Getting through the day isn’t good enough: we know what it takes to help kids thrive

It’s one thing to live, it’s another to thrive.  We know the difference, but do the institutions we put our kids through?

There is an emerging field of study that focuses on what helps youth thrive rather than wither.

A research study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence looked at the role a child’s passions and interests or “sparks,” relationships and personal empowerment played in their well being and how this helped them to thrive.

What does it mean to thrive? The researchers described as such “…thriving persons are nurtured by their contexts and also make positive contributions to those contexts.” 

Their study included a national sample of 1,817 youth age 15 years, of this group 49% identified female; 56% were white, 17% Hispanic/Latino and 17% African American. The youth answered an online survey that asked questions about their talents, interests, hobbies, relationships, level of participation in community activities, self-efficacy and empowerment.

Their research conclusions found that youth who had high levels of sparks, opportunities for positive relationships, and empowerment were more likely to be leaders, value helping others and working for social justice in their communities. Even those who showed only two of the three strengths were more likely to volunteer weekly.

Granted the youth that participated in this research study were most likely not the same kids who are struggling in our hard hit communities. But, this doesn’t discount the possibility that every child could benefit from programs that encourage them to thrive. 

A good number of intervention programs aim to protect our youth. For example a program called Safe Passage is currently being used in a few pilot schools in Chicago as way to increase child safety two and from school. Blocking out the negative influences in a child’s life is one step the next step is to encourage positive growth. The Chicago schools participating in this pilot study are doing this. One school is working to encourage positive relationships between the students their peers and the teachers in order to bring calm and peace to their days.

The advantage of Positive Youth Development programs is that they can be created to serve all children, not just those labeled as at-risk. Consider all of the community programs whose mission is to engage our youth. There are programs that nurture youth by finding their passions and interests. Some bring the arts to our children. Others offer them the opportunity to take part in civic action and social change.

The empowerment of youth can create change not only within themselves but within the community as a whole. In 2010, Youth Radio based in Oakland, California featured a two part series on sex trafficking. The young women interviewed for the NPR story in turn interviewed two young teenagers who were trapped in the sex trade as well. Their engagement from empowerment has helped them in their own lives and hopefully will be able to save others.

Even with the hard life that these young women experience, there is still a seed of strength that was nurtured to help them get out of their painful life experience. Promoting the three aspects of passions, relationships, and empowerment was like the water that helped them to thrive.

Promoting the positive does not necessarily deny the negative; it can give youth the resilience to deal with challenges of growing up. A youth empowered can be just as strong and effective as an adult empowered.

— Makenna Berry

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