A Shout Out to Michelle Obama

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There is one goal that each of us in the youth “business” shares: to ensure that all children receive the full range of supports and opportunities critical for life success.

We have a pretty good consensus on what these life nutrients look like and feel like. Choose your favorite framework. It could be assets, promises, the “5C’s,” or protective factors. Across these, we share a remarkable consensus on the importance of relationships, engagement, challenge and contribution.

We also share a big secret that we rarely discuss. We know that the most critical actor for raising children rich in assets or promises or the C’s has the name “parent” (which, for the sake of brevity, I will use to cover the gamut of primary home-based caregivers, including guardians and foster parents). If this is true, one would think all of us in youth programs or youth services would spend the majority of time drawing in parents. Or we would at least talk about parents at our meetings and conferences. Or we would work hard in policy discussions to build bridges across the youth development and family support silos.

There’s a big festering wound here, and we don’t know how to heal it. Are we okay with the fact that youth development is a profession that tries its best to make up for disengaged, disinterested or dysfunctional parents? Remember the saying that “youth development is what parents do on a really good day?” Our field, I believe, assumes that parents far too rarely have good days, so we have to create additional programs and services to fill this space.

Our case statement for building national youth development systems is strengthened by looking at parents through a deficit lens. Ouch. Let’s think about this for a moment. On the one hand, our field loathes looking at youth as deficits. But it is easy, convenient, expeditious and self-serving to cast a deficit net around parents. We also get a lot of help here from the media. Any wonder parents don’t show up?

There are 32 million families in the United States with children under 18. That makes for about 50 million parents and other caregivers. That’s a large demographic. It is also frustratingly hard to reach and engage and mobilize. There are a few jerks in the crowd who don’t deserve to hold the title of parent. But most do.

Before giving up, let’s at least look at the possibility and the potential. Here are four truths:

1. Parents, compared to all other sectors, have the greatest capacity to generate the supports and opportunities youth need to succeed.

2. All youth need access to caring adults outside of their families. Parents are a natural and underutilized resource for extending this reach beyond their immediate family.

3. Healthy communities need an engaged network of passionate advocates for youth. Parents are a natural and underutilized voice for youth development with our communities.

4. Healthy societies require a critical mass of citizens who advocate passionately for children and youth at the state and federal level. How many are needed to meet or trump the power of AARP so that investment in children and schools keeps pace? I’m thinking 10 million, give or take a few.

We have got to come together to imagine a social change strategy that equips and mobilizes mass quantities of parents to grab and use their incredible potential, both individually and en masse. In this movement, what parents do outside their families is as important as what they do inside of it. If we really care about our shared goal of spreading and deepening supports and opportunities for all children, we are derelict if we don’t work this one through.

This is a big, hairy and audacious idea. So be it. The effort begins with two steps. First is effecting a necessary and critical paradigm shift in thinking. Parents are not deficits to be managed, but resources to be nourished. Sound familiar?

Second, the movement needs a spokesperson. I nominate Michelle Obama. Here we have someone who gets the value of shared purpose and the power of engaged and connected community. And no one else in our pantheon of celebrated and visible citizens so effectively witnesses to the primacy of parent.

And her charisma; think that could help?

Peter Benson is CEO of Search Institute, based in Minneapolis. http://www.search-institute.org