Becoming Wonder Woman

My heart did a little dip as I read the instructor notes scratched in the back of my 13-year-old daughter’s passport after her week-long expedition this summer. “Anya, you hung at the back of the group at first. But as the days went on, you became more vulnerable.” That did not sound like progress to me.

I have a daughter who spouts negative self-talk all day long. “I’m bad at math.” “I’m a wimpy pancake flipper.” She’s even started to use “Nailed It!” in its sarcastic form.  What gives? I set out to raise a confident take-no-prisoners badass. I was a three-sport college athlete. I’ve heli-skied in Valdez, Alaska, and trekked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. I’ve bungee jumped over a paved parking lot on Long Island (now, that takes courage). Suffice it to say, I am no shrinking violet. My daughter’s lack of confidence is foreign to me.

I come from a long line of over-confident humans. My brother will ski down a steep pitch, stop and ask: “Did you see that? I was so good.” I have two boys who regularly say, “I’m a god at that,” even if they are decidedly mortal at that particular thing. The phenomenon actually has a name: The Dunning-Kruger effect is a tendency to substantially overestimate one’s abilities.

For years, I’ve been reading books and articles about the positive effects of nature and the outdoors on kids. I had a theory that doing an immersive wilderness camp might be one way to bolster a girl’s self-esteem. So this summer, I signed Anya up for a multisport expedition with Avid4 Adventure: seven nights of camping at Steamboat’s Pearl Lake and a packed schedule of outdoor sports by day. She’d have mountain biking (“I’m doomed!” she cried), standup paddleboarding, hiking, whitewater rafting (“Terrifying!” she shrieked), and geocaching. I hoped it would be a catalyst for change.

In “The Confidence Gap,” a cover story that ran in The Atlantic in 2014, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, authors of The Confidence Code (HarperCollins, 2014), identified a crisis-level confidence gap separating the sexes. “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities,” they said. Meanwhile men ask for raises four times as often as women do and women routinely believe they deserve 20 percent less in salary. Men, it seems, are more self-assured than women, regardless of their level of competence. Surely this lack of confidence plays a role in keeping women out of those coveted corner offices.

Could immersion in the outdoors offer an antidote? In a study published in March 2019 by Women in Adventure, which surveyed more than 2,700 women in 44 countries, 95% agreed that the outdoors has a positive impact on their self-esteem and 99% agreed that the outdoors has a positive impact on their mental well-being. Doctors are literally prescribing nature to their patients. There’s even a recommended dose. According to a June 2019 study published in Scientific Reports, spending 120 minutes each week in nature correlates with higher levels of both health and well-being. “Our kids are potentially imperiled by being confined inside,” Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (W.W. Norton, 2017) told me in an interview. “Being in nature translates to better emotional regulation and social skills, and the ability to solve problems as a group.”

But how is this different for girls? A study published in 2018 by BBC America and the Women’s Media Center found teen girls are significantly less likely than boys to describe themselves as confident, brave and heard. Interestingly, the study also showed that simply watching Wonder Woman on the big screen boosted confidence and self-esteem among girls. Well, if sitting on the couch watching Wonder Woman kick butt can boost your confidence, imagine the impact of being out in the woods with a strong female role model who’s nurturing you along the road to badassery.

Before the trip, I sat down and talked with Jackson DePew, Avid4 Adventure’s expedition director. DePew is lanky, intense and incredibly passionate about getting kids into the wilderness. He told me that when kids are plucked from everyday society and immersed in a simpler environment—one that’s free from the rigors of home life and school—magic really happens. “When you’re young, you get all your truths from your parents. Just being in a new environment is challenging,” he said. “There’s a massive opportunity for empowerment, particularly for women, on these courses.” The effect of these formative moments in the woods can be amplified during times of transition in a kid’s life, like moving from middle school to high school or from high school to college. “It’s an opportunity to see your life though a different lens,” said DePew.

While the multisport expedition surely would offer game-changing moments for my daughter, DePew says it’s really on two-week backpacking expeditions that you see monumental growth points. “There’s something about the predictable daily flow of backpacking. It’s primitive and nomadic. Kids can take on authentic leadership responsibilities, even at a really young age,” he says. “But believe me, I’ve cried at the end of courses that were just six days—that’s how powerful these trips can be.”

While Anya was packing for the trip, I showed her how to open the valves on her sleeping pad, roll it up, and shut the valve to keep it cinched up tightly. I reached over to help squeeze out the air, and she swatted my hand away. “Mom! I need to be able to do it myself!”  This was a new thing. All three of my kids are happy to let me do things for them. I started to think that by the end of the week, my daughter would be returned to me transformed.

Alas, it’s not quite so clear cut. DePew talks about formative experiences in the field as tiny seeds. They’re planted on the expedition, and back at home and over time, those seeds can grow into something. Self-esteem and confidence. A love of the outdoors. A penchant for leadership. Maybe even a desire to be a better human.

Boy Overboard
On the river, gender doesn’t matter when it comes time to save a fellow camper.

“Maybe you don’t know what ‘The Moment’ is at the time,” DePew said. It might be 20 years later when Anya will have an epiphany about some experience on the trip. Maybe it was sitting in the “bull-riding” seat at the front of the whitewater raft, a cold spray from the Upper Colorado buffeting her sun-kissed cheeks. Or feeling strong enough to swim across a lake pulling two other campers in a canoe. (“That was some real girl power,” said Hayden, one of the campers during the expedition wrap-up speech.) Or “cowfolk camping” on a tarp, the stars sprinkled across the sky overhead. 

Anya did have incredible experiences over the course of the week. Her 20-something dream team of instructors, Julianne “Juls” Bray (“I can’t wait for the sport of camp cooking. No, really. It’s a sport.”) and Dylan Lincoln (“I’m a total Marvel nerd.”), were intent on planting seeds for future greatness. That vulnerability I’d read about in Anya’s passport was, they said, the path to becoming stronger. Anya explained it to me: “To grow, lobsters need to shed their hard shells. They’re really vulnerable for a while, but then they grow a new harder shell—and they become stronger.” Wisdom.

“Anya was really nervous about the whitewater rafting,” Bray told me. “With a little encouragement and positive vibes, she really put herself out there. She was brave and courageous and willing to make mistakes, maybe even to look a little foolish. It’s amazing what happens when you get away from the social pressures of the front country.”

When the kids were whitewater rafting, the guides let them jump in and swim the rapids, but getting back in the boat was tricky. They learned to rescue one another by grabbing their fellow camper by the PFD and hauling up hard. “It makes you feel proud that you saved someone, and you know in a real emergency, you could do it,” Anya said.

“Did you rescue the boys?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said. “Why would gender matter?”

Exactly. But it does seem to matter in middle school pickle ball. Anya hates gym. None of the boys will pass the ball to her. It sounds clichéd, but in the “front country,” those gender roles are still playing out. I asked Bray and Lincoln how they upend that dynamic on these trips.

“Kids are bred into a binary culture,” Bray explained. “It’s so important that we break that barrier between male and female.” The wilderness tends to be an equalizer, but the Avid instructors also take care to set the tone for equality. When they did the hygiene talk, they intentionally didn’t break the group into boys and girls. Would it kill a boy to know a girl needs to use a pee rag in the woods? Lincoln led the talk on interpersonal core values, while Bray served as the rad role model for mountain biking. It’s important, they both said, for kids to see instructors role-modeling in nontraditional ways.

“There’s a large disparity in physical activity between boys and girls in conventional play spaces,” said The Nature Fix’s Williams. “In natural play spaces, physical activity approaches parity. When girls are in the woods, they’re climbing the trees at nearly the same rate as boys. It’s not like recess.”

Sure enough, when it came time to wrestle with the tent, sleeping bags, and pads, Anya’s group was the first—boy or girl—to set everything up, name their space (“pineapple under the sea”), and create a vibe (“chilled out, SpongeBob style”).

I wondered how the instructors might reverse the kind of negative self-talk that permeates conversations at home. “We just don’t tolerate it. That’s all,” Bray told me simply and with finality.

At the beginning of the trip, Bray and Lincoln sat down with the kids and explained a respect rule they call “PONEY,” an acronym for “property, others, nature, ego, yourself.” While in the backcountry, the kids would respect all those things and leave the ego behind. And to respect yourself, you can’t put yourself down. I’m now invoking PONEY at home.

The closing celebration at the end of the expedition is called the pinning ceremony. Kids get pins for skills from canoeing to yoga to living empowered. During the ceremony, Lincoln  read an excerpt from “The Risk of Growing,” by author and playwright Eda LaShan. The short story appeared in Women’s Day magazine in 1981, a dozen years before Lincoln  was even born.

“When its body begins to feel cramped inside the shell, the lobster instinctively looks for a reasonably safe spot to rest while the hard shell comes off and the pink membrane just inside forms the basis of the next shell. But no matter where a lobster goes for this shedding process, it is very vulnerable. It can get tossed against a coral reef or eaten by a fish. In other words, a lobster has to risk its life in order to grow.”

Back at home, Anya sat with me, reading aloud from her journal, her fingernails still dirty from the woods. As she read the words, I could see her carrying a heavy jug of sloshing water with another camper; leading different teams like kitchen crew, cleanup crew, and “outerior” design crew, which arranges the camp furniture for maximum feng shui; advocating for herself at meal times (she has celiac disease, so she had her own bin of foodstuffs); and rescuing the boys from Class II rapids. 

I listened intently for any negative chatter, and miraculously I didn’t hear a single “I sucked.” I’m confident seeds were planted for her, but I know it will take time to see real growth. Then again, yesterday she asked me if I would get her new pajamas. For the first time in her 13 years, she acknowledged her pants were getting too small. Maybe she did grow, after all.


Helen Olsson is a freelance writer and editor. She blogs about adventures with kids at maddogmom.com.

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