As caring adults in the lives of youth, many of us are privileged to witness young people discover an aspect of themselves that gives them joy and energy, and propels them toward exploration and expression.
When this aspect of their lives – let’s call it their “spark” – is connected to people and places that encourage it, we also witness something amazing. We see the emerging self in a nurturing context where a young person has the opportunity and courage to choose a healthy path – in essence, to thrive.
I used the term “thriving” in 1990 to name a set of positive outcomes for young people, such as achieving academic success, caring for others and their communities, and committing themselves to healthy lifestyles. I yearned to balance the lopsided view that for decades held sway over federal, state and foundation approaches to documenting the health of U.S. teenagers. My hypothesis was that the overuse of negative indicators tends to demonize youth, leading to the public’s withdrawal from their lives.
More than 15 years later, I find myself just as intrigued by the concept of thriving as I was when Search Institute first put a stake in the ground about thriving and America’s youth. “Thriving” has come to represent the joyous substance of my life’s work, as I seek, with others in the field of positive youth development, to change the way America views its young people.
What I believe now is this: In order to fully embrace why youth matter and why their healthy development is so crucial for society’s health and vibrancy, we must have a new emphasis on thriving. That thinking is grounded in the theory of positive youth development and starts with these principles:
• All youth have the inherent capacity for positive growth and development.
• Positive growth can happen when youth are embedded in nurturing relationships and environments.
• Growth is further promoted when youth have opportunities to participate in multiple, nutrient-rich contexts.
• While support and empowerment are important for youth, how that support happens will vary according to the individual youth and the social, ethnic and cultural contexts in which each youth lives.
• Communities can have the potential to be powerful contexts for positive youth development.
• Youth are major actors in their own development.
The challenge is to understand and name how a life of hope, generosity and engagement evolves over time. How do we know that a young person is moving toward a hopeful future?
The social sciences know a lot more about the negative pathways. We’re missing a parallel understanding of upward trajectories of development in which young people flower into the kinds of people who embrace life and make full use of their gifts. “Thriving” is the term I now use to discuss this upward developmental trajectory.
How can youth organizations and youth advocates advance the concept of thriving?
We must provide communities with a more balanced view of adolescents and their capabilities, by, for example, using the media to shine a light on thriving youth and the adults who help to nurture their sparks.
We must pursue alternative ways to measure and evaluate program success. Consider how many youth development programs are designed with positive outcome intentions but are forced to make their case by documenting their impacts on risk behaviors.
We must promote positive indicators that could expand a national conversation about the kinds of constructive behavior, postures and commitments this society values and needs. As this conversation advances, a vocabulary of thriving could transform our frame of reference for how well we as a society rear our youth.
I suspect that every parent, grandparent and teacher has something positive in mind when thinking about what they want for kids. “I want my son to fly.” “I want my daughter to be the best she can be.” “I want my grandchildren to be happy.” “I want my students to make a difference in the world.” “I want all children to have the chance to live up to their fullest potential.”
I am reminded that a common greeting in the Masai culture is, “And how is it with the children?”
We should be able to answer, “They’re thriving.”