Do you ever wonder how children grow up to be happy, fulfilled, and engaged in life?
While there are no easy answers, research shows that three things make a big difference. First, children need positive life experiences that engage them in meaningful activities. Second, they need adults who help them believe in themselves. And last, they need families, schools, and communities who model and instill positive values.
The growing field of positive youth development seeks to find better ways to foster mental health rather than merely correcting, curing, or treating children for their developmental deficits. It aims to engage young people in activities and positive relationships that help them thrive in life.
My recent research study focused on young people who had developed a passion for social and environmental causes. They saw a world beyond themselves — and wanted to make a difference. They were infused with hope and understood that even small acts of kindness had the potential to help others. They also had three things in common.
Common Sources of Positive Youth Development
While the youth in my research study came from different backgrounds, what stood out the most were the common themes in their lives:
1. Meaningful Life Experiences
Whether kids grow up in high or low-income households, children need positive experiences outside of classrooms and homework that bring meaning to their lives. Whether this is community service, sports, music, art, or other activities, it is important that children choose these activities for themselves.
Children learn best when life experiences have a degree of challenge. That is, activities must present opportunities for kids to overcome obstacles in order to succeed. Teens admit the more they are challenged in the real world, learn to get along with others, and practice solving problems, the more skills they learn to succeed in life. Challenging activities develop initiative.
Reflecting on her community service experiences, Mariah, age 19, said, “Coming from a small, homogeneous and affluent community, having the opportunity to interact with others from different backgrounds and social histories has allowed me to see just how fortunate I am, and to never take what my life has offered me for granted.”
2. Supportive Adults
The well-known phase “it takes a village to raise a child” has been demonstrated over and over again through empirical research. Beyond good parenting, kids need other adults to support their development. In fact, grandparents, aunts, uncles, educators, clergy, coaches, and others who are involved in a child’s life play an extremely vital role. They help children believe in themselves. Particularly in adolescence, youth need supportive adults outside of their immediate families to help in the process of discovering their unique identities, separate from their parents.
When you find yourself in the presence of teenagers who are not your own, you have an opportunity to listen without judgment, encourage, and get to know them as individuals, separate from their academic achievements. Showing a genuine interest in who they are rather than what they have achieved is how adolescents gain confidence in themselves.
Speaking of how her high school mentor helped her succeed, Danielle, age 19, said it well: “He wouldn’t try to tell me what to do. He would instead just be thoughtful and quiet and then he would remind me who I was. He showed that he had faith in me and he knew that I would make a good choice.”
3. Positive Values
Children who grow to be engaged, successful adults are instilled with positive values from a young age. Most children learn values from their families. But they also learn them at school, church, sports, and other after-school programs through the efforts of many adults. Positive values, including curiosity, love of learning, integrity, kindness, fairness, teamwork, humility, and gratitude are not ingrained in children by chance.
Not only do we model these values to the children in our lives but it’s important to identify and discuss them with kids from childhood through adolescence. One way to develop these strengths is to praise kids when they act in kind, fair, or compassionate ways. By making praise more specific, we communicate appreciation for children’s internal strengths, not just for what they achieve in school.
Speaking of how parents influenced her values, Grace, age 21, said, “I followed my own path for civic duty, but I looked to the strong examples that my parents set throughout their daily lives in order to stay true to the spirit of service and to not operate solely through a personal agenda of advancement.”
Fostering Positive Youth Development
Everyone can foster positive youth development by keeping three simple ideas in mind.
- Bring meaning to kid’s lives by helping them reflect about who they are and what they care about.
- Help children believe in themselves through nonjudgmental encouragement.
- Model positive values to children, like caring, compassion, and empathy for others.
These three sources of positive youth development enrich children’s lives, contribute to their emotional and social intelligence, and foster hopeful futures.
Damon, W. (2004). What is positive youth development? The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591(1), 13-24. doi: 10.1177/0002716203260092
Lerner, R. M. (2005). Promoting positive youth development: Theorectical and empirical bases. Paper presented at the Science of Adolescent Health and Development Workshop, Washington DC.
Price-Mitchell, M. (2010). Civic learning at the edge: Transformative stories of highly engaged youth. Doctoral Dissertation, Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA.
Photo Credit: Michelle Breacharacter strengths, initiative, learning, mentoring, parenting, positive values, positive youth development, praise, youth development approach