One way of articulating what it is that I’m trying to build into a PYA curriculum is the “seeds of self-actualization,” a term I take from “A Theory of Human Motivation” by Abraham Maslow. (Now, I have a terrible blogging habit of burying the lede, so skip down to the jump if you’re already familiar with this.) In brief, Maslow argues that human beings have a progressive hierarchy of needs, beginning with the most basic of physiological drives, moving up to concerns about safety, love/belonging, esteem, and ultimately, self-actualization. Later on, Maslow would sandwich cognitive and aesthetic needs—the pursuits of knowledge and beauty—in between esteem and self-actualization, and top off the pyramid with the search for self-transcendence, or spiritual fulfillment.


These needs are hierarchical in the sense that the higher needs only typically emerge as each preceding need is adequately satisfied. The higher needs either do not exist or recede into the background for someone who lacks food, safety, love, and esteem. If I am hungry, homeless, and unemployed, I will be preoccupied with securing stable housing and any means of income, long before I might entertain the pursuit of creative expression. And above all, I seek nourishment. Once my most basic needs are met to reasonable degrees, there emerges my thirst for understanding, for beauty, for the meaning of life.

To a significant extent, this hierarchy of needs is reflected in NYC’s Children’s Services‘ “Preparing Youth for Adulthood” (PYA) plan. PYA programs aim to help youth in foster care satisfy their most fundamental needs of food, shelter, employment, and self care. Additionally, compared to the old “Independent Living” model, which prioritized cultivating self-sufficiency above all in older foster youth, PYA now acknowledges that close, stable relationships with caring adults—what Maslow would classify under the need for love and belonging—are integral to a young person’s well-being.

In theory, then, PYA should build a stable base for youth transitioning to adulthood. They will be functional adults if they learn how to find and keep housing; to find and keep a job; to buy and cook nutritious food; and to practice safe sex and responsible money management. As one agency puts it, their PYA program is designed to help youth “meet life’s challenges.” Such programs define the transition to adulthood largely as the acquisition of “life skills,” where becoming an adult means learning how to be responsible and largely self-sufficient in all areas of one’s life.

This is a dim view of adulthood that amounts to little more than subsistence. How many of us would look forward to growing up if our plan was to get the barest minimum of education or training that would secure us a job, which would earn us a paycheck, which in turn would pay our rent? Individuals are motivated by larger concerns.

I understand that it makes perfect sense to secure fundamental needs before tackling larger concerns. But Maslow himself makes clear that he is not presenting these needs as a strict hierarchy. (There are some people, for example, for whom creative expression is the primary driver, hunger be damned.) So alongside job-readiness, resume-building, and interview workshops, I think it’s important to communicate to young people that a “job” is just the beginning. We have higher hopes for them: a career, perhaps, if not a calling. This is what I mean when I say “sowing the seeds of self-actualization.”

And so what I would like to propose is a program for youth in care that is built on the definition of “growing up” as “becoming the person you want to be.” My workshops are designed to provoke youth to consider big questions all centered around the biggest question of all: Who am I? Teenagers love to think and talk about their changing identities, so coupled with Identity-Based Motivation, giving them repeated opportunities to consider who they are and who they might become would motivate them to build truly meaningful lives for themselves.

1 Comment

Brian Lee Yung Rowe · December 14, 2012 at 8:15 am

I agree that the current focus on subsistence is not enough. It’s great that you are developing programs to help youth find their passion and purpose. Without this I think it’s harder for youth in need to find the courage and strength to move past the difficulties and challenges they face in their life.

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