August 16 , 2016

7 Lessons from Go Girls Summer Camp to Take Back to School

Are you ready to send your daughter back to school?

I'm not.  She starts school on Monday and, unlike many parents who welcome the consistency and normalcy of the start of the school year, I am scared to death.  Our daughter will start 2nd grade and I am still recovering from the social/emotional trauma of 1st grade.  

See, last year, my daughter (my wife and I publically call her "Squirrel") had a pretty intense break up with her BFF.  The Squirrel tends to be quite controlling and demanding of folks' time.  Her BFF wanted to play with other kids.  The 2 never quite recovered from the rift their competing needs drove through the friendship.  At the same time, Squirrel is not your typical learner and has some cognitive issues that make her academic experiences a bit challenging as well.  

Here's the basic math.  Friendship issues + Learning issues = lots of school-related stress for our whole family.

How will I start a new school year with any joy?

I am so lucky that I run a camp that my daughter actually wants to go to and she loves.  Not only does it save me a bunch of money in the summer, it allows me to be intimately familiar with what she is learning.  Squirrel attended 6 weeks of Go Girls! Camp this summer (her second) and suddenly, all the learning seems to really be soaking in.  The more she has learned, the more I have learned about how to parent her in a way that supports the Go Girl! inside of her.  

Here are 7 lessons that I learned from having my daughter in Go Girls! Camp that I am going to take with me into this school year:

1. Allow space for disappointment

It sucks when our girls are unhappy.  Mainly because it hurts us to see them hurting.  But also because who wants to put up with a crying, whining child any longer than we have to?  Sometimes, it feels much easier to get them what they want so that they will just shut up about it.  Am I right?  Well, I am sorry to tell you but this does our daughters a huge disservice.  I was witness to many girls this summer be disappointed for some reason or another.  She didn't get as many lines in the play as she wanted.  She didn't get to be in the same group as her friend.  Her artwork didn't turn out exactly how she pictured in her head.  These types of disappointments - and many more - will certainly follow our daughters into the school year.  What we need to do is resist the urge to fix the problems, make space for the disappointments, and allow her to feel her feelings through them.  When we can do this, we are building her resiliency muscles so that she can bounce back from anything challenging that comes her way. 

2. Go For the Win

That being said, we also need to make sure that our daughters get to experience success on a regular basis.  We can compliment our girls until our lips fall off.  However, it is trying hard things and actually accomplishing them that builds confidence.  At camp, my daughter performed in 3 plays, completed a few dozen pieces of original art work, and made a half dozen new friends.  Then, she went on vacation with family in Arizona and finally learned to swim, rode a horse for the first time, caught and cleaned her first fish, and lost that tooth that had been wiggling for months.  Right now, she is confident as hell.  It's my job to keep reminding her of all of these accomplishments when she returns to math class and once again faces her constant struggle with word problems.

Actors from Go Girls Summer Camp

3. Expect More than you Thought Was Possible

A year ago, the Squirrel came to me and said, "I want to build a house."  I responded with "What do you mean?" wondering if she meant a bird house or doll house.  She replied, "A house.  You know, like, a house like this one that we live in." In my 25 years as a teaching artist, I have learned that kids have super high expectations for themselves so we, as adults, need to match these expectations.  This doesn't mean that I will automatically give my daughter some lumber and a saw and leave her to build a house.  But it does mean that I can listen to her dreams and aspirations, take them seriously, and do what I can to help her take the first steps in making these dreams come true.

This summer at camp, we introduced Go Girls! to, what we call, "social action lessons."  In these lessons, the girls got to learn about the world beyond their immediate knowledge and access their power to make a difference in this broader world.  In these lessons, they:

  • Made a pledge to save the redwood trees of California
  • Raised over $1000 to bring waterto people of sub-saharan Africa
  • Honored women and girls who have broken through the glass ceiling and wrote letters to their legislators urging them to prioritize the rights of women and girls
  • Were introduced to the complex concept of compassion and asked how they could be part of making the world a more compassionate place

At first, some folks thought that these lessons would be over the heads of our younger campers.  Maybe they were at times.  But, in the end, I believe that we were planting the seeds for bigger things to come.  Sometimes our schools can forget to challenge our kids beyond what's taught on the tests.  It may be up to us parents to find ways to push their interests and passions outside the boundaries of the worksheets.

Art from Go Girls Summer Camp

4. Silence Goes a Long Way

The political part of me fears silence.  Silence keeps people closeted and uninformed.  However, when our children are having a hard time and working through big feelings, our next best move might be to stop lecturing and simply listen.  Our kids hear us talk at them all the time.  When you really stop and think about it, how often do our lectures actually work?  Now, I'm not saying that we shouldn't share our views and values with our children.  Of course, we should.  But if you are anything like me, you find yourself saying the same things over and over again.  I have learned this summer that sometimes, when my daughter yells " I know!" in response to one of my many lectures, she just wants me to replace being right with being empathetic.  That's when I stop talking (very hard for me), give her a hug, and and just listen.

5. You Can Coach. You Can't Play.

When you start listening, you realize that, no matter how much you might want to, you cannot live your daughter's life for her.  Wouldn't that be sooooo much easier?  I always know exactly what I would do if I were my daughter!  Guess what?  I'm not.  In her game of life, she is the player.  I don't get to be the player.  I can coach.  But I can't play.  

At camp, we train our teachers in the art of Emotion Coaching, a system developed by Dr. John Gottman to build emotional intelligence in our kids.  It's a simple (though not easy) 3 step process: 

  1. Label and validate her feelings – “I see you are angry. Is that right?”
  2. Address the bad behavior (if applicable) – “It is okay to be angry. It is NOT okay to kick your brother.”
  3. Problem Solve – “What can you do to keep things safe the next time your brother makes you feel angry?”

This process definitely takes some time and practice but it does work.  My daughter's emotional vocabulary has expanded tremendously just in the last couple of months by her having emotion coaches both at home and at camp.  When our girls can talk about how they feel, they can also regulate those feelings...which is what we all want.

6. Creativity trumps Conflict

The other day when I was leading a conversation about compassion with some campers, I posed this question:

"Let's say we all live in the same white room.  I want to paint the room red and you want to paint the room blue.  We have a conflict.  What can we do so that this conflict doesn't turn into a fight?"

First of all, I have to say, I was extremely impressed with our girls' attitude about conflict.  Because they make plays and films in our camps, their definition of conflict is "the exciting part of the story."  They are learning that conflict is a necessary part of life and nothing to shy away from.  

Given this super healthy and mature attitude towards conflict, they came out swinging when it came to answering my question.  They gave me the most incredibly creative answers:

"We can paint the room red and blue stripes!"
"It could be polka dots with both colors!"
"The room can be purple!"

And so on...

At camp, we celebrate putting our ideas together and "saying yes to keep the fun going"  We believe that this is an under-utilized super power in addressing conflict management.  Our girls are often embroiled in friendship conflicts where one girl wants to do one thing and the other wants to do something else.  This dynamic is even more charged in groups of 3 girls.  We always bring it back to this creative tool of putting their ideas together to come up with something new that satisfies the whole group.  In more cases than not, it works like a charm.

Art 2 from Go Girls Summer Camp

7. Our Girls are Amazing

The theme of this past summer was #BeAmazing and, by golly, our girls rose to this challenge.  I'm not just saying this from some sentimental place of end-of summer nostalgia.  I really do believe that all of our girls are amazing.  How does knowing this help me send my daughter on to second grade with less anxiety?  Well, when things get tough, as they certainly will, I can just remind myself that I have a daughter who wakes up everyday and believes in her ability to lead and make stuff happen; she cares deeply for the well-being of all living things; she is able to overcome challenges and accomplish hard things; and despite any fears she might have, she ultimately goes out into the world declaring exactly who she is.

What more could I ask for?

 Second grade might not be as fun as this summer but I know that my daughter, wife, and I have everything we need to make it the best school year ever.  

What did I miss?  What summer lessons are you bringing into the school year?

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