often have a chance to find their own cause and reflect on what brings them happiness and personal fulfillment. Finding a sense of purpose enables girls to develop their own framework for success, rather than looking at what others are doing as a source of comparison and competition.

Camp works to build the personal confidence of girls who may be facing increasing stress over not measuring up to some external semblance of perfection. Camp allows them to take healthy risks, be supported in an inclusive environment, redefine failure and build off success. Girls who are able to be silly, rumble and tumble, capture the flag and sing at the top of their lungs — those are the ones who can forget the stressors beyond the camp walls, or at least put them aside temporarily. And hopefully, with a bit more attention to community, causes and confidence, this next generation of girls will use their camp experiences to create their own personal pathways to success. Even though camp only lasts a few weeks or months of the year, the ripple effects are endless.


FIVE WAYS CAMP IS GOOD FOR GIRLS

Girls and Camp: Fostering Community, Causes and Confidence

1. Encourages digital detox: Today’s girls are online more than ever, and camp releases them from the seeming obligation of being constantly connected, allowing them to breathe — literally and figuratively.

2. Promotes healthy risk-taking: The culture of perfectionism creates an underlying sense of fear around appearing less than ideal in any way, and a great camp experience allows girls to try new things in a safe, inclusive, positive environment.

3. Fosters resiliency: Everyone can experience disappointments from time to time, and it’s the bounce back that can matter most. Camp is full of different experiences with a variety of outcomes, and girls can grow from learning how to move past the disappointments to find everyday grace.

4. Builds community clusters: A positive, pro-social camp experience develops a sense of community for every girl and helps her feel as though she belongs. This sense of belonging comes at a crucial time developmentally, and can make all the difference when a girl experiences stress at home or school.

5. Support wellness: A rewarding camp experience encourages girls to be kind to themselves and to others — all while being silly, crazy and fun! The kindness and compassion fostered in the warm summer days can easily have an impact all year round.

Ana Homayoun is a teen and millennial expert who draws on her camp experiences, among others, to help individuals, schools and corporations with organization, personal productivity and overall wellness. She can be reached through her website at anahomayoun.com.

Reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association. ©2018, American Camping Association, Inc. The American Camp Association® ACA is a national organization with more than 11,000 individual members and nearly 3,000 member camps. ACA is committed to collaborating with those who believe in quality camp and outdoor experiences for children, youth and adults. For more information, visit ACAcamps.org.