The Franklins were making what seemed to be a last-ditch effort to save their family. They had enrolled themselves and their two teenage daughters in a four-day survival program. Several families were participating in the program. The first day, staff members presented each family with a survival kit that included the bare essentials. The staff also demonstrated the proper way to start a bowdrill fire, a complicated fire-starting method not requiring matches or any other supplies (see the video bowdrill fire demonstration). The Franklins, along with the other families, were expected to be able to start their own fires each night thereafter. After two days of strenuous hiking in stifling heat, the group made camp atop a mesa. The night air was filled with celebratory shouts and screams as family after family successfully ignited their bowdrill fires. Meanwhile, the Franklins were struggling. The father was trying unsuccessfully to mimic the example of the staff members from the night before. Because he could not apply enough pressure, the drill kept springing out of place and slipping from his grasp. Finally, after the drill had gone flying once more, one of the daughters picked it up, placed it again in its proper position, put her hand on her father’s, and together they were able to apply enough pressure to start their own fire.
Two days later, at the conclusion of the program, the father expressed the significance of that experience, explaining that over the last few months, he had come to see his daughters only as problems and sources of conflict in his family life. In the moment his daughter placed her hand on his in an act of support and help, it was the first time he had felt love toward his daughter in years. With tears in her eyes, his daughter expressed the same sentiment.
The most meaningful, memorable, and growing family experiences are often challenging. One researcher refers to these experiences as optimal experiences. Optimal experiences are something we make happen; they are not found in the passive moments of our family life. Instead, they most often occur when people are stretched to the limits of their physical and mental capacity as they accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. They are recognized by the feelings they produce—feelings of absorption in the activity, loss of perception of time, loss of self-consciousness, and an enlivening sense of transcendence.
Doing hard things as a family enables you as parents to teach your children important social and personal lessons. Furthermore, doing hard things gives you both the opportunity to learn more about (and in your children’s case, form) your personal identities as well as shape a shared family identity. Engaging in challenging activities provides the opportunity for optimal experiences within the family. The less engaging or challenging the activity, the less likely it will become an optimal experience. Likewise, the more challenging an activity and the lower the skill level, the less likely it will be to become an optimal experience. The key is to match skill level and challenge when pursuing optimal experiences (see chart below) (Insert Flow Diagram).
Finding challenging activities for families with members at different physical and development levels requires some creativity. Family members with higher skill levels can teach or team up with family members with lower skill levels. Specific activities can also be adapted to fit individual needs. For example, older children can be given extra responsibility, more in-depth instructions, and more detailed challenges. Younger children can be given simplified versions of activities that, while not challenging to other members of the family perhaps, will be challenging to them.