Are Girl-Power Camps Really Good for Girls?

What Women Really Think
Aug. 16 2010 3:48 PM

Are Girl-Power Camps Really Good for Girls?

Any mother who wasn't at the top of the social pyramid growing up (and maybe even those who were) has meditated about what we'd like to tell our own daughters as they head into middle school and beyond. Don't make everything a drama. Act confident, and people will be happy to be around you. Relax. Say what you mean, don't apologize, don't back down. We know, of course, that those aren't lessons that can be taught by your mother, but we still hope that we'll be the parent who really breaks through. if (when) we fail, the Girls Leadership Institute can step into the void. But should we want it to?

The NYT 's Style section profile of the G.L.I. and its founder, Rachel Simmons , paints a picture of a place where girls set aside their social roles and come together to learn to be better friends and better young women. It's inspiring. But even there, conflict appears. The last paragraphs of the article describe Taryn, a girl who'd felt excluded throughout a rough year of middle school, talking about how she's approached the same issue with her three G.L.I. roommates:

Advertisement

"First, we all said something we liked about each other," Taryn begins.

"Right," Ms. Simmons says. "Affirm the relationship."

"And I said I felt excluded when -"

"Great!" Ms. Simmons says. " 'And’! Not 'but.’ "

The girls say they had tried to reach out but thought she had been rejecting them. "And I realized they weren’t being as mean as I thought," Taryn says.

Then everyone shares her contribution [a camp term for what you added to a dispute].

"Mine was not bringing this up sooner and just hoping it would get better," Taryn says. "And someone said her contribution was that she didn’t stand up for me."

Ms. Simmons leans over her bowl of oatmeal and pressed for the final, most difficult step. "Did you ask for what you need?"

Taryn nods. "I asked to be included more," she says.

"How did you feel about it?" Ms. Simmons asks.

"It went great!" Taryn says. "I’m glad we worked it out instead of changing rooms," she adds. "The love is back!"

It's a great story, but one that it's hard to imagine carrying over for Taryn at home. If she feels excluded, will she "ask for what she needs"? Will other girls respond in such a kind way? What's interesting here is that it's clear that Taryn brought the dynamics of her earlier experience with her. She still saw herself in the role of the excluded, even at a camp dedicated to teaching "Girlworld survival tactics," and even in her second summer there.

I don't want to make too much out of a few lines about poor Taryn, whose story I certainly don't know. But when I read that as a result of her social troubles, she home-schooled for a semester and is now switching schools entirely, all in the context of an entire summer camp devoted to teen girls and their relationships, I wonder if we're not blowing the "Girlworld" experience way out of proportion. Phoebe Prince aside (and Emily has shown that there was more going on in her world than the initial media coverage revealed), most of us have had some experience with mean girls, cliques, and exclusion, and most of us muddled through it one way or another.

Another piece from the weekend's Times notes that "girly" jobs-defined as jobs that place an emphasis on caring and people and family-don't pay well. It argues that they should pay better, but while that's a valid goal, we shouldn't lose sight of the question of why more women choose the so-called "girly" jobs in the first place. You don't see many articles about sending boys to camps to learn to better relate to one another. When we encourage girls to spend their summer focused on relationship building and expressing how they feel, what are we telling them about how they should spend the rest of their lives?