Raising Children | Walking in Flow


“Early childhood influences are also very likely factors in determining whether a person will or will not easily experience flow. There is ample evidence to suggest that how parents interact with a child will have a lasting effect on the kind of person that child grows up to be.” (88)


“There is no need to visit far-off lands to see how flow can be a natural part of living. Every child, before self-consciousness begins to interfere, acts spontaneously with total abandon and complete involvement. Boredom is something children have to learn the hard way, in response to artificially restricted choices. Again, this does not mean that children are always happy. Cruel or neglectful parents, poverty, and sickness, the inevitable accidents of living make children suffer intensely. But a child is rarely unhappy without good reason. It is understandable that people tend to be so nostalgic about their early years. Many feel that the wholehearted serenity of childhood, the undivided participation in the here and now, becomes increasingly difficult to recapture as the years go by.” (229)


“[Thus] the same need to constantly increase challenges and skills applies to one’s relationship with children. During the course of infancy and early childhood most parents spontaneously enjoy the unfolding of their babies’ growth: the first smile, the first word, the first few steps, the first scribbles. Each of these quantum jumps in the child’s skills becomes a new joyful challenge, to which parents respond by enriching the child’s opportunities to act. From the cradle to the playpen to the playground to kindergarten, the parents keep adjusting the balance of challenges and skills between the child and her environment. But by early adolescence, many teenagers get to be too much to handle. What most parents do at that point is to politely ignore their children’s lives, pretending that everything is alright, hoping against hope that it will be. Teenagers are physiologically mature beings, ripe for sexual reproduction; in most societies (and in ours too, a century or so ago) they are considered ready for adult responsibilities and appropriate recognition. Because our present social arrangements, however, do not provide adequate challenges for the skills teenagers have, they must discover opportunities for action outside those sanctioned by adults. The only outlets they find, all too often, are vandalism, delinquency, drugs, and recreational sex. Under existing conditions, it is very difficult for parents to compensate for the poverty of opportunities in the culture at large. In this respect, families living in the richest suburbs are barely better off than families living in the slums. What can a strong, vital, intelligent fifteen-year old do in your typical suburb? If you consider that question you will probably conclude that what is available is either too artificial, or too simple, or not exciting enough to catch a teenager’s imagination. It is not surprising that athletics are so important in suburban schools; compared to the alternatives, they provide some of the most concrete chances to exercise and display one’s skills. But there are some steps that families can take to partially alleviate this wasteland of opportunities. In older times, young men left home for awhile as apprentices and traveled to distant towns to be exposed to new challenges. Today something similar exists in America for late teens: the custom of leaving home for college. The problem remains with the period of puberty, roughly the five years between twelve and seventeen: What meaningful challenges can be found for young people that age? The situation is much easier when the parents themselves are involved in understandable and complex activities at home. If the parents enjoy playing music, cooking, reading, gardening, carpentry, or fixing engines in the garage, then it is more likely that their children will find similar activities challenging, and invest enough attention in them to begin enjoy doing something that will help them grow. If parents just talked more about their ideals and dreams--even if these had been frustrated--the children might develop the ambition needed to break through the complacency of their present selves. If nothing else, discussing one’s job or the thoughts and events of the day, and treating children as young adults, as friends, help to socialize them into thoughtful adults. But if the father spends all his free time at home vegetating in front of the TV set with a glass of alcohol in his hand, children will naturally assume that adults are boring people who don’t know how to have fun, and will turn to the peer group for enjoyment…. Most activities, including school, recreation, and employment, are under adult control and leave little room for the youths’ initiative. Lacking any meaningful outlet for their skills and creativity, they may turn to redundant partying, joyriding, malicious gossiping, or drugs and narcissistic introspection to prove to themselves that they are alive.” (182-184) “Much of what we label juvenile delinquency--car theft, vandalism, rowdy behavior in general--is motivated by the same need to have flow experiences not available in ordinary life. As long as a significant segment of society has few opportunities to encounter meaningful challenges, and few chances to develop the skills necessary to benefit from them, we must expect that violence and crime will attract those who cannot find their way to more complex autotelic experiences.” (69-70)


“People who as adults develop coherent life themes often recall that when they were very young, their parents told them stories and read from books. When told by a loving adult whom one trusts, fairy tales, biblical stories, heroic historical deeds, and poignant family events are often the first intimations of meaningful order a person gleans from the experience of the past. In contrast, we found in our studies that individuals who never focus on any goal, or accept one unquestioningly from the society around them, tend not to remember their parents having read or told stories to them as children. Saturday morning kiddie shows on television, with their pointless sensationalism, are unlikely to achieve the same purpose.” (236) “Instead of seeking the complexity of enjoyment, an ill-treated child is likely to grow up into an adult who will be satisfied to obtain as much pleasure as possible from life.” (90)


“How to restructure such an environment so as to make it sufficiently challenging is certainly one of the most pressing tasks parents of teenagers face. And it is of no value simply to tell one’s strapping adolescent children to shape up and do something useful. What does help are living examples and concrete opportunities. If these are not available, one cannot blame the young for taking their own counsel. Some of the tensions of teenage life can be eased if the family provides a sense of acceptance, control, and self-confidence to the adolescent. A relationship that has these dimensions is one in which people trust one another, and feel totally accepted. One does not have to worry constantly about being liked, being popular, or living up to others’ expectations… Being assured of one’s worth in the eyes of one’s kin gives a person the strength to take chances; excessive conformity is usually caused by fear of disapproval. It is much easier for a person to try developing her potential if she knows that no matter what happens, she has a safe emotional base in the family. Unconditional acceptance is especially important to children. If parents threaten to withdraw their love from a child when he fails to measure up, the child’s natural playfulness will be gradually replaced by chronic anxiety. However, if the child feels that his parents are unconditionally committed to his welfare, he can then relax and explore the world without fear; otherwise he has to allocate psychic energy ot his own protection, thereby reducing the amount he can freely dispose of. Early emotional security may well be one of the conditions that helps develop an autotelic personality in children. Without this, it is difficult to let go of the self long enough to experience flow. Love without strings attached does not mean, of course, that relationships should have no standards, no punishment for breaking the rules. When there is no risk attached to transgressing rules they become meaningless, and without meaningful rules an activity cannot be enjoyable. Children must know that parents expect certain things from them, and that specific consequences will follow if they don’t obey. But they must also recognize that no matter what happens, the parents’ concern for them is not in question. When a family has a common purpose and open channels of communication, when it provides gradually expanding opportunities for action in a setting of trust, then life in it becomes an enjoyable flow activity. Its members will spontaneously focus their attention on the group relationship, and to a certain extent forget their individual selves, their divergent goals, for the sake of experiencing the joy of belonging to a more complex system that joins separate consciousnesses in a unified goal.” (184-185)


Thus “the family context promoting optimal experience could be described as having five characteristics. The presence of these five conditions makes possible the AUTOTELIC FAMILY CONTEXT - they provide an ideal training for enjoying life. The five characteristics clearly parallel the dimensions of the flow experience. Children who grow up in family situations that facilitate clarity of goals, feedback, feeling of control, concentration on the task at hand, intrinsic motivation, and challenge will generally have a better chance to order their lives so as to make flow possible.

  1. Clarity: The teenagers feel that they know what their parents expect form them--goals and feedback in the family interaction are unambiguous.

  2. Centering: The children’s perception that their parents are interested in what they are doing in the present, in their concrete feelings and experiences, rather than being preoccupied with whether they will be getting into a good college or obtaining a well-paying job.

  3. Choice: Children feel that they have a variety of possibilities from which to choose, including that of breaking parental rules--as long as they are prepared to face the consequences.

  4. Commitment: The trust that allows the child to feel comfortable enough to set aside the shield of his defense and become unselfconsciously involved in whatever he is interested in.

  5. Challenge: The parents’ dedication to provide increasingly complex opportunities for action to their children.


Families that provide an autotelic context conserve a greater deal of psychic energy for their individual members, thus making it possible to increase enjoyment all around. (88-89)

“One of the most basic delusions of our time is that home life takes care of itself naturally, and that the best strategy for dealing with it is to relax and let it take its course…. the family, like any other joint enterprise needs constant investments of psychic energy to assure its existence.

To play the trumpet well, a musician cannot let more than a few days pass without practicing. An athlete who does not run regularly will soon be out of shape, and will no longer enjoy running. Any manager knows that his company will start falling apart if his attention wanders. In each case, without concentration, a complex activity breaks down into chaos. Why should the family be different? Unconditional acceptance, the complete trust family members ought to have for one another, is meaningful only when it is accompanied by an unstinting investment of attention. Otherwise it is just an empty gesture, a hypocritical pretense indistinguishable from disinterest.” (185)



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