BYU research shows how families can be strengthened through experiencing adventures together.
It seems intuitive that families that play together are happier than those that don’t. Research, in fact, backs up that general idea. Delve a little deeper, and it seems logical that some kinds of recreation might build happier families than others. Going to Disneyland, for example, “the happiest place on earth,” makes families happiest, doesn’t it? Well, no. At least not necessarily, say BYU researchers Brian J. Hill, ’86, and Mark A. Widmer, ’88, who have been studying family recreation.
Think about it. How unifying is it, really, if Mom heads for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with the younger kids and Dad goes off to the Matterhorn with the older ones? They meet up in the middle of the day to wolf down hot dogs and Orange Crush before splitting up again. Contrast that scenario with a family survival trek: Instead of flying off in different directions, you stick together almost all the time (okay, not an entirely attractive notion); instead of studying the Disneyland map to find Frontierland, you study topographical maps, a guide to native plants and animals, and astronomy.
The survival trek, the BYU researchers explain, is a far more family-strengthening and satisfying experience than Disneyland. The difference is the challenge, which in turn provides abundant opportunities for families to problem-solve together. The results, say Hill and Widmer, include an array of family benefits.
“If you can move a family into a new environment with challenging activities where they have to work together and spend extended time together, then you see improvements in communication, increased trust and support, increased affection and kindness, and reduced conflict. These things work together to improve family cohesion,” says Hill, chair of BYU’s Recreation Management and Youth Leadership Department.
He and Widmer, an associate professor in the department, have conducted studies to explore the dividends challenging activities (not necessarily as severe as a survival trek) can yield families. Joining them are associate professor Patti A. Freeman, ’88, and instructor Mary Sara Wells, ’01, both in recreation management and youth leadership, as well as J. Kelly McCoy, an assistant professor of marriage, family, and human development, graduate student Christy Huff, ’02, and dozens of undergraduates.
In one study they followed several groups of families involved in outdoor recreation at various levels of difficulty and observed how such recreation affects parent-adolescent communication. They decided that, unlike other studies, they wouldn’t ask only the parents about their experiences but the teenagers too. The first group, with seven families, did a four-day survival experience: hiking with handmade backpacks through harsh desert terrain; gathering their own grubs, grasshoppers, and ants for meals; and collecting water from puddles in an otherwise dry riverbed. Eight families went on a handcart trek, the “intermediate” challenge. For 16 miles over four days, they pulled handcarts loaded with food and gear. Instead of grubs and grasshoppers, they enjoyed fruit, bagels, barbequed chicken, and stew. Eight families stayed at a ranch, sleeping in rustic cabanas, enjoying water relays and canoeing, and eating meals prepared by ranch staff.
The researchers found communication did improve, especially for the survival and rustic camp families. Interviews with the teens and parents showed that the novel environment seemed to trigger new ways of communicating, like expressing affection. A teen from the handcart trek said in his post-trek interview, “I feel comfortable just going up and giving my dad a hug now because we have had to work shoulder to shoulder so much. We have had that close contact.”
A recent study by Widmer,Wells, and McCoy, reported in the April 2004 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Family Relations, zeroed in on families with at-risk youth. The researchers theorized that challenging recreation provides an “overwhelming mastery experience” and increases the family’s “collective efficacy”—a concept developed by Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura that means the belief among members of a group that together they can overcome whatever challenges come their way. According to Bandura, such a belief can profoundly improve behavior over the long term.
The results were encouraging. Almost all families in the three treatment groups experienced increased efficacy. In general, the higher the perceived challenge, the greater the gains. And as before, the fresh settings helped family members see one another in new ways. For example, says Widmer, when parents are pulling a handcart and the littlest kids have walked the quarter mile they’re capable of and are now in the handcart, Mom and Dad need help: “The parents are in the yoke pulling, but they’re not strong enough, and suddenly you have these teenagers who’ve always been just a burden put their hand near Dad’s and help pull. They’re helping their parents do something the parents cannot do without them. The parents change the way they see their kids, and the kids change the way they see their parents. There’s a redefinition of family roles.”
The beauty of a wilderness experience is that the challenges aren’t simulated, like a ropes course. If a critical problem comes up and a teenager is needed, the parents didn’t create the need, like a teenager thinks they do when they come up with chores. In the wilderness, the needs are real, says Hill. “At home kids often learn that, ‘Gee, if I don’t do the dishes or if I moan enough I’ll still be fed. There’s no real harm that will come to my family.’ That changes. It’s like, ‘Okay, we need water or we’re not going to eat tonight.'”
Hill said his interest in this line of study goes back to 1997, when he was CEO of the reenactment of the Mormon Trail trek from Omaha to the Salt Lake Valley. “I saw things begin to happen to families and the group as a whole that were very Zion-like. They were starting to be of one heart and mind. They started to share things. They treated each other like family whether they knew somebody’s name or not,” he says. “It really impressed me. It made me wonder whether other difficult things we do in life as a group of people have an impact on the way we feel about each other and on long-term relationships.”
Widmer’s interest goes back to previous studies with the effect of challenging recreation on at-risk youth. It always bothered him that most therapeutic wilderness programs treat the teenager as though he or she were the problem when the problem almost always includes parents and siblings. “The child is part of the problem,” says Widmer. “I got more interested in trying to impact the whole family rather than just the child.”
So if your family is cohesive and communicates well, can you just go to Disneyland? Well, pure fun, as opposed to challenging recreation, has its place. Variety is nice, too. But Hill and Widmer think it’s a good idea for all families to find challenging activities. “When I talk to people I use the term ‘adventure.’ Every so often a family needs to do something adventurous,” says Hill.
Parents should be prepared to spend some time planning and preparing. Adventures that include challenge almost never happen spontaneously. “The research is clear that you can’t have good experiences by just sitting around. It almost always takes effort and concentration. It’s not like watching TV or going to the movies or going to Disneyland,” says Hill.
Of course, it’s possible for parents to go to a lot of trouble to design the perfect adventure for their family and find that it doesn’t turn out very well. Putting your family in a situation they can’t handle, like going on a survival trek when you’ve never been camping, is a setup for disappointment. “It just raises the conflict and you just get more frustrated,” says Widmer.
He encourages families to find an activity that provides an appropriate level of challenge for their circumstances and abilities and that includes opportunities for learning: “Focus on teaching the kids names of the plants and animals, the parts of a boat, how to paddle and guide the boat, how to fly fish, how to understand the life cycle of the fish.”
Hill says the basic message is that it’s good to do hard things.
“Instead of going to Disneyland, go to a dude ranch. Why don’t you go backpacking together? Try sailing. Go river rafting. Do something you haven’t done.”
Sue Bergin is an adjunct faculty member in the BYU Honors Program and a writer and editor in Orem, Utah.
Do’s and Don’ts of Family Adventures
• Do set aside enough time for choosing an activity, planning it, and preparing for it, and include all family members in this process.
• Don’t make some family members (like Mom) take on more than their share of planning and preparing.
• Do choose recreation that will challenge family members to learn new skills.
• Don’t choose recreation that is so challenging it’s likely to create more frustration than unity.
• Do expect hitches in your plans, complications once you’re on your adventure, and conflict over how to solve the problems.
• Don’t overreact when inevitable complications appear. Instead, treat problems with humor and patience.
• Do adapt recreation to meet your family’s specific needs.