Take the Leap
Growth Through Risk
July, 1987. High noon. A day that would live in infamy. On the pool deck, one terrified five year-old boy in elastic-waist swim trunks trying to fathom how plunging in headfirst would result in anything but certain death. In the water, one supremely confident father, also in elastic-waist swim trunks, patiently attempting to persuade his eldest son to dive. Elaborate bribes of candy and playtime were thrown around like rice at a cartoon wedding.
We must have been quite a sight for the lifeguards and other families at the pool that day. Back and forth we went for at least fifteen minutes, like two wrestlers angling tirelessly for leverage, neither quite gaining the upper hand long enough to pin the other. Until my Pops finally won. I fixed my gaze on the spot next to him, placed my right hand on top of my left and made a pyramid above my head. I then took a deep breath, leaned forward, closed my eyes, and waited for the reaper to take me.
My first dive.
Later that night, my dad proudly reminded me of my feat. I dived, and yet lived. I learned a lot that day about risk, trust, and courage. Those lessons, which came at such a high price to my young nerves, have paid many dividends in the decades since. Whether it was playing a big soccer game, learning a new instrument, applying to colleges, or asking my wife to marry me, my decision making abilities have been influenced, and significantly so, by my first dive. One might say it has helped with every leap since.
Cute story? Yes. But I may have done you a disservice by presenting it so simply. I may have derived some positive and useful lessons from that day, but in fairness I could have just as easily walked away with negative ones. For instance, “The Dive” could have been the birth of a paralyzing lifelong phobia of water, or elastic. It could have buried a splinter of suspicion between my father and me that years later festered into full-blown distrust. I walked away with a willingness to take risks, but I could have walked a way with a compulsion to avoid them. Here’s the difference-maker: interpretation.
Making Sense of Experience
My parents made a conscious and consistent effort to help me process that day in ways that were healthy. We’ve had plenty of laughs about it, sure, but we’ve also had a number of fruitful discussions to help me derive some really great outcomes from a scenario that might otherwise have led to some really bad ones. In other words, it is not strictly speaking the event that shaped me, but the interpretation of it – and my parents played a key role in that interpretive process.
During the journey of adolescence, young people become worker bees of interpretation, constantly examining the events of their lives from a variety of angles – some of which they have never considered before. Most everyone in a student’s life – family, peers, youth workers, coaches, even their Facebook friends – has some kind of opportunity to influence her interpretive mechanisms. Without a doubt, a large portion of my job as a youth pastor could be accurately described as equipping students to interpret their lives and their world through the lens of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Parents have already been doing this with their children long before I ever enter the picture.
Many, if not most, of these opportunities to teach interpretation occur spontaneously. However, what if we did not have to wait for fate to arbitrarily send these opportunities our way? What if we could create planned, thought-provoking opportunities and then help students make sense of them afterward?
I am not talking about trying to control every event in a student’s life (as if that were even possible), but rather strategically offering experiences that have the potential to challenge and stretch students, and then being a key part of the process of challenging and stretching.
This happens every time parents take their child to serve the homeless and afterward debrief things like poverty and helping others, or when a youth group takes students river rafting and then later leverages the experience into a conversation about community and our need for one another that evening around the campfire. The key element here is risk, because it compels the student toward new thoughts and decisions. Without realizing it, many parents and youth workers already understand and believe in this model. Hopefully, by adding a little research-based context, we can maximize our future efforts in this vein for the benefit of students.
Anatomy of a Decision
Nearly fifty years ago, psychologist James Marcia published a theory of adolescent identity development that has been enriching research, parenting, and youth work ever since. 1 He argues that the two central criteria which mitigate a student’s journey through adolescence are exploration and commitment; exploration describes a student earnestly considering things like vocation, friends, sex, God, etc., and commitment is the moment when that student begins to make life choices based on her discoveries.
Marcia also observed something that parents and youth workers have long known from experience: some decisions are the result of a long process of balanced thought, while other decisions are not. Marcia nuances this into the following four categories: 2
- Identity diffusion occurs when a student is unable to, or not interested, in making a commitment to any particular identity. The 14-year-old girl who wanders in and out of youth group as predictably as she wanders from relationship to relationship with guys is diffused. She’s not looking to figure out who she really is – yet.
- Foreclosure occurs when students embrace clear commitments, but they’re really the commitments of their parents or culture, chosen without exploring options.
- Moratorium (sometimes referred to as “crisis”) is a time of exploring options of who a student wants to be.
- Those who resolve moratorium by making clear commitments have reached identity Achievement.
By default, many if not most young people are either foreclosed or diffused on major issues (e.g. faith, sexuality, and so forth), meaning their views are either mainly those of their parents/coaches/youth workers/friends (foreclosed), or partially formed but amazingly easy to sway (diffused). Adolescence, after all, is a time of (re)establishing oneself as an individual in light of and against prior contexts.
In Marcia’s system, it is personal crisis that acts as a catalyst in the formation of a personalized individual identity, i.e. the “real me” that students are working so hard to forge. Precisely at this time is when parents and youth workers can utilize the controlled risk involved in experiences like rock climbing, snow camping, or justice experiences like World Vision’s 30-Hour Famine. In Marcia’s terminology, the element of risk here is “moratorium,” providing a powerful, attention-getting opportunity to help students think in new ways about what they believe. Ideally, a student emerges from one of these experiences with a commitment nurtured by the information we give them, and empowered by the fact that they – themselves – chose it.
The High Dive
An example might go like this: Annabelle is a high school senior whose grades and scores earned her a scholarship that would make her the first in her family to go to college, but the school is two states away, and Annabelle has never even left her area code. At first she was ambivalent (diffused), and then excited from the encouragement of her family (foreclosed)…until the reality of living far from home became more concrete (moratorium). The deadline to respond is edging closer, and Annabelle does not know what to do.
One Saturday morning, Annabelle’s mom takes her to the local indoor pool. They’ve done this before, and normally they swim a little and chat a lot. This time, however, Annabelle’s mom leaves her things on a chair, makes her way to the 10m platform, climbs all the way up and, to Annabelle’s shock, executes a perfect pencil dive into the water over thirty feet below. And then it’s Annabelle’s turn. After much gnashing of teeth, she finally gathers the gumption to duplicate her brave mother’s accomplishment.
Later, as they warm up over hot chocolate and celebrate their adrenaline high, Annabelle’s mother explains that even though she’s afraid of heights and was never particularly athletic, she always wanted to do that, and would not trade the feeling she has right now for anything. She explains that fear can help keep you alive, but when it dominates your decision-making, it can keep you from really living. By the end of their discussion, Annabelle realizes that the only thing holding her back from college is fear of the unknown.
Two weeks later, as she drops her acceptance letter to college into the mailbox, she remembers the feeling she had on the top of that high dive. She realizes that the decision she is making is not easy, nor risk free, but it is good.
The point is this: Annabelle’s mother brokered an experience of controlled risk and then guided the time of interpretation afterward. Doing so awakened Annabelle to a reality she was not seeing, and gave her the ability to make an informed, wise decision.
What are your local “risk-rich” opportunities? Things like rock-climbing gyms (or real rocks), bodies of water, or go-kart tracks might be a good place to start. Who are some people who can resource “risk-rich” opportunities?
- Make some calls. Can the places you’ve identified accommodate your family or group’s size and needs? Do you have to be 18 or over? (If so, what a great staff or family bonding exercise!) After that, make some site visits. It’s well worth the time it takes.
- Cover your bases. If you are a youth worker, run the ideas by your supervisor(s), wise friends, key parents, and so forth. Also, permission slips are usually a good idea here!
- Once you decide what to do, give plenty of advance notice to parents. It will equip them to participate in the process of post-event debrief and interpretation, and they will be much more forgiving if little Suzie indeed tweaks her hamstring or gets bit by a deer.
- Recruit some students to be publicists. In my experience, most students jump at the chance to be the public face of something awesome. Their energy lends more credibility and momentum to an upcoming event than you and I could ever hope to generate.
- Get by with a little help from your friends. The more adults can help out, the more the students can feel loved and be kept safe. This may be a great chance to invite some adventure-seeking types toward a unique, custom-fit role on the volunteer staff team.
- Create time for your own post-event debrief to help students process and make meaning of their experiences in light of their ongoing identity development. If you’re a parent, DON’T SKIP THIS PART! With your own kids (and others if they’ve joined you), make space for this critically-important processing.