Building strong adolescents with the 40 developmental assets

These assets are 40 values, experiences/skills, relationships, behavior and other qualities that bring many benefits to the young people who have them.

When you think about the word “assets,” what comes to mind? For many people, their first thought is financial resources, the kind of assets the bank looks at when you apply for a loan or your personal belongings, car, house, family heirlooms. In today’s presentation when we refer to assets we are describing valuable resources of another kind.

The researchers at Search Institute, a nonprofit organization in Minneapolis, have named the valuable resources that young people need “Developmental Assets.” These assets are 40 values, experiences/skills, relationships, behavior and other qualities that bring many benefits to the young people who have them.

Michigan State University Extension wants parents to think for a moment about the exciting (but challenging) task of remodeling a room of your house, apartment or child-care center. Consider that place that you wish was different - that spot that has a lot of potential if you just had the time, money, or energy to put into it! In your mind, visualize how you want it to be. How would it look? What could you do there that you can’t do now? How would your feelings change about that space?

As some people consider the remodeling idea, they think about tearing out all the old stuff that makes them unhappy - getting rid of all the disagreeable elements of the room. Most people, however, think about what they would add or create - what they could build.

Caring for children (your own and others) is a little like a remodeling task - It’s exciting but challenging. For some adults, watching their own children mature into young adults involves enjoying again the best of their own teenage years, coupled with the pride in what their children have been able to accomplish. For other parents and many caregivers, however, the task is frustrating and defeating. Their children are not who they hoped they would be, and their attempts to help set things right are met with failure. The preschooler with whom they now quarrel and argue seems to have very little in common with that toddler who needed and wanted their help and hugs. For the majority of parents, raising children is somewhere between these two extremes.

Caring for children, other than your own, is also a little like remodeling (rather than “new construction”) because so much has already been established. By ages 12 and 13, a child has a clearly developed personality. He or she has already discovered talents and interests, established an identity apart from their parents, created a niche in his or her school, become part of a peer group, and established patterns within the family. But just as important, parenting has become established!

By the time children reach that age, the way they are being raised has become a pattern. What happens when kids misbehave? How are kids rewarded? Punished? What are the rules, the chores, and the routines? What does a child call you? How do you describe the children in your care to others? New parents begin with unlimited opportunities to make decisions about how they will raise their children. Caregivers of older children know that they typically come with a history. Changes now will mean remodeling.

So how do we move toward that dream room, house, childcare center (or kid)? Whether we believe we have a little or a lot of work ahead, how do we begin? Do we begin by tearing everything apart? By eliminating everything we don’t like? Do we bring in the wrecking ball? That is one approach to remodeling - and caregiving. Identify the negative. Focus on what is wrong. Correct the errors. Examine the deficit. Of course, sometimes that must be the place to begin.

If that old room, for example, is filled with asbestos, then you start by removing what may cause real harm. Children who are involved in behaviors that seriously threaten their health or safety have to be protected first, whatever it takes to stop the behavior. But suppose the problem is not asbestos in the ceiling or seriously hurting other children in their childcare setting. What about an approach to remodeling that looks at building or creating what you want rather than focusing on what you don’t want?

Think again about the remodeling analogy. We’ll get rid of anything that is dangerous or unsafe. But after that, we’ll begin to enhance the room - doing things that will make it a more effective, pleasing place. And we’ll invest quality workmanship, so that our work really lasts. Our time and money will be put into making positive changes, not just getting rid of what we don’t like. After all, we could invest all our efforts getting rid of everything we don’t want, and still not have anything we do want. One change in the room may bring about the need for another change, some of our new things will crowd out or make unnecessary our old things. Each effort, however, will make the room more positive - the room will be better not less bad.

If it can work for a room, can it work in building stronger children? There is evidence that it does. Kids who are involved in more “right things” are involved in fewer “wrong things.”

It may sound like common sense, and yet it has powerful implications for parenting and providing child care and education for children. It suggests that if we want to build strong children who are protected from at-risk behaviors like drug and alcohol use, early sexual activity, or school failure, the answer may be to help kids become involved in more positive things rather than focusing all our energy on getting them to “just say no” to the wrong things.

Some of these assets are internal. These assets have to be nurtured and we have to help build them within our children. Parents working along with the school, day care, religious institutions, and community can help create conditions that will contribute to the development of these internal assets. Assets to nurture include honesty, integrity, caring and a sense of purpose.

Other assets are external to the children. These assets that make kids stronger are characteristics in their environment. Parents can make a real difference here because many of these assets actually depend on the family, but this holds true for anyone who is a primary care giver to a child. They include parent involvement in schooling, maintaining high expectations and providing family support.

Research shows that the more developmental assets a teen has, the better they do in school, persist in the face of challenges and adversity, take care of their own health, save money, value diversity among their peers, and be involved in leadership roles in an organization or group.

In addition, the more developmental assets a teen has the less likely they are to engage in problem alcohol, tobacco or illicit drug use, less likely to be involved in anti-social behaviors, engage in sexual intercourse, and less likely to report being depressed or having attempted suicide.

If you’re a parent of a teen and what to learn more about Building a Strong Adolescent, MSU Extension has a program in your area.

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