The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 30, 2004


Transforming our communities on behalf of our children

It all begins, says Dr. Peter Benson, with a shift in expectations. Instead of writing off all teenagers as troublemakers or those certainly contemplating trouble, adults in the community can make it their business to expect the best from them. Instead of ignoring or distrusting the young people who cross one's path and contributing to the gap between generations, we can make an effort to learn their names; say hello; take an interest. These are powerful tools, says Benson. Not only does positive adult interaction help steer children from risky behavior, it also gently, significantly encourages them to thrive. This, needless to say, benefits everyone.

Benson, a nationally-recognized expert in the fields of child and adolescent development, came to Concord-Carlisle High School on January 21 to speak about the "40 Developmental Assets" he has compiled and made famous in his work. Also present on the auditorium stage, to speak briefly and show their support, were State Representative Corey Atkins, CCHS Principal Arthur Dulong, and members of the community who actively encourage these methods of positive development. The 40 Developmental Assets are measurable qualities in young peoples' lives, and include external influences such as family support, a caring neighborhood and availability of creative activities; and internal qualities such as school engagement, responsibility and self-esteem. Benson is also the president of the Search Institute in Minneapolis, a nonprofit organization that works with communities to promote long-term cultural change to support the healthy development of all children and adolescents.

"Peter Benson's vision has transformed our communities on behalf of all children," said Dr. Rich Lerner of Tufts University, a colleague and longtime friend of Benson's. "He has always believed that every kid has strength, every kid has potential for positive development." Instead of merely trying to control the negatives in the lives of young people, Benson is interesting in helping them thrive, Lerner stressed. He introduced Benson as "a true American hero for the children of America."

"I'm happy to be here and happy to see this movement grow in energy and size," Benson began. "We gather to continue the journey in this very special community."

History of the movement

Although Benson has been in Concord before (and has worked with the community for a number of years), he started his speech by reiterating the history of the 40 Developmental Assets and the movement he has spearheaded. The idea of developmental "nutrients" that feed a life and are necessary for optimal well being took off in the late '80s, he said. After doing extensive research and compiling a synthesis of over 1,200 scientific articles, Benson and his colleagues identified essential building blocks that contribute to the development of whole, healthy human beings. These are the 40 Developmental Assets. Ten years ago, they found a way to measure these assets in the lives of young people: they asked the kids. They distributed surveys and listened to what they had to say. The results were disheartening.

"On the average, children between grades six and twelve should experience 35 assets. Instead, they are experiencing an average of about 19 assets," he said. The area that rated poorest among students (with less than 50% possessing these assets) concerned community support. Children reported that they did not possess positive family communication, enjoy adult non-parent relationships, or have what they considered caring neighborhoods and schools. Their parents were not actively involved in the schools, students said, and their communities did not value them or see them as a resource.

Although values are undeniably higher than the national norm in affluent communities such as Concord and Carlisle, Benson stressed that there is still work to be done to help our children thrive. "All kids need more community than they're getting. They need people who connect in relationship to one another and to their young," he said.

Age segregation

One of the greatest issues threatening our communities is age-segregation. "We need an intergenerational community where young people are invited in with adults; where adults choose to enter into conversation with youth," Benson asserted. Young people benefit greatly from interaction with the "sages of the culture," he added. "We have lost that magic."

So how do we get it back? How do we encourage interaction between age groups; how do we develop our community into one that helps children thrive? "This is a societal change which will not happen overnight," Benson said. "It's an awakening of the community. It's about reminding people of what they already know."

Benson then outlined what he calls the "Five Action Strategies for Transforming Communities and Society." They include: engaging adults to develop long-term relationships with children and adolescents in their communities; mobilizing young people to use their power as asset builders; activate all sectors of the community (schools, congregations, businesses) to contribute to the healthy development of our young people; invigorate parents to become more asset-rich, available and accessible; and influence civic decision-makers to provide support for this positive transformation.

"If any community in the United States has the capacity, it's this one," Benson concluded. "It takes great leadership. It's a matter of public will. You're going to do this, and you're going to be great."

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito