The Broadway megahit and multi-Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen has crystallized America’s focus on one of the most challenging and most consequential developmental processes for children and young adults: identity formation.
Ben Platt, 23, serves up a serial performance that accurately, engagingly captures what Joe Lovell of The New York Times referred to as “an anxiety-crippled 17-year-old” who “conveys such longing and loneliness and guilt and shame” that he exquisitely and meaningfully connects to the multifaceted audience during each performance: “teenagers struggling with anxiety, parents clinging to whatever fine thread still connects them to their kids, people who are ashamed of something they’ve done or who fear they are unlovable” (Lovell, 2017).
Of course, the show’s elements include the other well-worn adolescent narratives of depression, bullying, suicide, connection, kindness, and even eating lunch alone in the cafeteria (Isherwood, 2016).
A Developmental Master Plan
All of this tumult and turmoil begs the question: Is there a plan or process at play that might lend context to this increasingly vast, vague period of human transformation?
In a word, yes.
Psychologist Erik Erikson proffered a psychoanalytic theory of psychosocial development made up of eight stages from infancy to adulthood. During each stage, he offered, the person experiences a “psychosocial crisis” that could have a positive or negative outcome for personality development. While Erikson was highly influenced by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud — especially regarding the structure and topography of personality — Erikson was an ego, as opposed to an id, psychologist. He focused primarily on the role of culture and society and the conflicts that can take place within the ego itself (whereas Freud emphasized the conflict between the id and the superego).
Erikson believed that the ego develops as it successfully resolves those social crises. That resolution, he said, depends on establishing a sense of trust in others, developing a sense of identity in society, and helping the next generation prepare for the future. Erikson referred to this particular stage of development as “Identity vs. Role Confusion” (McLeod, 2017).
Who exactly is an adolescent, anyway? Merriam-Webster defines this stage of human growth as “the period of life when a child develops into an adult . . . from puberty to maturity terminating legally at the age of majority; the state or process of growing up; a stage of development (as of a language or culture) prior to maturity” (2017).
Identity and Summer Camp
Bottom line, summer camp experiences enhance overall identity formation.
Young people actively search for a sense of self and personal identity, looking to peers, near-peers, and adults for examples of personal values, beliefs, and goals — with an eye toward figuring out who they are, who they want to be, and how best to get there. Ethics and morality are also key ingredients of successfully navigating what Erikson referred to as a “moratorium” during which youth consider their future selves through a variety of lenses: social, emotional, gender, sexual, spiritual, and vocational.
The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Another key component of identity formation is a quest to find a “tribe” with which to assimilate. In other words, to fit in.
Many kids at camp point to the freedom to “be myself” in such experiential learning environments, and to their subsequent ability to more confidently and successfully transport that “self” back to home and school. Erikson said that the result of this process is “a subjective sense of invigorating sameness,” similar to philosopher John Locke’s concept of psychological continuity (Wallace, 2016).
This sense of stability of self helps provide ballast during the turbulent years of adolescence — which now lasts longer than ever due to younger ages of puberty and older ages of financial independence and completion of brain development.
While it is likely that not all the antecedents of a “fixed” or a “fluid” identity are known, it is safe to say there is at least one critical way in which the identity formation process is shaped. As previously suggested, young people quite literally “try on” different roles or personalities. This is one reason they may appear different from one day to the next, even one hour to the next. The sampling of selves helps them to discern those aspects of an identity that provide maximum satisfaction and reward, including the responses from important people in their lives (including camp professionals and counselors). In fact, Erikson said that to experience wholeness, young people must feel continuity between how they think of themselves and how they perceive others think of them.
During this time, young people may cherry-pick characteristics of others they find appealing, effective, or successful and merge these into their whole. In other words, they may incorporate into their identity the traits of those they admire, such as honesty, humor, patience, or leadership.
Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than at summer camp, where young adult influencers serve “in loco parentis” (LLI, 2017), offering up a mass of personality menu items from which young people can choose.
The Goldilocks Effect
We can find an analog to this process in the timeless tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
“Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.
“At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.
“‘This porridge is too hot!’ she exclaimed.
“So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.
“‘This porridge is too cold,’ she said.
“So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.
“‘Ahhh, this porridge is just right,’ she said happily, and she ate it all up.”
Therein is a primer on modern-day adolescent identity formation. Just as Goldilocks tried and tried before finding just the right porridge, adolescents may try and try (and try on) different identities before settling on one that is “just right.”
Precisely because camp environments provide fodder for the accompanying developmental work of becoming independent and forging stronger ties with peers, advancement toward identity attainment is a determining outcome of the overall summer camp experience.
Charting a Course
Much like sailing a boat, becoming the people they are likely to be for the rest of their lives requires a lot of tacking and course correction. Or, as Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), the main character in the television series The Wonder Years, once said, “Growing up doesn’t have to be so much a straight line as a series of advances and retreats.”
Such sentiment reflects the aforementioned sampling process that is a part of identity formation. And where better to find desirable attributes of others than at summer camp where role models abound?
That’s what the process looks like. But what does it feel like?
Here’s what Kevin Arnold had to say. “Growing up is never easy. You hold onto things that were; you wonder what’s to come . . . we knew it was time to let go of what had been, and look ahead to what would be — other days, new days, days to come.
“Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house like other houses, a yard like a lot of other yards, on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back, with wonder . . .
“Maybe there was a message in it all. The future was calling us, and no matter what, there was no turning back now” (Greeson, 2016).
No turning back for sure, but looking forward, with wonder and no small amount of courage. That may very well be what summer camps best promote.
In truth, as fast as childhood may seem to disappear, the actual work of assembling an identity may more closely represent a slog through an almost endless puzzle of figuring out the various facets of identity. Successfully surviving this journey is no small feat — and can be done only with the right input from the right people at the right time.
Michael Mulligan, head of The Thacher School, enumerated in a January 2015 Huffington Post article three important questions facing youth (Mulligan, 2015).
- Who tells us who we are?
- Where do we want to go with our lives?
- How do we get there?
Getting there, according to young people participating in a series of focus groups, requires a balance of responsibility, flexibility, determination, dependability, creativity, self-sufficiency, and loyalty.
Some of these correlate to the highly valued and much sought-after “soft” thinking skills. Others correlate to an equally important construct: resiliency.
These qualities do more than buffer young people from the prevailing, and sometimes harsh, trade winds of modern-day adolescence. They are the fundamental building blocks on which their lives, choices, successes — and, critically, failures — will be built. By definition, adolescence is about contradiction: becoming independent while still living at home; learning to be more self-directed while subjected to rule-setting by others; figuring out who they are (and are becoming), without really knowing what they want to be; urged to be responsible while surrounded by irresponsibility.
If it seems chaotic, it is. But that’s just a part of the process designed to help youth navigate a course toward happiness and success. In business, it’s called a “forced priority” tool, identifying and weighing all the available options to set (and fund) goals by level of importance.
In a sense, it’s all about who they choose to become.
Susan Wood, community outreach specialist at the Thrive Center in Pasadena, California, in her article “Finding Yourself in an Ocean of Options,” wrote, “Youth need coordinates to locate themselves — to form an identity.
“It’s dizzying. There are so many options to follow: It’s hard to know who you are and to whom you belong when you are following so much. How do you work out your sense of self, your identity, your purpose? How do you find the spark that’s unique to you — not a retweet of someone else’s? How do young people locate themselves when they’re awash in a sea of competing voices?
“A myriad of celebrities, social groups, cultural and sexual identities, fashion trends, hot-button causes all vie for youths’ attention and allegiance” (Wood, 2016).
“I used to love to play Battleship with my brothers — and now with my kids. Do you remember how you find a boat? C4, B6, A9. You locate the boats with coordinates. Youth need coordinates to locate themselves — to form an identity. They need reference points to know their course.”
A Proverbial Welcome Mat
Summer camps, like choices in a board game (or game show), may create such reference points in the form of welcoming, nurturing communities in which both challenges and choices can be tackled and clarified. Each offers proverbial welcome mats for young people of all ages, identities, races, nationalities, and genders.
In a February 2017 New York Times opinion piece, “Everyone Is Welcome Here,” Anna North spoke of a march she helped to organize in Portland, Maine, to support ninth graders affected by racial division and hate crimes. During the event, “Students chanted, ‘When they go low, we go high,’ and ‘No hate, no fear. Everyone is welcome here.’”
North cited the experience as “just one example of how communities will come together” and described the posting of signs stating, “‘We are here with you,’” and “‘You are loved’” (North, 2017).
The same might be said of summer camps across the country, offering young people a refuge to forge new paths and discover their true selves in supportive, caring communities where they can make choices that define who they become.
Photo courtesy of JCC Camp Chi, Lake Delton, Wisconsin.
Greeson, L. (2016). 10 life lessons as told by “The Wonder Years”. Odyssey. Retrieved from theodysseyonline.com/10-life-lessons-as-told-by-the-wonder-years
IMDb. (2017). “The Wonder Years” episode list. Retrieved from imdb.com/title/tt0094582/episodes?season=1
Isherwood, C. (2016, December 4). Review: In “Dear Evan Hansen,” a lonely teenager, a viral lie and a breakout star. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2016/12/04/theater/dear-evan-hansen-review.html
Indiana University. (2017). Goldilocks and the three bears. Indiana University Bloomington. Retrieved from indiana.edu/~slavicgf/e103/class/2011_02_21/goldilocks.html
LLI. (2017). In loco parentis. Legal Law Institute. Cornell Law School. Retrieved from law.cornell
Lovell, J. (2017, May 20). How a 23-year-old with mild anxiety and a charmed life became the lying, sobbing, lovesick toast of Broadway. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2017/05/10/theater/how-ben-platt-beame-the-toast-of-broadway-dear-evan-hansen-tony-awards
McLeod, S. (2017). Erik Erikson. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html#identity
Merriam-Webster. (2017). Adolescence. Retrieved from merriam-webster.com/dictionary/adolescence
Mulligan, M. (2015, January 20). The three most important questions you can ask your teenager. HuffPost. Retrieved from huffingtonpost
North, A. (2017, February 1). Everyone is welcome here. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes
Wallace, S. (2016, March 6). Who I am: identity and adolescence. Psychology Today. Retrieved from psychologytoday.com/blog/decisions-teens-make/201603/who-i-am
Wood, S. (2016, November 18). Finding yourself in an ocean of options. Thrive Center for Human Development. Retrieved from http://thethrivecenter.org/finding-yourself-in-an-ocean-of-options-2/
Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing favorable youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com. He is also an expert partner at RANE (Risk Assistance Network & Exchange) and was national chairman and chief executive officer at SADD for more than 15 years. Additional information about Stephen’s work can be found at StephenGrayWallace.com.
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