Your daughter is away at Girl Scout Camp or maybe she is on a service trip in Bolivia. Your son is bike touring in Vietnam or maybe he is at the local college for a week long deep dive on digital video production. Summer is an opportunity for many young people to break from the routine of school, sports, student government, and some of the constraints of their highly structured day to day. From our own experience we know that summer is a special time of growth, but what really happens to our children in the summer?
Certainly, we can expect them to grow – physically. There must be something about the high sun and the freedom from school desks that allows for a more rapid growth rate of bone and muscle and hair. When I was a teacher, I could swear that my charges grew more in the three months of summer than in the nine months during which they visited me every weekday. I suspect there might not be scientific evidence for this acceleration of growth hypothesis.
There is, however, some evidence to suggest that young people do have significant – if sporadic – psychological growth events, and the conditions that allow for such events are ripe during summer.
Maslow, the psychologist that brought us that wonderful hierarchy of needs at the top of which we find self-actualization, also did research on peak experience. Peak experiences in Maslow’s definition are “moments of highest happiness and fulfillment.” They are boosts along our life path that have the power to move us up that pyramid toward self actualization.
Much has been studied about peak experiences for adults, including some fascinating work by Mihalyi Cziksentmihalyi on a similar state of mind that he called “flow.” Less study has been done on such experience in young people. For adults we know that peak experiences and flow are both associated with states of being that are variously described as blissful, extreme happiness, and even nirvana. And we know from Cziksentmihalyi’s research that this state can arise when one is at purpose in a task with a level of challenge that is neither too difficult to achieve mastery, nor so simple as to be routine.
While it may be fair to extend the concept of work or play that is fit to the right challenge curve as conducive to adolescent flow or peak experience, there are other dynamics that complicate this a bit. For one, adolescence, with its complex reconfiguring of the human brain and onboarding of new hormonal mechanisms, is perhaps characterized more by quantum leaps than continuous development. Parents are familiar with this phenomenon. On Friday night your child tugs at your shirt asking to crawl into bed after a nightmare. On Sunday they declare that they will no longer be a prisoner of their bad dreams, and they never visit your bed again; to both your delight, and your sentimental dismay.
A second challenge adolescents face when attempting to integrate their experiences – peak or otherwise – into their path toward self actualization is that they lack the scaffolding on which to place their experiences. Something felt right about building that school in rural Bolivia, but why? What does that say about me? I enjoy making videos, but that summer class was boring. Maybe I am not really cut out to be a filmmaker?
For all of us, talking is thinking and thinking helps us to integrate our experience with our psychological selves. Those summer experiences need to be debriefed! And I am afraid that, “What did you learn?” is insufficient. Sometimes, summer camps will send home a mailer that explains what campers have been doing. Use that information to spark discussion.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant. Success in circuit lies.” Take her advice. Find out as much as you can about the summer experiences of your children through your own sleuthing. Go so far as to learn the important vocabulary the kids were exposed to. Maybe she learned what the acronym NGO means while in Bolivia? Maybe he now knows what post-production means from the digital video production course? Find ways to incorporate those terms into other conversations. If you are really sneaky – like a Russian election hacker – they will not even know what you are doing.
And if you are neither sneaky nor investigative, then enlist some help. Aunts and uncles, other parents, family friends, and neighbors are all village members. Most of these village members are unscrupulous when it comes to helping you with your children and will be eager recruits in your spy operation. Get them to find out what she really figured out in Bolivia.
Summer experiences are more than daycare when school is out. The focus on a particular interest, the freedom of time, and the relaxation of standards lend themselves to peak experiences and a flow state for young people. Real transformation is happening in their brains during these discrepant events. To help our kids integrate the deep learning they may be experiencing on their climb up the pyramid of self actualization, trick them into articulating it for themselves. Their hair is certainly longer, they may have grown an inch, but the growth that matters most is more likely to manifest if they can articulate what they learned and how it fits into their personal story. Help them do that – by whatever means necessary.
References: Hanson, Katie, Positive Psychology UK, Flow and Adolescence: The Beneficial Effects of the Experience of Flow in Adolescence Hoffman, Edward, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Peak Experiences in Childhood: An Explanatory Study (Reprint link) Hoffman, Edward, Positive Psychology Today, What was Maslow’s View of Peak Experiences? Cziksentmihalyi and Schneider, Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work (Book Link) Influences: Inspired by recent conversations with: Christopher Beth, Director, Redwood City Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department Rushton Hurley, Executive Director, Next Vista for Learning Mitsu Iwasaka, Executive Director, Northwest Outward Bound School Ana Neff, Women’s Health and Life Coach Photo Credit: Where There Be Dragons, Students Jumping in Bolivia, CC 2.0