Identity Discovery

A report just in from the fifteen-year-old counselor-in-training I last wrote about. She writes, “I’ve just been recuperating from an amazing (but tiring) week at camp. It was such a great experience and I learned so much. I’m in what we like to call a ‘post camp depression’ wishing to go back.” Campers apparently sign up for one or two week stays and the training for future counselors is organized accordingly.

I learned further that she had 9 and 10-year-old girls in her bunk and for many of them it was their first year at camp. She had to deal with some homesickness and dehydration, explaining that with younger kids you can’t get them to drink water and the heat made them tired. The solution was to have more water breaks during activities.

She found that if one girl was homesick it led to others becoming homesick. However, once they were involved in activities they got over it and the girls all had a great week. The goal for her group was that when they left they should feel that they wanted to come back.

She herself learned more about how things work at camp and was surprised by how involved the CITs actually were. Although the counselors had more responsibilities they were more willing than she expected to let a CIT handle a situation – like a girl’s homesickness. At times the line between the counselor and CIT was blurred.

The difference from having been a camper herself was not only in the responsibility but also in having more freedom, such as at night when campers have a curfew. “You learn what it is like to be on the opposite side of how things go that you experienced as a camper.”

Listening to these observations from a fifteen-year-old brought to mind the developmental theories of famed psychologist Erik Erikson who defined the significant developmental stages of life. Specifically, his stage 5, called “Identity vs Role Confusion”, refers to the adolescent years 13-21. According to Erikson, development from previous stages depends on what is done to an individual, whereas from this stage forward development depends on what the individual herself, does.

In his view this stage marks the shift from childhood to adulthood and is the turning point of human development, the time when the person develops the ability to search for his own meanings and directions, as well as others. Adolescents contemplate on the role they want to play in the adult world and learn to develop a solid relationship and commitment to their principles, ideals and friends.

Erikson writes of possible confusion about what role they want to embody as they get to experience mixed feelings and ideas about how they will fit into society. The resolution of this “identity confusion” is characterized by developing self-esteem and self-confidence, personal identity and pride, dignity and standards, and appreciating useful personal roles and reasons for being successful.

It is interesting to contemplate how any individual situation fits Erikson’s developmental description. In this instance what strikes me is this 15-year-old taking from her experience, “You learn what it is like to be on the opposite side of how things go that you experienced as a camper.” Having recently been a camper she now has been exposed to the perspective of one in an authority role.

This sounds like an important step on the road from childhood to adulthood. Young people tend to see the rules and regulations of parents and teachers as serving no purpose other than frustrating the youngsters’ own wishes.

My granddaughter sent me this quote as her final thought: “I have a conviction that a few weeks spent in a well organized summer camp may be of more value educationally than a whole year of formal school work.” Charles William Eliot