In light of 2 weeks of summer camp recently spent with middle and high school girls, I can once again state with certainty that the widely reported low self-esteem and overall demise of adolescent girls has been greatly exaggerated. It’s time to shift our beliefs about girls and support them differently.
When the girls arrived at my camp, they were feeling the typical mild anxiety inherent in joining a new group. This apprehension is well earned after having roamed the toxic hallways of their schools all year. By the time girls reach the teen years, most have been involved in drama, gossiping, teasing, being excluded, and betrayal. So it makes sense why they feel sensitive about being judged and excluded.
Right off the bat our campers participate in exercises to break down any barriers or protections. They share some of their stories, realize they are not the only one who has experienced relationship aggression, and then set some strong intentions about what they want their camp week to look and feel like, especially as it relates to how they will treat each other. These intentions set the tone for the week.
All girls need safe spaces where they can feel accepted for who they are without fear of judgment or criticism. It allows them the space to be open, vulnerable, and real with their peers. Sharing their challenges, their ups and downs, and their life stories brings tremendous closeness. And it follows that girls interact better with each other if they really know and care about each other. The best deterrent against drama and “mean girl” behaviors is a close-knit, caring community.
In a healthy, nurturing environment like our camp, adolescent girls can focus their energy on figuring out who they are, what they are feeling, what they need and want, and on just being themselves because they aren’t worried about being accepted, measuring up, or constantly comparing themselves. Campers experience really high-level fun because they don’t care what others think about them and they don’t feel judged. They feel free to bust out, let their hair down, and allow their little girl energy to come out to play.
I looked around our circle of girls the last days of camp and was struck by how light, carefree, and relaxed they were. I could so easily see the more serious, soulful, and deep sides of them, but also the little girl still present. They looked so happy.
People who judge adolescent girls as being hormonal and moody and difficult haven’t seen them in this light; they haven’t seen the real spirit of this age group. Adolescent girls don’t have poor self-esteem. I think they are just fine, and that belief gets reinforced every week and weekend of camp that I attend. They just need more safe, nurturing environments in which to grow.
Kids learn best when they learn from each other and from adults who are learning with and from them. Stop judging and labeling girls and instead work on creating more supportive communities that allow them to bloom.