Everyone knows that relationships matter. But few of us pause to ponder exactly which relationships matter. Recently, I came across a study by the well-regarded Search Institute, a Minnesota research group whose early work identified a range of protective factors for young people—developmental assets—and has morphed in recent years to studying how to create resilient young people with strong character, whatever the child’s particular circumstances. Key to developing such young people, they’ve discovered, are what they refer to as developmental relationships, or those between a young person and an adult or peer that are characterized by the expression of care, the challenge to grow, support, shared power, and the expansion of possibility.
In and of themselves, those characteristics sound reasonable, even second nature to me as a social work educator and former practitioner, but one of Search’s supporting graphs caught my attention. In a study that looked at the relationship between a child’s overall developmental relationships and a composite measure of their character strengths, parents reported that developmental relationships contributed 42 percent of the difference in their children’s character strengths. What also caught my attention was that parents felt only 6 percent of their children’s character was the product of demographic factors such as race, ethnicity, income, and family composition. To say that another way, parents are contributing a great deal of their children’s character development to the supportive relationships in their children’s lives.
Catch the significance of what parental instincts are telling us. Parents saw little connection between the (often hard) social realities of their lives, including things like being a single-parent family, having a low income, or being Hispanic, and the character of their children. They found plenty of connection between their children’s character and whether or not peers and adults connected meaningfully with the young person. Put simply, a young person could have everything “demographically” stacked in their favor and be as isolated from caring adults as one can imagine. Conversely, they could have everything stacked against them, so to speak, but develop rich character strengths that come, at least in part, from being loved and cared for by those around them, especially nonfamilial folks who don’t have to care, but choose to.
A recent article in The Atlantic titled, “How Kids Learn Resilience,” captures the importance of supportive relationships in its description of the dogged attempts of researchers from a range of disciplines—economics, neurobiology, education—to craft educational interventions that work with urban, high-poverty kids, historically one of the hardest groups to educate. Their findings are fascinating—first, that we simply cannot ignore the neurobiological aspects of kids who have experienced sustained stress and trauma because their brains are hardwired to be inattentive, reactive, and lacking in emotional regulation. But the one-two educational punch they’ve identified requires: Frist, treating and responding to the kids whose lives are immersed in high and chronic stress (well over half of the total) and, second, crafting educational activities that expressly communicate belonging and belief in every child’s ability. The point is that some kids have brains that are not hardwired for traditional educational techniques and that kids will not engage in academics if no one cares whether they succeed or not. The findings of the Search Institute about developmental relationships also indicate that these caring persons cannot solely be the child’s parents or relatives, but non-familial people who regularly show up in the life of the young person—their cheerleading squad, if you will.
We’ve known for some time about risk factors for young people: Poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, and single-parent families, among many others. We also declare that children are not limited by those things, but can achieve and flourish, even in a world that may be stacked against them. But the evidence indicates that children need more than occasional pep talks. They need the regular and systematic input of empowering adults and peers in order to be well and in order to develop fully as persons.
My youngest child recently graduated from high school. Transitions like these always trigger parental reflection and I’m no exception. But interestingly, like the parents in the aforementioned study, my mind goes first—not to the obstacles she’s faced nor even to the academic learning environments she’s been privileged to have—but to the caring adults who have cared about her along the way. The middle school history teacher who got her excited about the Civil War through his creative instruction and weekend trip to the Gettysburg battlefields. The preschool teacher who invited her over on a Saturday just to bake cookies and talk about life. The youth group leader who took her to our local coffee shop on countless occasions to ask good questions and simply listen. And the crew at the local bakery where’s she worked for the past two years who oohed and aahed over her prom dress selection, listened to her struggles with parents and friends, and personified in-the-flesh developmental relationships.
Yes, relationships matter. Like the parents in the study, I can attest to it. I know this instinctively as much as I know anything. But the call is for all of us to come close to the young people in our lives so that they too can know that they matter in our eyes.