Lonnie R. Sherrod, PhD
Our children are our future is a phrase often used to promote or justify investment in children. We need a societal commitment to promote positive outcomes to human development and to ensure that all individuals live up to their full potential; positive development does not occur naturally in the context of the stresses and challenges with which children grow up in today’s world.
This phrase “our children are our future” is most often crouched in economic terms. Labor needs qualified workers. If people do not appropriately produce and contribute to the economy, our ranking as a world economic leader will suffer. Hence, positive outcomes are evaluated in terms of individuals’ productivity emerging from cognitive development, education, and training. For this reason, math and science education is highly valued and promoted.
Another area in which positive development is often assessed is mental health and social functioning. Is the individual psychologically adjusted, free of mental illness, and able to function adequately and effectively in his/her social world? There is a multibillion industry oriented to helping individuals with social functioning, including psychological therapies and drugs.
Most of our research on human development emphasizes these two areas: cognitive development into work, and social development into mentally healthy functioning and relationship formation. Much of developmental psychology is oriented to studying successes and failures of development in each of these areas. Both are of course very important areas of adult functioning in which to evaluate positive developmental outcomes.
However, we also believe firmly in democracy as a form of government and promote it worldwide. We cannot in fact maintain a democratic society without the adequate and appropriate participation of citizens. If societies do not support youth’s development into citizenship, they as adults will not flourish as citizens and democracy as we know it will be threatened. I therefore believe and argue in this paper that civic engagement is an equally important outcome from which to evaluate children and youth’s positive development. Civics education should be of the same priority as math and science education.
My goal in this essay is to discuss the value of a positive youth development (PYD) approach to both research and policy on children and youth, and to argue for the need for research and policy that addresses youth’s positive political development.
Positive Youth Development (PYD)
Much research and policy attending to young people has concerned itself with problems or risks because understandably we wish to avoid or reduce problems such as school failure or substance abuse. Hence, for many years, researchers and policy makers designed and evaluated programs to prevent problem behaviors in youth such as teen pregnancy, high risk sexuality, school failure, and substance abuse. These programs met with mixed success. PYD represents a new and innovative approach based on the idea that by promoting positive development we will also prevent problems.
Two important research findings led to the PYD approach. First, it is somewhat unusual for young people to show a single problem; instead, the behaviors that constitute problems for teens tend to co-occur. That is, it is unlikely that a teen shows only one behavior such as early sexuality or substance use. They are more likely to also engage in several problem behaviors. This co-occurrence of risky behaviors has been described by researchers as the problem behavior syndrome; it promotes a PYD approach because this occurrence of multiple problems relates as much to the environmental conditions in which young people grow up as to individual qualities (Jessor, Donovan & Costa, 1991).
The second finding from research that led to a PYD approach was that one powerful individual difference acting to protect youth from risk was the positive quality of resilience, of the ability to overcome risk factors. Not all youth at risk actually show problem behaviors, and the idea of resiliency was coined to explain why some teens can overcome the odds and not succumb to the risks that affect other young people in the same situation. Researchers have identified protective factors that prevent youth from succumbing to risks, and many prevention efforts are based on promotion of these types of protective factors. A caring relationship with an adult is one such factor (Werner & Smith, 1992), for example. Mentorship is a type of program stemming from this research finding. Many of these protective factors resided in the environment, and were not characteristics of individual youth indicating that prevention might focus on environments as much as individual youth and might try to promote protective factors rather than preventing risks.
These two research ideas, the co-occurrence of problem behaviors in youth and the existence in some youth of the ability to resist risks, led to conceptualization of a new approach to guide youth research and policy, the positive youth development perspective (Benson, 2004; Benson et al., 1998; Scales et al, 2000; Tolan et al, 2003). This view emphasizes the importance of promoting positive development, rather than preventing negative outcomes. It purports that ALL young people, even highly competent, affluent ones, have needs. Youth do not differ in individual characteristics, even in ones that confer resiliency; youth differ in the extent to which their needs are met by the naturally occurring resources available to them, such as family, friends, schools, neighborhoods, churches and other community organizations (Sherrod, 2006a).
There are two specific ideas inherent to the PYD, and several important theoretical themes. One important idea is that development is promoted by developmental assets, which can be both internal and external; these assets are the building blocks of development. The other idea is that communities and societies vary in the qualities that promote the development of these assets; hence goals for research and policy are to articulate and promote these assets. To date, forty assets have been identified, and research clearly shows that the more internal and external assets youth have, the healthier and more successful is their development into adulthood (Benson, 2004; Scales et al, 2000). Yet research also shows that young people have only 16.5-21.6 assets on average out of the 40 that have been described, and youth in urban areas such as New York City can show only 5% of the optimal number of assets (Benson et al, 1998).
These two ideas inherent in the PYD approach have important and far reaching implications for both research and policy of relevance to youth development. The PYD approach is valuable because it allows assessment of both internal and external assets, thereby providing a tool for monitoring the success of our young people and for assessing the extent to which the contexts in which they grow up promote their development. This information then becomes critical for designing youth policies and programs throughout the world (Larsen, 2000; Sherrod, 2006a).
This PYD approach also conveys several theoretical themes that offer innovative directions for research and policy. First, its focus on positive development is of course its main theoretical contribution. This view reasons that youth differ not in individual qualities such as resiliency, but in the extent to which their needs are met by the resources in their environment, and that all youth have needs. The research and policy focus is shifted from solely focusing on disadvantaged or at risk youth, from highlighting individual qualities, and from preventing negative behaviors, to focusing on deficiencies in the environment that can be corrected to promote positive outcomes. Second, the PYD approach takes a holistic or organismic view, recognizing that all areas of development are equally important; socio-emotional development is of equal importance to cognitive development. This holistic view is reflected in the articulation of five C’s: competence, confidence, character, contribution and caring (Lerner, 2004). These 5 C’s then guide policy and research in a much more comprehensive approach than has ever been true previously.
Additionally, a PYD approach promotes attention to the multiple influences on development, as described by Bronfenbrenner and Morris(1998) and by life-span theory (Baltes & Reese, 1984); it thereby promotes a diversity of approaches to research and policy. This means there is not one policy solution needed to promote youth development. The PYD approach emphasizes how comprehensive our approach to policy must be; it is not sufficient to attend just to families, or school, or neighborhoods. We have to address all aspects of the contexts in which young people grow up. A focus on multiple influences indicates the need for a multidisciplinary approach to both research and policy. A multidisciplinary approach is particularly attractive for research and has been true of developmental research for some time, but it also means that anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists are as important to policy making as economists, for example. Finally, the PYD approach also emphasizes the importance of cultural and transnational comparisons; globalization and media access open up new worlds to youth all over the world. Both research and policy must attend to this expansion of the contexts for youth development (Sherrod, 2006a).
The PYD approach is novel and important because it completely changes our orientation to research on youth and even more importantly to youth policy. This approach should guide what societies do to promote the development of youth; in turn, youth policy in this area is critical to the preservation of a society in economic, social and civic domains. I now examine how this approach helps us pursue a very important, but underexplored topic, youth political development.
Youth Political Development
Youth civic engagement as an expression of positive youth development is an understudied topic that merits research because of its importance, but it also offers an attractive topic for research and policy because it represents a PYD approach.
Citizenship is as important to adult functioning as working or raising a family, yet it has been the subject of far less research and policy attention. This has become my mantra and guides my research program. Child development textbooks for example cover cognitive development, schooling, and the transition to work, as well as social development, relationship formation, dating, and parenting; citizenship and its development are rarely covered (Sherrod, 2006b).
There have been two major historical periods of research attention to the development of citizenship. The first, in the 1950’s , reflected the developmental approach of that time and focused on early experience and socialization by the family. The second, during the 1970’s, focused on social movements such as civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War protests. It therefore involved adolescents and youth but was not very developmental in orientation; it described civic engagement in young people but did not try to understand how it developed nor why individual differences arose (Flanagan & Sherrod, 1998).
Now a new wave of research is emerging, fueled in part by the writings of Robert Putnam (1996, 2000) who has argued that we face a crisis today in terms of young people’s low levels of civic engagement. Putnam argues, using indicators such as newspaper readership, participation in organizations such as Kiwanis, and voting, that civic engagement has been steadily declining across the past decades. Putnam’s stance is controversial as some authors argue that civic engagement has not declined but has simply changed in nature (Youniss & Yates, 1997). For instance, whereas people are less likely to read newspapers, they can get news from other sources such as TV and now the Internet (Peiser, 2000). Youth voting is low but volunteerism is at an all-time high (McLeod, 2000).
This debate has fortunately spurred public interest, which has focused attention on civics education and has sparked new research and program development. A recent survey of public attitudes showed that the public believes that attention to citizenship should be one priority of schools (Kellogg, 2001). Numerous private foundations have launched initiatives aimed at youth civic engagement; Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Pew Charitable Trust, and William T. Grant Foundations are examples. And there have appeared three special issues of academic journals devoted to research on the topic (Sherrod, Flanagan, & Youniss, 2002; Flanagan & Sherrod, 1998; Niemi, 1999).
A variety of influences during adolescence have been shown to relate to later civic behaviors such as voting. Certainly one important factor is education. Another is school extracurricular activities and participation in programs, especially community service. Although we know quite a bit about the socialization of civic engagement, there is much more we need to know in order to understand how to promote its positive development.
Educational Influences on the Development of Civic Engagement
Several aspects of education influence later civic engagement. One important factor is of course the extent of civics education teens receive in school. A large international study has examined the civic education of 14,000 14 year olds across 28 countries (Torney-Purta et al., 2001). This study asked about the teens’ understanding of democracy, of the governments in their country, and of their rights and responsibilities as citizens, for example. There was little variability from nation to nation in teen levels of civic knowledge, and overall civic knowledge was not as high as civic-minded adults would want. Yet educating students about issues of civics so that they function as productive effective citizens is very important. Youth need to understand how their government works, how they can legitimately influence it, when it is important to take action to change things for the better and how to do so. Civics education should be of the same national priority as math and science; it is as important to functioning as an adult in society as are math and science, and it is also as important to the functioning of the country (Sherrod, 2003).
Civic knowledge is also important because it is the single most important predictor of voting; students with more knowledge are more likely to vote in political elections. If democracy is to work, citizens need to participate, and voting is one of the most important forms of adult participation (Torney-Purta, 2002).
However, other qualities of schools are also important to civic engagement. Factors such as school climate and teacher behavior have been shown to predict youth civic participation (Flanagan & Tucker, 1999; Niemi & Junn, 2000). For example, teachers who treat students fairly promote the development of just behavior in teens. Classes that promote open discussion of issues promote higher levels of understanding of civics materials. Hence educational style and school climate are also important to later civic engagement. Schools are the environment in which young people spend most of their time. If they perceive the school as more of a democracy, they are more likely to see the importance of participation.
Other socialization influences that relate to later civic engagement include school extracurricular activities (Barber & Eccles, 1997). Another strong predictor of later civic engagement is participation in activities in school, including community service (Barber & Eccles, 1997; Youniss & Yates, 1997). However, this research does not allow us to specify which types of activities relate to which later behaviors (Sherrod, 2003). One would not, for example, expect student government, working for the yearbook, or participating in the Spanish Club to carry the same consequences. Yet current research does not allow us to determine how different activities relate to different outcomes.
Participation in community service is another teen activity that relates to later civic engagment (Youniss & Yates, 1997). Yet all community service is not the same, and research shows that type of service (tutoring versus working in a soup kitchen, for example), being mandatory or voluntary, and having an opportunity for reflection to be qualities important to impact (Youniss & Yates, 1997). Furthermore, our research shows that youth do service for very different reasons; some do it for quite selfish reasons. Hence, one would not expect all service to unilaterally lead to later civic engagement in the same (Sherrod & Baskir, 2005). Thus, as with activities, we need research that asks what types of service, and for whom, relates to what later forms civic engagement.
The Development of Civic Engagement in a Diverse Population
There are other influences on the development of civic engagement, but rather than review all such influences, I consider the need for varied strategies to meet the diversity of today’s youth population (Sherrod, 2006b).
The identified socialization factors for later civic engagement are not part of the life experience of all youth. Poor and minority youth may not have the same opportunities to participate in school activities or to do community service. Their civic education, like the rest of their education, may be especially poor (Sherrod, Flanagan, & Youniss, 2002). We know that political development in girls and boys looks very different (Sherrod & Baskir, 2005) so that it is likely to differ by other demographic factors as well. As a result, we need research examining how the diversity that characterizes today’s youth population maps onto the early predictors of later civic engagement (Sherrod, 2005; Sherrod, Flanagan, & Youniss, 2002). Different strategies are likely to be needed to promote citizenship in different youth. Community-based youth programs may present a more promising way to promote civic engagement in poor and minority youth than school-based civic education, school activities, or community service (Roach, Wheeler, & Sullivan,1999).
Hugh Price, former vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, once said “good youth policy is what you would do for your own child. Good youth policy in regard to civic engagement is what we must do if we are to survive as a civil society” (Lerner, 2004). It is as important to maintaining democracy as wars in non-democratic countries such as Iraq, as working through the United Nations to promote democracy, and as other macro-political venues that countries such as the U.S. pursue to ensure our democracy.
We want youth to grow into adults who not only participate by voting and keeping informed but who take an active interest, notice social injustices and/or improper political activities and take action to correct them. While there are numerous current and historical examples of youth activism, it is not clear how we promote development of this approach to citizenship (Sherrod et al., 2005).
Lonnie R. Sherrod received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale University in 1978, an MA in Biology from University of Rochester (1976), and a BA from Duke University (1972). He is currently Professor of Psychology in Fordham University’s Applied Developmental Psychology Program (ADP) as well as Director of the ADP Program, and Co-Director of CARES (Center on Action, Responsibility, and Evaluation Studies). His area of research is Youth Political Development, and he has co-edited special issues of the Journal of Research on Social Issues (1998) and Applied Developmental Science (2002) on the topic.
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