positive youth development

I went to Capitol Hill yesterday to hear a panel on America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2005. This is a remarkable document, produced jointly by many federal agencies, that gives a detailed (if incomplete) picture of the state of children over the last 25 years.

In the audience and at a lunch event were several distinguished psychologists who have pioneered the field of positive youth development. They argue that we too often view adolescence as a period of great danger and difficulty. Thus we measure success as the absence of serious problems, such as criminality and violence, pregnancy, accidents, disease, and educational failure. The goal of parents and governments alike is to get our kids safely through to their twenties.

Adolescence is potentially a great time of life, when people can learn, socialize, expand their horizons, create, and serve others. But we tend not to measure the rate at which teenagers have such positive experiences, and we certainly don’t organize public policy to maximize positive opportunities. Of course, advocates of positive youth development want to reduce the incidence of teenage crime, disease, and other bad things. But they argue that we will get better results if we put resources into supporting positive activities, rather than preventing and punishing misbehavior. Clearly, this idea has a political valence. Liberals often want to spend money on arts programs and service-learning, and conservatives want more police. Nevertheless, the evidence for positive youth development is not merely ideological and should stand on its own.

There is a parallel–often noted by practitioners in the two fields–between positive youth development and asset-based community development, about which I have written before.