Help youth succeed by focusing on strengths, speaker urges
By Marv Knox
DALLAS–Churches can help children and youth succeed by focusing more on relationships than programs and on strengths rather than problems, family ministry leader Eugene Roehlkepartain insisted.
Roehlkepartain delivered a keynote address at Hand in Hand 2004, a conference sponsored by Baylor University's Center for Family & Community Ministries and the North American Association of Christians in Social Work.
“What do children need to succeed?” asked Roehlkepartain, director of family and congregation initiatives for the Search Institute, a research and consulting organization that promotes healthy children, youth and communities.
The answer is at once incredibly complex and deceptively simple, he told social workers from across the nation who gathered in Dallas.
Based on interviews with more than 2 million youth, the Search Institute has identified 40 “developmental assets” that impact the degree to which children and adolescents develop positively, Roehlkepartain said.
These assets range from the kind of family support and parental involvement in schooling a child receives, to physical safety, involvement in a religious group, daily homework, personal integrity, decision-making skills and self-esteem, he explained.
The more “development assets” a young person has, the greater likelihood she or he will make wise decisions, avoid risky behavior and develop maturely, he said.
“Many people think this is just common sense,” that the value of the characteristics are obvious, he acknowledged, adding common sense sometimes is uncommon.
For example, Search Institute findings reveal the average U.S. youth possesses just 18 of the 40 assets, and 62 percent have fewer than 20 percent of the assets.
The typical youth who attends church at least one hour per week possesses 21 assets, which is “average but still too low,” Roehlkepartain said.
Pointing to a “widespread rupture in our developmental system,” Roehlkepartain said: “The challenge is not simply more programs (to help youngsters). The real challenge is to cultivate a society that is deeply sensitive to developing children and teens.”
Parents alone cannot develop youth adequately, he stressed, calling on churches to help. “If you breathe, you're on the team,” he said of the widespread need for church members to help children and teens.
A couple of factors are crucial to the success of such an endeavor, he said.
“First, we've got to shift away from over-reliance on programs and curriculum to a primary reliance on relationships,” he said.
This should be natural for Christians, since their faith is based on “a relational, incarnational understanding of how God functions,” he added, noting Christians ought to embody Christ's presence in the lives of youngsters.
“Our greatest gift ought to be our authentic presence with them,” he insisted.
“Second, we must shift from focusing on children's problems to lifting up their strengths,” he said.
“Some young people are dangerous and make very poor choices, but not all of them.”
For example, rather than bemoaning the number of youth who spend their spring break drunk at the beach, Christians can highlight teens who spend their spring break working on mission trips. Rather than focusing on fear of teen gangs, emphasize the strength of church youth groups.
“Focus more attention on what's right with young people, not just the problems,” he said.
Despite the complexities of both teens' problems and the Search Institute's analysis of their assets, helping them is surprisingly simple, Roehlkepartain said.
“Get involved with kids,” he urged, noting the efforts of both clergy and laity count toward strengthening the lives of youngsters.
“Strive to become asset-rich,” he said of churches. “Examine how we nurture children and youth. … Provide caring mentors, guides, friends and role models. The church's opportunity lies in developing a shared commitment to invest in the lives of young people.”
And churches should not desert the cause just because other social-service providers are present, he cautioned.
“We can't afford to pit ourselves against other people of goodwill. The faith community has to enter the public square. … We're there because we want to make a difference in the lives of kids.
“Is it easy? No. Is it messy? Yes. Is it worth it? Undoubtedly.”