Think. Discuss. Act. Adolescence

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Review: All Our Kids

Peter L. Benson (2006). All Kids Are Our Kids: What Communities Must Do to Raise Caring and Responsible Children and Adolescents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Summary

Blame the kids? Simply blame the parents…or today’s media? Treat merely the symptoms? That is how too much of society looks at youth problems—whether gang violence, teen pregnancies, school drop-outs, drugs, cutting or depression. The adult world has enough of its own issues and crises and tends to assume that most kids will grow out of their problems in time. In contrast, Search Institute encourages a deeper more positive and holistic approach, looking at the larger systemic context.

According to Search Institute as reported by Peter Benson, we should consider the problems facing society first and foremost in terms of issues facing children and youth. He mentions the Swahili proverb, “Children are tomorrow’s nation.” And Benson is worried about the state of our children: “The measure of a society’s health is how well it takes care of the youngest generation. By this standard, we fail” (p. xi).

Despite his grave warnings, Benson is interested in finding a positive approach to youth problems. He’s tired of the common narrative that children and teens are alien and frightening, that the problems they face are unimaginable to adults. He is also opposed to solutions that target only the most difficult young people: “other people’s kids,” as they’re imagined. Benson is looking for a holistic solution, a solution that can be applied to all children everywhere.

Peter Benson is the former president of the Search Institute (founded in 1958 by psychologist and researcher, Merton P. Strommen, http://www.search-institute.org/) Search Institute uses its continuing research to support youth programs all over the world. Its guiding ideal for more than twenty years, begins by trying to identify what young people—all young people—need in order to live healthy, positive lives.

In the past several decades, a deep body of knowledge has emerged on the many things kids need if they are to grow up successfully. This work explores a range of topics, including family dynamics, support from other community adults, school effectiveness, positive peer influence, value development, and learning social skills. Too often, however, these areas of inquiry are disconnected from each other in both scholarship and practice, so that each by itself is seen as a panacea. If families were just better. If we could just teach social skills. If we could just get young people to adopt positive values or do more service projects. If there were just more mentors. If…. Each response has its place. But what has been missing is a broad vision that names a core group of the elements of healthy development and all of the community actors (family, neighborhood, school, youth organizations, congregations, and more) needed to provide these essential elements. (p. 23)

At the center of Search Institute’s research and Benson’s report, are forty “developmental assets,” which sum up their findings from their broad-ranging and continuing research regarding the factors that allow young people to thrive—and without which they tend to fail. While the idea of a general standard for a good life for young people might seem subjective, Benson argues that the forty developmental assets are broadly acceptable and supported by social scientific research. The assets encompass a range of categories, from social skills to self-esteem, constructive use of time, engagement with the community, and more.

Benson places much of the responsibility for youth development on adult families and communities. Half the assets are “external” factors beyond a young person’s control, such as the support of family and other adults in the community, or living in a safe neighborhood.

Some of the assets may seem to reflect Benson and the Search Institute’s own cultural perspective. For example, involvement in a religious community is one of the assets. Spending more time at home with family than out with friends is another. Sexual abstinence is another. The assets broadly espouse a restrained, orderly vision of what life should be. Not all are stereotypically conservative, however: intercultural knowledge and tolerance is an asset, as are nonviolent conflict resolution and high self-esteem. And empirical research has consistently shown religious involvement and strong family support to be correlated to youthful success.

Benson defends the more controversial assets by reiterating that they are supported by research. For example, studies have found that young people who refrain from sexual activity are more likely to achieve a range of positive life outcomes. The idea is not that every young person needs to possess every asset, but that the assets should include everything that’s often found to be constructive for young people. So, not everyone attends religious events, but religion is a meaningful part of life for many people, and Benson wants to make sure their experience is included.

One example of this research-driven approach is the decision to say that working a part-time job should not be included on the list of assets. While young people often learn a lot from employment, studies have found that working less than twenty hours a week is not associated with any improvement in positive outcomes (like getting better grades), and working more than twenty hours a week is associated with negative outcomes (like academic failure). Benson found he was unable to generalize about the value of a part time job, so he left it off the list.

The list of assets is derived from research of this kind and also bolstered by the experience of professionals who work with youth. Perhaps inevitably, the assets are easiest to study through self-reporting surveys: with questions like “Do you feel you have high self-esteem?” and so forth. Benson cites research finding that possession of assets declines through the teen years: sixth graders have more assets than eighth graders, and by high school the level of assets remains constant at a lower rate. He also found that girls tend to have more assets than boys. Lack of assets was also associated with household poverty and other disadvantages.

The developmental assets approach is positive, describing what young people need, not just what they need to avoid. Because of this, the assets are relevant to all youth, not only to those who are most “at-risk” or are in the most trouble. The assets also aspire to be culturally universal: they describe the needs and challenges of youth in urban, rural and suburban areas, in the United States or halfway around the world. The assets are also relevant to all age groups.

The developmental assets approach was first published in 1989 as a solution to the generally negative and divisive public dialogue regarding the needs of youth at the time. Since then, Search’s goal has been to build a movement. Search Institute is not so much interested in a network of professionals who understand youth better than others; instead, they are asking ordinary people to become more involved in the lives of youth of their community.

This movement is necessarily intergenerational. The older generation needs to teach their skills and experience to young people, and make sure that young people have a role and are engaged in the functioning of society.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Peter Benson argues that society needs to have a generally agreed-upon framework for what values and practices we expect from young people. Do you agree with this call for unity? Or is our and other societies too divided for such collaboration? And if so, is there room for partial collaboration and proximate improvement?
  2. Find a copy of the Search Institute’s forty developmental assets on the Internet. Do you disagree with any of them? Which would you expect to be the most controversial?
  3. Can you think of any potential assets that aren’t on the Search Institute’s list?
  4. If you are among the many believing that Search Institute and its building assets are our best hopes for improving the lot of youth, where do you think we, and you in your situation might begin.
  5. The African proverb is in danger of becoming a trite truism or less: “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” Can you draw any urgent truth from this often quoted proverb? How might it begin to be realized?

Implications

  1. In response to the commonly negative, divisive and fear-driven understanding of the needs of youth, Search Institute proposes a list of the good things young people need. It calls for social systems at all levels, to set child and adolescent welfare as a primary priority. It calls for a commitment and implementation of asset supports from all levels of society.
  2. The forty developmental assets are supported by research: studies have found that the more assets youth possess, the more likely they are to find success later in life, while the absence of assets are associated with negative outcomes.
  3. All Kids are Our Kids advocates a broad-based, intergenerational, and mostly non-professional and volunteer approach to solving youth problems. Support of youth should become a “way of life” for all in a community. Professional programs like the YMCA or the Boys and Girls Club are great, but most of the work will be done by ordinary people helping the young people in their community.
  4. Search Institute’s research and this report focuses on individuals and communities—including its families, schools and organizations. This is an important extension to more individualistic approaches. But its scope is limited to the micro-systems surrounding youth. (Note its subtitle: What Communities Must Do to Raise Caring and Responsible Children and Adolescents.) Larger and broader systems (exo-systems and macro-systems, which may perpetuating or allowing issues such as poverty and racism, are also at work beyond the immediate community). Corporate headquarters, Stock Markets, and Washington politics (and their equivalents in all societies) deeply affect the lives of children and youth. This is no way negates the importance of this book; it rather begs an extension of its thinking and actions.

Peter Bass with Dean Borgman
© 2017 CYS

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