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Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem 91905, Israel.

Key Educational Experiences in Israeli Families: Adventures, Trust and Self-Discovery

This paper highlights the importance of key educational experiences for studies of family socialization. It shows that these rare yet decisive educative events constitute opportunities for self-discovery and personal transformation. The empirical investigation is based on a large qualitative study of key educational experiences in Israel, using retrospective accounts provided by adults speaking about their best educational experiences, focusing on episodes that took place in the family. The results suggest that surprising challenges in the family affected self-discovery, and that these outstanding events allowed people to choose new biographical trajectories. Specifically, they point to the centrality of "outward bound" experiences and to the role that the crossing of normative boundaries plays in forming turning points in people's lives. Coupled with an undercurrent of supportive trust, these episodes constituted arenas for biographical turning points and had long lasting effects. Based on these results, the new approach proposed here seeks to complement cumulative models in family socialization literature, and to open up new avenues for research on families and the educational role they play.

GAD YAIR, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem 91905, Israel.

Key Educational Experiences in Israeli Families: Adventures, Trust and Self-Discovery

Cet article souligne l'importance des experiencescles dans 1'etude de la socialisation familiale. Il en ressort qu'il s'agit la d'evenements educatifs decisifs, dormant l'occasion de la decouverte en soi et de sa transfiguration personnelle. Cette recherche empirique se base sur une analyse qualitative etendue, des experiences-cles sur 1'education en Israel, basees sur des experiences vecues par des adultes par rapport a leur meilleures epreuves educationnelles, se concentrant principalement sur des evenements qui se sont passes au sein de leur famille. Il en ressort que des evenements exceptionnels qui se sont passes au sein de leur famille ont affectes leur revelation intime et que des evenements particuliers ont permis a ces gens-la de se choisir des nouvelles voies biographiques. Ils demontrent l'importance des ces experiences "externes" et du role joue par le passage des frontieres normatives, au point de changer extensivement leurs propres vies. Ces episodes, accompagnes par une confiance intuitive et soutenue, constituent des arenes, contenant des points biographiques primordiaux avec des effets de longue portee. En nous basant sur ces resultats, cette nouvelle approche que nous vous proposons id, cherche a completer des modeles cumulatifs dans la litterature, qui se refere a la socialisation familiale, ainsi qu'a ouvrir des nouvelles voies dans la recherche sur la famille et les roles qu'ils jouent dans le domaine de 1'education.

GAD YAIR, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem 91905, Israel.

Key Educational Experiences in Israeli Families: Adventures, Trust and Self-Discovery

El siguiente articulo destaca la importancia de experiencias educativas clave para los estudios sobre socialization familiar. El articulo demuestra que estos eventos poco frecuentes pero a la vez decisivos presentan oportunidades de descubrimiento y transformation personal. La investigation empirics esta basada en un exlenso estudio cualitativo acerca de experiencias educativas clave en Israel, el cual utiliza relates retrospectivos de adultos sobre sus mejores experiencias educativas y se centra en episodios que tuvieron lugar en la familia. Los resultados sugieren que la experiencia de descubrimiento personal se ve afectada por desaffos sorpresivos en la familia y que estos eventos extraordinarios permiten a quienes los viven elegir nuevas trayectorias biograficas. En particular, los resultados senalan la importancia de actividades al aire libre y el papel que la transgresion de limites normativos juega en la creation de puntos de transition en las vidas de las personas. Si a esto se suma un trasfondo de confianza y apoyo, podemos ver que estos episodios constituyen escenarios propicios para la aparicion de puntos de transicion en la biografia de las personas y que tienen efectos duraderos. Basandose en estos resultados, el nuevo enfoque aqui propuesto busca complementar modelos acumulativos existentes en la literatura sobre socializacion familiar y abrir nuevas rutas de investigacion sobre la familia y el rol educativo que esta desempena.

Full Text :COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Comparative Family Studies

This paper seeks to highlight the importance of key educational experiences for studies of family socialization. It accentuates the role of rare yet decisive educative events, and shows that such one-time episodes may constitute opportunities for self-discovery and personal transformation. Such key educative experiences in the family-mostly when young-can provide leaps in learning about the self, and hence constitute unplanned yet potent events in identity formation. Key experiences--like the turning points that they sometime facilitate (Abbott, 2001)-are defined here as retrospective accounts that actors provide while narrating their biographies. They are those experiences that actors subjectively define to be the most important events in their lives. Actors causally link those events to different outcomes that have resulted from the episodes, and regard them to be the most decisive events in their socialization. In contrast to repeated, consistent and slowly accumulating events, key experiences focus on unexpected, non-recurring yet subjectively highly-charged events. The proposed approach seeks to highlight the importance of such challenging events that took place in families and to point to their importance in the study of personal growth in the family.

Major schools in family socialization theory (see review in Klein & White, 1996) emphasize that familial effects result from long-term cumulative processes. Behaviorist approaches, for example, assume that consistent and persistent parental behavior is gradually reflected in parallel behavior among children and adolescents. Social learning theory is constituted by similar assumptions, namely that the educational effects of families are constructed. by repeated behaviors that slowly accumulate to form traits, habits and tastes. This incremental approach has provided important insights into family processes and allowed us to learn much about the long-term effects of families on children and adolescents (Bankston, 1998; Conley, 2001; DiMaggio, 1982; Klein & White, 1996; Marjoribanks, 1998; Teachman, 1987; White, 2000; Widlak & Perrucci, 1988).

Nevertheless, the cumulative approach may have turned a blind eye to important processes of family socialization. The present analysis of key educational experiences in the family shows that the effects of the family are not wholly slow and accumulative. The empirical evidence presented here shows that some experiences-similar to traumas caused by singular negative events-took place within the span of one afternoon, as a result of a single conversation, or during a one-time family outing. In some sense one may refer to these educational experiences as "positive traumas." Complementing the slow and incremental model commonly used in socialization research and theory, I suggest that under some conditions the effects of the family may be also explained using a "big bang" metaphor (see debate in Cziko, 1989; Hunter & Benson, 1997).

The proposed concept of key experiences reverberates with the notion of a turning point (Abbott, 2001); it implies that key educational events may serve as the catalyst for personal transformation, where the past and the future disconnect. Major scholars in this vein have defined turning points as events when "new situations ... knife off the past from the present" (Sampson & Laub, 2005); "when future prospects appear really contingent, future events really indeterminate, the moment truly instantaneous, suspended, its consequences unpredicted and unpredictable" (Bourdieu, 1988, p. 182). Similarly, this paper argues that key educational experiences in the family constitute the grounds for some unique familial effects on children and adolescents, at times to the point of instigating a true transformation in their behavior and identity. The proposed approach to the analysis of key educational experiences in the family may therefore provide a new slant for understanding the effects of family socialization processes on children and adolescents. While it opens up a new area for understanding individual development in families, the proposed approach may also serve to challenge family theorists and clinicians to consider positive nodal events more centrally in their work.

What are Key Educational Experiences?

In a series of works, Abraham Maslow (Maslow, 1968,1970,1971) coined the concept "peak experience" to denote ecstatic, highly-emotional short-term experiences, partly reminiscent of William James' characterization of episodes of religious "conversion" (James, 1961; Maslow, 1970). Maslow based his observations of peak experiences on a small and highly-selected sample of individuals. Nevertheless, he was extremely perceptive in describing such episodes, suggesting that they combine cognitive, emotional and identity components. Maslow believed that peak experiences have positive long-term effects on adult life outcomes, and that they are more important for understanding individuals and their life course than slowly-accumulated ordinary experiences are. Implicitly, he suggested that long-term effects of peak experiences result from a process of identity transformation or self discovery. In a public lecture delivered in 1961, Maslow described individuals who reported having peak experiences:

"I found that these individuals tended to report having had something
like mystic experiences, moments of great awe, moments of the most
intense happiness or even rupture, ecstasy or bliss. ... These
moments were of pure, positive happiness when all doubts, all fears,
all inhibitions, all tensions, all weaknesses, were left behind. Now
self-consciousness was lost. ... These experiences ... came from ...
great moments of insight and discovery ... [I learned that] this was
a natural, not a supernatural experience, and I gave up the name
"mystic" experience and started calling them peak-experiences. They
can be studied scientifically. ... Peak experiences are far more
common than I had ever expected. ... Practically everybody reports
peak-experiences if approached and questioned and encouraged in the
right way ..." (pp. 9-11).
Maslow's study of peak experiences was deficient in several respects, particularly the restricted samples he studied, which were approached through therapeutic sessions. Nevertheless, his work provided a foundation for later, albeit limited and disciplinary-cornered, developments in studies of personality and human development (D.P. McAdams, 1996; Singer, 2004). A few studies have digressed from the experimental paradigm and focused on peak experiences in natural settings (Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997; Hoffman, 1998; Lanier, Privette, Vodanovich, & Bundrick, 1996; Privette & Bundrick, 1991; Schutz, 1994; Stewart, 1976; Walters & Gardner, 1986). For example, Hoffman (1998) showed that adults remember peak experiences that occurred very early in life, and that these experiences had lasting effects. Similarly, Lanier et al (1996) showed that peak experiences have many triggers, yet they have similar lasting effects on individuals. Some of their respondents regarded these experiences as turning points in their lives.

Walters and Gardner used the notion of "crystallizing" experiences (Gardner, 1983, 1993; Walters & Gardner, 1986), suggesting that such experiences may have two future-directing effects: They may allow individuals to discover hidden potential (initiating experiences), or-if they are already aware of their skills-they may help individuals aim at concrete, yet previously unanticipated, paths (refining experiences). Based on analyses of biographies and interviews, their study emphasized that crystallizing experiences have a sudden and tremendous impact on adult life outcomes, showing that a few highly potent experiences are important for understanding adult development.

Building on these prior foundations, the current study uses the concept of "key educational experiences" to denote those educational experiences that people regard as having helped them shape their life course (Yair, 2003). The new term, "key experience," suggests that the type of experiences studied here serve as keys to understanding people's lives, largely because the experiences touched upon the individual's sense of self and personal identity. Therefore, these episodes are not just "peak," existential, subjectively-positive experiences. Rather, by changing people's identities, they are decisive in affecting their adult lives. Indeed, in describing their key educational experiences, respondents narrated stories of personal growth and self-discovery. They also used metaphors such as "a big bang," "a turning point," and "metamorphosis" to characterize the effects of these highly-motivating experiences on their lives. Furthermore, while I define the ideal-typical key experience as single, bounded event, these experiences do range empirically over a continuum, from short-term episodes (e.g., a one-time conversation with the parents) to outstanding and unconventional activities that may last weeks or months. Such experiences differ from ordinary, cumulative, day-today events in triggering together cognitive learning, emotional excitation, and self-discovery (see Yair, 2006 for discussion).

Previous publications from this project (Yair, 2006, 2008a, 2008b) have suggested that-similar to Maslow's argument-key educational experiences combine three interrelated psychological processes: Cognitive, emotional, and identity-related. Respondents reported that during their key educational experiences they learned new information or enjoyed an outstanding cognitive insight. At the same time, these episodes were often emotionally charged, and this fact made the experience more meaningful and decisive. Finally, the most unique element during such episodes is what we call self-discovery (Yair 2008b): Respondents tell that most significant where the moments where they learned about themselves, about their skills, capacities and traits. Such surprising self-realizations provided opportunities for transformation and even personal leaps.

One could well argue that the family provides ripe grounds for such experiences, because it is the most emotionally-charged institution in people's lives. On the other hand, however, families may be said to be domesticities-they are based on repetitive and even trivial schedules (Simmel 1950 on the Dyad). Therefore, this institution of conventionality may rarely provide opportunities for surprising episodes and, therefore, for sudden experiences of self-transformation. Given the current lack of research on key experiences in the family, we have insufficient bases to decide which of the two theoretical suggestions actually corresponds with reality. Consequently, the present paper-the first to implement the key experiences approach in the context of family socialization-provides initial evidence to bridge over this theoretical and empirical gap.


Based on a large sample of key educational experiences, this paper focuses on a sub-sample of those episodes that relate to key experiences within the family. The study uses retrospective accounts provided by adults, speaking about their best educational experiences. Conceptually, this methodological approach is similar to "narrative identity research" (Dan P. McAdams, Hoffman, Mansfield, & Day, 1996; Singer, 2004), joining an expanding multidisciplinary approach that links subjective accounts with objective conditions.

Elicitation Method

The present study is based on a structured interview protocol. This protocol was devised after the conduct of two smaller scale pilot studies. The initial aim was to learn about educational experiences generally-negative and positive. However, we found out that (a) adults can easily report about negative traumatic educational experiences but have difficulty divulging positive events; (b) people report that they had many more negative than positive experiences; (c) that negative experiences most often relate to violence and emotional abuse; (d) that positive experiences, in comparison, are more varied in form and effect. While some negative events may end up having positive long-term consequences, our focus here was simple: To seek out the features of the rarer and more varied experiences. Therefore, during the following studies we focused our attention on positive educational experiences.

In order to focus the interview on positive episodes it was necessary to frame the meaning of key experiences in advance. A day before the interview, respondents were notified of the main theme of the interview, namely their positive key educational experiences. Respondents were asked to report on their best three educational experiences following the standard protocol (Appendix 1). They were advised that these episodes are not restricted to a family or a school context. Following the interview respondents were asked to choose the most meaningful experience of the three they reported about, and they filled out a quantitative questionnaire about the features of the activity, their psychological experience, and its long-term outcome. This questionnaire consisted of 125 questions (not used in this paper). The standard interview protocol is reported in Appendix 1. As the interview protocol suggests, we retained some ambiguity in wording in order not to foreclose the evidence. While we directed the respondents to speak about positive educational experiences, we wished to let them specify the contexts of those episodes and their features.

To guarantee that the interviews were not fictitious they were standardized and audio-taped. Most interviews lasted up to 60 minutes. The respondents were asked to narrate three key educational experiences, elaborating on three aspects: context of the episode, their feelings during and immediately after the activity, and the long-term effects of these experiences on their lives. The students were asked to submit transcripts of the interviews and the questionnaires were photocopied. Respondents were assured that no personal information or identifying details would be exposed. 72% of them gave consent for their report to be used in a larger study of key educational experiences.


About 400 first year BA students in two higher education institutes in Israel served as data gatherers and data providers. They were shortly briefed about the aim of the study. The students reported about their own three best educational episodes, and were further requested to interview two more adults using the same protocol (hence guaranteeing age dispersion around a mean of 37 years). Thus the overall sample consisted of 1,100 respondents who reported 3,045 key experiences. 79% of the sample are Jewish (the others are Moslem and Christian Arabs, consistent with their proportion in the general Israeli population). Women constitute 64.6% of the sample (due to over-representation of females in undergraduate education in Israel). Educational qualifications exceed average national data, with 66% of the sample having more than 13 years of schooling. 80% are city dwellers and 15% live in small rural settlements.

Content analysis of the data suggested that most episodes took place in a school setting (38%), while many others took place at the university (11.6%), or in informal educational settings (17.3%). Surprisingly or not, key educational experiences in the family constitute only 8.5% of the entire sample (n = 258), and these constitute-the data for the present paper. Checks for recency effects-namely that people tend to report on the last institution they passed through-found no empirical signs for such a bias. Therefore, the present sample provides a rough estimate as to the capacities of Israeli families to evoke key experiences. Compared to schools-many of which are geared toward planning such experiences-it seems that most Israeli families tilt toward the "trivial" or the "conventional." Nevertheless, we now move on to focus on those rare families which did cater for such decisive educational episodes.


Data analysis proceeded in two ways. The quantitative data was coded in SPSS and is used elsewhere. The qualitative information was coded into a self-programmed database that consisted of 126 codes. This scheme was developed with five graduate students who helped ensure the validity of the coding scheme through group discussions and analyses conducted during the preliminary steps f the investigation. The coding scheme followed the three parts of the interview. One group of codes refers to the features of the activity (e.g., elements like choice, competitiveness, challenge, relevance, surprise, etc.); another refers to the psychological experience during the episode (e.g., whether cognitive, emotional and self-discovery components were evident in the episode); and the last section refers to long-term outcomes (e.g., practical consequences, personal, moral and behavioral changes). Each category has several sub-categories to allow more finely-tuned analysis. Each interview was coded using this scheme by three independent readers; where a positive feature appeared, the code was ticked as positive; otherwise it was left blank.

This coding system allowed the researchers-the present author and two of his PhD students, nowadays scholars in their own right-to distinguish recurrent motives and themes, and even conduct cross-tabulations. Based on these analyses, the present paper focuses on a subset of the main results regarding key experiences in the family. It uses the qualitative approach to highlight a group of themes that recurred in respondents' descriptions of their experiences. In order to focus on the best narratives in this exploratory investigation, we narrowed down the number of reports. The researchers categorized each interview in terms of its "quality," namely the amount of detail provided in the interview. Though simplified, this coding suggests that about 17% of the interviews were defined as "excellent" (supplying information about the three facets-the event, its psychological experience, and its outcome); another 26% were coded as "extraordinary" (missing some details). Those coded under these headings are the narratives that play a prominent part in the following presentation of key experiences in the family. Length of report was obviously a criterion in determining "quality." However, we left some room for professional judgment by the researchers.


In almost 20% of the cases respondents referred to individual "crisis" situations that positively affected their lives. Some reported on insights gained following severe illness ("I learnt to reciprocate and became a better person"); others reported on surprising self-understandings that followed giving painful birth ("I didn't think that I could ever love myself and connect with a child"); and yet others pointed to unexpected good fortune that resulted from getting divorced ("I learnt that there's life after divorce ... I learnt that I'm strong and tough and can get what I want"). A few respondents even mentioned death in the family as a meaningful occasion that had long-term positive educational effects ("I learned that I shouldn't postpone the most important things in life"). These "crisis" cases are extraneous to the main interest in this study as the study focuses on positive key educational experiences. However, these "negative-turned-positive" events do merit an independent investigation. It should be noted that a negative-turned-positive experience is one where suffering was clearly manifested in the first part of the narrative, followed by a turning point (see Yair, forthcoming). In contrast, those coded as positive experiences were always subjectively defined as such. Even where hardships were apparent, the respondents defined them as a challenge; as something to be conquered.

Key educational experiences in the family took different forms. About 33% were similar to those depicted by traditional cumulative models, but in 61 % of the cases it was appropriate to use the "big bang" metaphor. A good example for the former is provided by the formation of habits ("My father used to sit in bed and read us a story ... I emulate him to this day"). The latter is illustrated by the confluence of emotionally intense episodes with moral messages that become a leitmotif in people's lives ("My grandmother exclaimed that we should never cage the living; she sang me a song in Russian, and let the bird fly off ... I became a humanist from that moment on"). The evidence suggests that most episodes had a strong emotional facet (80% of the cases); many were also coupled with the facet of self-discovery (42%). Effect-wise, the outcomes which were mentioned most often were developing an "attitude toward life" (66%), "character" (52%), "ways of thinking" (33%) and adopting patterns of behavior (33%).

This paper focuses on those episodes that challenged the capabilities and skills of children; where peak experiences implicated the identity of those involved or took them to uncharted grounds. The most apparent feature in these episodes is that they were deemed "relevant" to the respondents' lives (42%). Narrative analysis of these episodes suggests that they combined mastery with uncertainty. They suggest that these features led to self-discovery and empowerment. Specifically, the results portray the centrality of "outward bound" experiences and the role played by the crossing of normative boundaries. These themes form an important part of people's retrospective accounts of the most meaningful educational events in their lives.

Challenging Activities, Unexpected Selves

The results suggest that many key educational experiences took place outside the household. Some of these were planned, 'outward bound' experiences; other episodes inadvertently occurred in the open. Examples for the former were provided in reports of field trips, e.g., "My father took me to the woods ..." or "My father took me to the open sea, beyond the wave breaker, and left me to swim alone." These outings encapsulated two surprises: One was the revelation of unexpected parental behavior; the other was self-discovery.

On these occasions, parents surprised their children by assuming roles they were not accustomed to encountering. Some of them behaved as tour guides, others as coaches and sports fans. Consequently, the respondents had the opportunity to learn things about their parents that they did not appreciate previously. One respondent explained the uniqueness of these episodes by describing a family outing with her parents, an occasion that provided her with surprising evidence about their relationship:

I suddenly saw my parents as human beings. 1 think it happened
because I saw them outside the household, especially my father. 1
suddenly saw him in a different light, and these are things I wasn't
accustomed to see at home; it was without any connection to home. ...
At home it was different, and tense and unpleasant, but outside, in a
foreign place, it was much more comfortable.
Such extraordinary events allowed parents to express attributes their children were previously unaware of. Some of these episodes facilitated this broader vision by taxing the parents to engage in unprecedented activities. Since they were challenged in their own right, the children could peek into their parents' most unexpected traits and behaviors. These occasions were highly demanding at times. Since parents had to challenge their own limits, their children observed them at their very best. One report surpassed all others in exemplifying this setting.

A 49-year old woman described a dangerous night-time escape from Morocco to the border of Spain. Her father-taking his wife and nine children-led them by foot through arduous roads and deserted areas:

He called us and said "it's not too bad, we will soon arrive at safe
havens." He was always in front, but constantly came to the back of
the queue and provided hope. ... Later, in the boat, he was
everybody's leader. I saw him as a leader not just with us, but for
the entire community. ... He was a natural leader. ... Whenever I
face trouble, I feel he leads me on, even though he is gone.
This report suggests that during key educational experiences parents did not follow a prefigured script. Rather, they found themselves engaged in tasks they rarely tackled before, and thereby provided their children with a glimpse into their unknown capacities and strengths. In some cases, charismatic capacities were revealed; in others, the children simply faced a parent they had not met before. In either case, they found them "human," as the former respondent suggested. These occasions thus helped the respondents to discover new and positive characteristics in their parents.

This broader vision of parents was an ancillary result, however. The findings clearly suggest that the major agents in these key experiences were the children; they were the ones who were challenged, and they were the ones who discovered their own capacities and hidden inclinations. The sudden engagement with meaningful and challenging tasks tested the children in unforeseen ways. Successful performances in these episodes therefore provided the children with a rare opportunity to learn about their own hidden abilities and formerly underused psychological traits (e.g., perseverance, courage).

Respondents reported that these episodes allowed them to discover previously unacknowledged parts about themselves. The following example shows how a short yet challenging experience affected a subjectively significant change in a young child's self image. And while the experience lasted only a few moments, the respondent sees a direct line connecting this episode to her long-term psychological capacity in handling difficult settings:

I was nine years old and very ill. My father took me to the hospital.
After many checkups, I was allowed to go home. The car was parked
nearby a locked gate with a barbed wire over it. My father didn't
want to make me walk a long detour, so with a fever of 40[degrees]
and after a difficult evening, he suggested we climb over the gate
and the wire. This was a frightening moment ... it was unbelievable.
I climbed over the fence and crossed the wire and it was quickly
over. ... I learnt that I can cross any obstacle. ... Since then I
have a lot of trust in myself and in my abilities.
As this report suggests, this experience did not result from a planned educational activity. The respondent's father did not aim to teach her something by overcoming the obstacle-she suggested that he was simply being compassionate by aiming to save her more suffering caused by a very long walk. Nevertheless, from the respondent's point of view this is the episode that structured the way she handled other difficulties in life. She faced the unexpected challenge, in a setting that was far from normal or manageable. But this ordeal made the experience all the more meaningful for her.

Such key experiences are epitomized by self-discovery (42% of the cases). The extraordinary challenges-e.g., swimming with no assistance, climbing over high cliffs, crossing physical obstacles, and persevering in daunting and dangerous tasks-provided unique opportunities for broadening behavioral repertoires and discovering latent personal capacities and traits. These occasions extended children and adolescents far beyond what they had been accustomed to at home. They constituted unexpected tests of skills and psychological perseverance. The respondents reported that they were required to go to their limits, thereby fulfilling Nietzsche's dictum: "That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

Crossing Conventional and Normative Boundaries

While these typical experiences took place outside the household, some did not. Some challenges occurred in seemingly ordinary settings. However, like the former reports, these challenges stirred high emotional levels and had similar positive effects on self-discovery. They were effective in doing so because the activities either shattered prior expectations or led the respondents to transcend traditional normative boundaries. Thus, while they were restricted to the household setting, these key experiences led those describing them far beyond what they were accustomed to doing or were normatively expected to do.

The following report was provided by a 56 year-old math teacher. As a context for her positive experience she described her spoiled identity at school, following a failure in class, when her math teacher called her "a big hole, a nothing, a bagel." In response to her frustration, her sister challenged her by teaching her math at home.

She made me see that I was not a nothing, as I didn't feel like one;
I felt I knew something, but I was utterly hopeless until she opened
my eyes ... from that moment on, I understood that I knew
mathematics; that I love mathematics-this is my most beloved subject.
... I felt I had new eyes, a new world, and new opening gates for the
world of math that I love so much.
This positive experience resulted from the unique combination that was often apparent in narratives of a turning point, namely that of challenge with trust. The older sister sent her younger sibling clear messages: "you can do it, I trust in you." She required her to undergo repeated drills in math, but continually expressed a supportive attitude. In contrast to what transpired at school, then, this family context helped the respondent to learn about her hidden inclination toward math. By being challenged and trusted, she underwent a process of self-discovery: She could finally 'see'. Indeed, this key experience ended up directing the respondent to choose her vocation in life, namely becoming a math teacher. But it also set the stage for long-term positive relations with her sister.

Other challenges resulted from the crossing of traditional boundaries, due to deviations from ordinary normative expectations. These episodes typically occurred when parents requested that their children perform tasks they were neither accustomed to doing nor were expected to do in their community. These surprising challenges were often reported by Arab females, who are traditionally very constrained (Khattab, 2002). Indeed, Arab families tend to be highly traditional. Women are commonly limited to the private sphere: They are not required to perform typically male roles, and they are seldom entrusted with economic responsibilities outside the household (Dodd, 1973; EI-Sanabary, 1994; Rapoport, Lomski-Feder, & Masalha, 1989). Under these constricting conditions, unexpected expansion of parental demands provided a context for self-discovery.

Two reports testify to this surprising happenstance. The first episode was described by an Arab woman who reported that at age 16 her father suddenly requested that she engage in male tasks: To fix and replace the tires of his car, to carry loads of groceries to his store, and to unload heavy objects from his truck. As she said, "This increased my self-reliance, and I learned that there is no difference between my brother and I; I discovered new abilities in myself. ... I learned that I'm strong ... that no barrier can block me from doing what I want just because I'm female." The other report is similar. A student reported that a year ago her parents went on pilgrimage to Mecca, leaving her to run the family store and take care of her brother. This short yet highly challenging period required that she juggle different and unfamiliar tasks. As she described, the consequences were focused on self-discovery:

Within two weeks I knew how to do many things. ... In this short time
I discovered in myself personal abilities that I didn't know existed.
... This activity affected my character a lot, and in unexpected
ways. It molded my identity. It strengthened my ability to confront
new situations.
These key educational experiences suggest that they can take place with no clear educational aim. The parents did not have explicit educational targets, nor were they engaging with outstanding instructional strategies. They were simply carrying out their daily lives. Hindered by pragmatic obstacles (a first-born daughter, no male to provide help with the household business), they deviated from normative gender role expectations. Therefore, these parents positioned their daughters-seemingly with no educational aim in mind-in a context that proved to have strong educational effects. As both reports suggest, however, the respondents felt that there was a latent supportive message in these episodes; both women thought that their fathers commended them and appreciated their rising to the challenge. In that sense, they felt that the experience encapsulated an educational message that they cherished from that moment on.

Key experiences are subjectively and normatively formed. This is evidenced by some reports of Jewish females in the study. Several respondents detailed ways in which their parents shattered expectations or transcended boundaries. One described her father's decision to take her-as a young girl-to soccer games, traditionally a male-only phenomenon in Israel. Some of these repeating experiences cultivated her love for sport. Consequently, she became a physical training educator. The second student described her father's political engagements. While children are usually shunned from political involvement, her father took her to different political institutions and encouraged her to sit in on political gatherings at home. As she said, "From a very young age I developed my own political views. ... I was interested and eager to learn as much as possible ... for the first time I felt the urge to know and study, to be engaged."

As was true vis-a-vis the facet of challenge, the crossing of normative expectations was also accompanied by trust. While the respondents were crossing the bounds of conventions, they were nonetheless trusted by their parents in doing so. As respondents repeatedly reported, their parents entrusted them with adult roles, with responsibility and even leadership roles (e.g., to revamp the family business plan). But what came through these unconventional assignments was a tremendous sense that suggested the respondents got a clear message that they are worthy of the trust; that they can perform as good as any other though young they were. This implicit message of trust empowered the respondents, and provided them with a strong motive to excel.

Some respondents suggested that by providing them with un-conventional and trustful circumstances, their families produced unique opportunities for transformative experiences. They allowed respondents to break away from stigmatized identities, and they provided children and adolescents opportunities to test new and unexpected role experiences. In doing so, the families constituted key experiences that have had lasting impacts on those reporting them. By shattering prior expectations and by crossing traditional boundaries, families constituted environments that furnished opportunities for self-discovery. The outcomes of this self-discovery were evident-in our respondents' words-in terms of definite approaches to life, character, modes of thought and specific behavioral patterns.


The central objective of this paper is to exemplify the utility of a "Big Bang" approach for studies of family socialization and for social learning theory (Klein & White 1996). By exposing moments of transformation that decouple the past and the future, it aims to provide a complementary perspective to the cumulative paradigm that directs most studies in this vein. In comparison with the slow and incremental model of family socialization, the present study has emphasized an alternative focus, namely looking at short and decisive episodes that at times serve as turning points in children's lives. Against other approaches of family socialization, this key experiences perspective suggests that family effects should also be sought in the singular and in the extreme; in the transformative, and not just the cumulative.

Key experiences in the family are not "background noise" that studies of family socialization should ignore or diminish. These experiences do not cancel each other out statistically; they are important in their own right, and therefore deserve far more scientific interest. As Abbott (Abbott, 2001) suggested in his discussion on turning points, it is important to investigate these experiences because they give shape to biographical trajectories; since they decide the turning points that change developmental directions and constitute an opportunity for adopting new identities. Consequently, future studies of family socialization-either along the classic lines of Melvin Kohn and his associates (Kohn, 1977; Kohn & Schooler, 1983), or as in more recent efforts to understand the micro-world of family practices (Lareau, 2000, 2001, 2003; Yair & Gazit, 2006) - should attempt to incorporate the singular key experience to the cumulating effects of persistent family practices.

The study of key experiences may indeed complement and expand our understanding of slow and cumulative processes in family socialization. The results reported here suggest that similar scientific advantages may accrue from emphasizing a fresh aspect of family socialization, namely self-discovery. Different theoretical schools assumed that families socialize children and adolescents by making them the vessels or the carriers of parental expectations, traits and aspirations. However, the current study has shown that by challenging children and adolescents, parents provided them with opportunities for self-discovery. Under such conditions, they discovered in themselves inherent capacities and unique interests and passions-features that were not pre-installed by prior parental practices. On the contrary, in some of these events the parents were as challenged as their children were. Consequently, their offspring were surprised to learn new information about their parents just as they were surprised to discover their own capacities. But what is of utmost importance here is that, theoretically, families may at times set their young on a free trajectory; namely, on an individual path that was not pre-charted by the family. True, the family proved decisive in setting the experience in motion. However, the specific trajectory that respondents chose was independently chosen, usually reflecting an inner inclination or a personal talent.

This process of self-discovery emanated from what may be called "identity adventures." The challenging and un-conventional occasions described here tested the respondents and stretched them to their limits. We may thus conjecture that the more challenging the identity adventure-either in the form of engaging with extremes in natural settings, or in more mundane yet singularly exceptional situations at home-the more likely it is that respondents will report on self-discovery. By taxing children and by requiring them to go the extra mile, families have pushed our respondents to learn about themselves and their capacities.

Though challenge may motivate children to extend themselves to the extreme, at one point activities may be so challenging as to produce failure and even trauma. As prominent scholars suggested, optimal learning and optimal experiences take place when activities and skills are fitting. Lev Vygotsky called this fit "the zone of proximal experience," suggesting that optimal learning takes place when teachers find the right balance between frustration levels and mastery levels (Vygotsky 1978). Similarly, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi speaks of an "optimal experience of flow" in situations that go beyond boredom yet do not reach anxiety (1990). In optimal experiences people are fully engaged and totally immersed in the activity to the point of feeling one with it. These models suggest that key educational experiences probably occur in "the zone," namely when parents achieve the optimal balance between challenge and risk.

One way that this balance is struck is through the substratum of trust. Parental trust in their children proved to be an effective safety-net; it provided them with supports that allowed them to engage in unexpected activities and behaviors, and to do so with a sense of freedom, or risk-free, going, indeed, to the extreme of their capacities. By trusting their children parents minimized the risk of failure and trauma. As the analyses suggest, the unique combination of adventure and trust set the stage for exceptional performances that were undertaken in safe havens. This unique combination constitutes one way by which children are empowered to follow new and undetermined trajectories. They were determined, however, because they were empowered to pursue new directions because their efforts were based on implicit foundations of parental trust.

Key experiences were indeed constituted by identity adventures. However, these adventures were neither provided by amusement parks, nor did they appear in fabricated settings that offered "extreme sports" and holiday adventures. No key experience was reported from such a context, possibly because such settings allow people to frame such adventures as games, or as make-believe events. Instead, identity adventures took place when they mattered most; when those involved really implicated their self conceptions; when uncertainty was coupled with seriousness; when the activity was carried out in the realm of normal daily life, especially when brought to the extreme. So while some of these episodes were really extraordinary, others took place in relevant and ordinary settings where parents and children interacted with no artificial mediation.

These considerations provide another perspective on parental intentionality. In the absence of information on parental objectives, the following statements should be regarded as a tentative suggestion that requires more research. Nevertheless, the respondents' narratives suggest that key experiences were not fabricated by parents: they rarely had an explicit aim in structuring them, and they seldom expected the outcomes that were derived from the experiences. These were not teleological activities where the aims dictated strategies, where intentions directed activities. Rather-and in light of the "relevant" and "real life" points raised above-most key experiences took place inadvertently. Instead of a teleological model, the experiences seem much more chaotic-with disjointed aims and means, with intentions decoupled from outcomes. This suggests that key experiences are "open," namely that they enable rather than dictate; that they allow rather than impose. While they have a recurrent form (e.g., identity adventures), key experiences provide children with agency and autonomy; they thus produce indeterminacy and contingency. This is why the open nature of key experiences challenges traditional cumulative predictive models in describing these rare yet decisive episodes and in modeling their long-term effects.

These theoretical ruminations may lead one to suspect that-given the superficial randomness of key educational experiences-they cannot be planned for. As suggested, indeed, it is impossible to plan the outcomes of these experiences. However, it is possible to plan and implement the features and circumstances of such episodes. We have repeatedly emphasized the ubiquity of adventurous circumstances (challenge and non-conventionality) within a trusting environment. Both of those components can be intelligently and creatively implemented. As our respondents suggested, their parents inadvertently structured exceptional circumstances: They required their daughters to cross gender norms, they required children to bear real responsibilities, and they involved them in real-life tasks that were really important for the family. Furthermore, they constantly sent clear messages that they could rise to the challenge; that they are trusted to be mature, diligent, and resourceful. There are many ways by which parents can implement this unique combination and construct conditions for self-discovery. The fact that they cannot foreclose or pre-determine the outcomes of such episodes should not preempt the effort to do so.

One may even venture to say-with the appropriate caveats about agency in such episodes-that parent education programs can incorporate this theory into practice. Parents can be taught how to devise adventures and how to support non-conventionality. They can also be encouraged by well trained personnel to supply their young with the ingredients of challenge and trust that proved so effective in the present study. Given the ubiquity of self-discovery in these episodes, it is crucial for parenting programs to think of ways of using outward bound activities as arenas for identity testing. It is also advisable to teach parents how they could use ordinary settings in ways that increase the potential for self-discovery and personal growth. The present paper cannot delve into such practicalities, but it is quite obvious that this is a fertile context to tie theory and practice.

The evidence presented above, namely that key experiences in the family constitute only 8.5% of the sample, suggests that Israeli families do not provide much room for adventures and personal transformation. While the schools are at times expected to cater for such experiences-families are not. Therefore, this facet of socialization-in contrast to traditional cumulative models--has not received enough interest in the research community, and family advisors have not encouraged parents to pursue adventuresome activities. Under current circumstances, then, families do not provide enough opportunities for engaging in key educational experiences. The present study suggests, however, that families can succeed in this type of socialization, and it also provides some ingredients to concoct those experiences.

One can propose some alternative conjectures to explain the low prevalence of key experiences in the Israeli family. On the one hand, the Israeli family is one in which traditionalism prevails. Israeli families opt to keep their young close and similar to their parental traditions. Its familistic orientation-amongst Arabs and Jews alike-pulls strong pressures toward conformity and conventionality. Though one may find some social class differences-e.g., the upper and middle class more oriented toward adventuresome episodes-the Israeli family is trying to keep the young close by and similar. On the other hand, it is possible that the low prevalence of family experiences results from the relative openness of the Israeli family, allowing the young to gain experiences in alternative settings-informal frameworks and trips abroad, for example. This strength of the Israeli family paradoxically may downplay its potential as a transformative agency in its own right.

That said, there are many more reasons for engaging in further research of key educational experiences in the family. We first need random representative samples in order to learn about the ecology of these experiences: Their rate and effects in different groups, the ages when key experiences have their utmost impact, and the interplay between cumulative factors and turning points. We also would benefit from prospective or experimental studies that would attempt to predict the occurrence of key educational experiences.

In addition, comparative studies are required in order to expand our understanding of the confluence between objective, subjective and normative features in these episodes; and to learn about the possibility of equating different experiences and comparing their effects in different sectors or societies. Furthermore, we need to devise new methodological approaches that allow the capture of long-term cumulative family processes while remaining sensitive to key experiences and turning points. And when these methods are well in place, we will also need to give ourselves the task of developing statistical models that fit this combination between linear and non-linear processes. Based on the results reported here, this endeavor promises to be theoretically and empirically interesting.

At the same time, however, family practitioners and advisors can begin proposing concrete steps to empower parents in using family adventures in order to increase their effects on their children. Paradoxically, however, the more successful parents are in devising key educational experiences the less likely are their children to follow their footsteps. Interestingly, then, a productive family environment is likely to produce dissimilarity and personal singularity. Consequently, by supporting families in producing key educational experiences practitioners may advance individuality and personal fulfillment-which educators long believe is the essence and the spirit of education.


Interview Protocol

Each of us has memories of good educational experiences; some from a young age while others even took place recently. This study focuses on memories of positive educational experiences. It aims to learn about the "instructional strategies" and activities that were evident in these episodes.

We request that you tell us about your best three educational experiences (those that inspired you and left a mark on your life). These experiences might have taken place in any context (at home, in a youth group, in school, at the university, etc.). After telling about the experiences please fill out this questionnaire on the best of the three experiences. When the word "teacher" appears in the items it refers to the educating person in that context.

The interviews were conducted around the following guiding questions:

1. How was the activity organized? What did the "instructor" do during the activity? What was the learning like?

2. What did you feel during the activity? What was the strongest sensation or feeling that you had?

3. What were the long-term effects of this experience on your life? What decisions did you make after this incident?


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Gad Yair *

* Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem 91905, Israel.

Source Citation
Yair, Gad. "Key educational experiences in Israeli families: adventures, trust and self-discover." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 40.4 (2009): 809+. Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Jan. 2010. .

Gale Document Number:A215074751

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