Lessons from summer camp: How to be brave instead of perfect

A smiling Summer at Santa Catalina girl holds up a clay bowl in progress

By Ange Atkinson
Director of Summer at Santa Catalina

“What class would you like to take?” I asked a seventh-grade camper at Summer at Santa Catalina.

She shrugged. “I like yoga, but my friends are all in art, and my mom said I should take science.”

“So, what would you like to do?”

The camper stared at me blankly. I waited patiently, watching the emotions move through her—a certain hesitancy and anxiety that always surfaces when a camper realizes no one is making choices for her. She took a deep breath and glanced sideways, blinking away tears from feeling overwhelmed.

“Here at camp, you can choose any class you would like to try,” I said, reminding her she has options. “You will probably make a new friend in any class, and if you don’t like it, we can try something different tomorrow.”

“Ceramics?” she asked quietly.

I raised my eyebrows. This was the first time she mentioned ceramics. “There’s one spot left. Is that your choice?”

“Yes, I’ve always wanted to try it, but …”

“But …?”

“But I didn’t think I’d be any good.”

I smiled. “The great thing about camp is that being good at something is not a requirement for anything.”

She broke into a grin and said thank you, heading to class.

Young people, particularly girls, take on a lot of pressure to get things perfect. From the small decisions, like where to sit in the school cafeteria, to the bigger decisions, like which high schools to apply for, girls are socialized into making all the right choices. The right choices, they’re told, get them into the right school, then the right college, and eventually the right job. The key is learning to pause and understand what the “right” choice is from moment to moment. Learning this requires a certain kind of bravery. A willingness to make a choice that may lead to a mistake, but ultimately may lead you to learn something deeper about yourself.

Summer camp teaches girls this bravery by giving them space to make their own choices, try new activities, and make new friends, and by encouraging them to speak up in a unique way. Bravery is a skill we want girls to learn at a young age so when faced with tough decisions—like exploring a new high school that none of her friends are exploring, or applying to boarding school—they already know how to navigate the choice with resilience. Without the pressure of grades, camp is a space where young people can try new things with less fear of failure.

The conversation at the start of this article is one I’ve had numerous times with numerous campers. This camper practiced being brave enough to choose an activity that her friends were not in, that she had never done before, and that others may not have considered the “right” choice.

Later that week, she ran up to me with a huge grin. “Look at my mug! It’s terrible!”

I laughed. “It’s not terrible.”

“It doesn’t hold liquid, it leaks everywhere—it’s terrible. But it was so fun and I met some new friends.”

When we focus on teaching girls to be brave instead of perfect, they have an easier time learning about themselves and the world around them, and often get to make new friends along the way.

Ready to be brave? Attend Summer at Santa Catalina, or explore our high school.