By: Gene Roehlkepartain, Ph.D.

I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by many caring adults in addition to my parents. Though we lived far from our extended biological family, I can think of a number of friends and neighbors we called our “uncles” and “aunts.”

Uncle Keith, who taught my friends and me to work with leather to make all kinds of little contraptions, like coin purses. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember his constant attention, his patience, and his encouragement. Who knows how many hours he spent puttering with us!

Aunt Jeanine, my piano teacher and the mom of my best friends. She challenged, pushed, and prodded me to learn something I ultimately wasn’t very good at—but really enjoyed.

Then there was Uncle Earl. He was the one with all the jokes and puns, and we still find ways to connect to share a bad pun. But I’ll always remember how he laughed at my jokes, even though I know they must have been pretty bad. (I won’t inflict one on you now.)

I’m deeply grateful for each of these adult friends and neighbors who believed in me, took time to be with me, and helped me learn and grow.

We all know that caring adults matter in young people’s lives. Children and teens—in all circumstances and from all backgrounds—need strong relationships with parenting adults, mentors, teachers, coaches, neighbors, and even peers in order to engage in learning and thrive in life.

One such relationship is vital, but we also know that more is better. Multiple positive, caring relationships create the web of support, care, and guidance that young people need growing up. As my mentor and friend, the late Dr. Peter Benson, would say, “Relationships are the oxygen of human development.”

And yet, too many young people grow up with few, fickle, or frayed relationships. Even though we know relationships really matter, we still somehow don’t seem to get it right.

Why is it that we find ourselves doing just about everything except nurturing our relationships?

We put so much energy into ensuring that our schools and programs are rigorous and relevant that we neglect the third of the new “three Rs”: Relationships.

We ask students to care about school when they’re not sure we really care about them.

We get so caught up in understanding our causes and projects that we don’t take time to get to know the young people who are our partners in the work.

We are so eager to be heard that we fail to listen.

We could spend a lot of time deconstructing what gets in the way of positive, motivating, and nurturing relationships between young people and adults. I’m sure we each have our favorite culprits—schedules, technology, a generation gap.

I’d like to propose another factor that may get in the way: caring and relationships are nebulous, squishy words. What are we really talking about? Do we have a shared understanding of what we mean and what it looks like when we get it right? If we did, we might all be able to make these important relationships a more intentional part of our lives.

For many years, we at Search Institute have been part of the chorus highlighting the importance and power of caring relationships.

Last year, we began a new initiative aimed at deepening and broadening our understanding of the elements of relationships that really make a difference in propelling young people on a path toward success and thriving. We call these interactions “developmental relationships” because they help young people develop and grow.

We think there are at least five things young people need to experience in our relationships with them.

First, it starts with EXPRESSING CARE, which I would argue is more active than being caring. Young people need us to show them that we’re paying attention, we’re invested in them—and will even sacrifice for them.

But it goes beyond care. Young people also need us to SUPPORT THEM in working toward their goals and aspirations. That can begin by being a good role model, but it may also mean that we advocate for and with them for the things they need.

Third, young people also need us to CHALLENGE and push them to grow. They need us to inspire them and hold them accountable. Sometimes that may feel more like a kick in the pants than a caring gesture, but it all fits together in the mix of care and challenge that are essential in healthy relationships.

Fourth, we must SHARE POWER with young people, giving them increasing autonomy and responsibility as they grow up. That means we give them voice, negotiate, and collaborate with them in our relationships. This point underscores that healthy relationships are two-way relationships. Each person influences the other. Indeed, most of us would say we’ve been changed in both small and large ways through our relationships with our own kids or other young people we know.

Finally, in our relationships with youth, they need us to EXPAND THEIR HORIZONS. We can help them explore and connect with new people, places, and ideas. We can help them work through the barriers they encounter along the way. It’s part of our job as caring adults to open windows and doors through which young people can discover who they are and where they fit in the world.

These five elements—CARE, SUPPORT, CHALLENGE, SHARING POWER, AND EXPANDING HORIZONS—are all part of what many of you do instinctively with young people. I’ll add that these are things that many young people also do instinctively for and with each other. We must not forget the power of those positive peer relationships as well.

Our hope in launching our new research and practice agenda on developmental relationships is that we’ll help make these themes more concrete and maybe a little less squishy or abstract. Perhaps we’ll then be able to support more adults in forming these kinds of intentional relationships with young people, particularly those youth who most need them.

As I reminisce about the “uncles” and “aunts” in my own life, I realized that Uncle Keith, Aunt Jeanine, Uncle Earl, and so many others did many of the things we’re describing in our developmental relationships research. They didn’t do all of them every day. It wasn’t a checklist. Rather, these were elements I experienced as our relationship changed as I grew up. (Uncle Earl and I still exchange jokes, but that’s another matter.)

If—like these informal mentors in my own life—we can find ways to be more intentional in the lives of more young people, we can go a long way in truly tapping the deep reservoir of relationships that can enrich—or even transform—young people’s lives, helping them get or stay on a path toward a thriving and hopeful future.

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