The Impact of Agency: Taking Ownership

During the school year, for the most part at least, most children will more or less go where they are told. Each day, they will either wait for the bus or get in the car at a designated location, which will take them to school. They will then likely travel to their pre-assigned homeroom, before embarking on a day of pre-selected classes. Perhaps they have some decision making powers when it comes to after school activities – however, even in these cases, these activities are often times chosen for the child by their parents who have identified the activities they think their child will like, or activities they think will be “good” for their child. When I was in elementary and middle school, I participated in a plethora of organized sports and arts activities – many of which I loved and all of which were helpful to my development – however I don’t have many distinct memories of “choosing” to try something. I played basketball – one day I was signed up for a rec league, and years later this progressed to a travel team. But while I loved the sport, I don’t recall ever choosing to participate – it was something I just did. And while I did develop a greater deal of “say” in the components of my daily life as I got older, even these choices tended to be limited by the scope of what was available – I don’t think I recognized my individual ownership and agency until I was about 16 years old.

One reason that summer is such an important time for kids and teens alike is that it provides a structure for kids and teens to take on this agency, and exercise their decision making muscles in a safe and structured environment. At many camps, kids will be responsible for determining some or all aspects of their schedule. For many campers, this is the first time their interests will determine their choices. When we meet with Everything Summer client families, I am always fascinated by the differences that arise when a parent talks about what activities their child enjoys, as opposed to when the child discusses what activities they want to try. Parents will oftentimes focus on the things their child already does or does well – she is a horseback rider, he loves soccer, etc. However, time and time again, we find that the activities that matter most to the child are the ones they have never experienced, but that excite them on a visceral level. Camp provides these children an opportunity to choose to pursue these heretofore unexperienced activities, which can ultimately develop into lifelong passions. And I firmly believe that there is a correlation between choice and engagement – when a child chooses an experience, and thus takes ownership, they are investing themselves in their experience. This makes them more likely to stick with an activity when it inevitably gets tough, and to more strongly identify with their progress and participation.

While high school students and teens will certainly have been exposed to more choices than their younger counterparts, the summer can still be a great time for them to experience the agency that is oftentimes limited during the school year. Now more than ever, the academic year is rigorously structured, both academically and extracurricularly. If a student has a specific and acute academic interest that lies outside of the standard offerings of a curriculum, they must either make do with what their school offers, or invest valuable and limited free time to further exploring an academic interest. In high school, I was fascinated by classical history and art history (and I remain fascinated to this day). I was extremely fortunate in that my high school offered AP Art History, which I took – however, even this equated to a few weeks studying the Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans, before progressing to the art and architecture of the middle ages. Over the summer, however, I was able to participate in a Pre-college program with seminars focusing on Classical Archaeology and Art & Architecture – I was able to expand upon my interests, further exploring the subject area that very nearly became my college major.

Even if a student’s interest lies outside of the strictly academic, the opportunity to choose to pursue an experience in depth can be personally fulfilling, as well as enlightening. When I chose to spend the summer after my sophomore year of high school attending lacrosse camps in an attempt to be recruited, I ultimately had to confront the fact that I simply didn’t love lacrosse the way I thought I did. I could not blame this experience (as I’ve blamed many others) on my parents for forcing me to participate in something I wasn’t that excited about – I alone had made the decision to attend lacrosse camps, and so I had to confront the fact that this ultimately was not going to be the straightforward step forward that I initially believed it would be. This was a pivotal experience for me as I became comfortable with myself and the activities I enjoyed doing – one year later I had hung up my lacrosse cleats to participate in a production of Romeo and Juliet. And the summer after my senior year of high school, when I had the opportunity to travel to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with an original school theatrical production, I realized the degree to which I was fascinated by theatre and the theatrical community.

In my experience, there are two commonly held beliefs that tend to unite parents across the country and the world. The first of these is simple –they want what’s best for their child. The second belief, however, is more complicated and can be difficult to overcome – they know what’s best for their child. More often than not, a child or teen who is given the opportunity to have agency within their summer will surprise their parents with their decision making, independence, and growth. And in the end, isn’t this what all parents are after?