Preventing Problems vs. Promoting the Positive:
What Do We Want for Our Children?
Kristin A. Moore, Ph.D. and Tamara G. Halle, Ph.D.
Prepared for the Communitarian Network, April 1999,
with support from the NICHD Family and Child Well-Being Research Network
and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, DHHS
Parents generally want their children to avoid drugs, violence, and jail, and they don't
want them to drop out of high school or become a teen parent. However, they also want children
to be happy and emotionally healthy, to have positive relationships with other people, and to
contribute to the community.
Despite the desires of parents for positive outcomes for their children, there is
surprisingly little focus on positive youth behaviors in public data files used by politicians and
the media to inform public opinion and public policy. The indicators of child well-being that
researchers and the government typically track about children in general and about youth in
particular are limited to measures of problem behaviors and difficulties. Indeed, there is
generally little agreement about what constitutes positive, healthy development.
In this paper, we discuss the need to define and measure indicators of positive child well-being. We argue that it is essential to develop valid and reliable indicators of positive attitudes,
beliefs and outcomes so that positive development does not continue to be construed as merely
the absence of negative behaviors and outcomes. We also summarize the insights from
practitioners working on youth development programs, describe the available research on this
topic, and suggest a number of constructs which could be measured and tracked as indicators of
positive development. Such a system of measurement is needed if we want to monitor children's
adherence to parents' (and society's) positive expectations of them.
Child Well-Being: Positive and Negative Aspects
Many government agencies were instituted in order to address specific problems.
Accordingly, they study and monitor trends in negative behaviors, such as substance abuse,
crime, delinquency, teen childbearing, teen unemployment, and high school dropout. Moreover,
reflecting their mandate and funding, they often take a rather narrow, categorical approach to
child and adolescent development. Over the years, scattered articles have appeared documenting
the tendency for risk-taking behaviors to cluster together. For example, youth who use marijuana
are also found to be more likely to smoke, drink, and have sex than youth who do not use
marijuana (Mott and Haurin, 1988). In addition, literature reviews that examine the antecedents
of risk-taking behaviors have found that various types of risk-taking share common antecedents,
such as poverty, early school failure, and dysfunctional families (Coley and Chase-Lansdale,
1998; Hetherington, Bridges, and Insabella, 1998; McLoyd, 1998; Moore, Miller, Glei, and
Morrison, 1995). Gradually, researchers have widened their lens to include multiple forms of
However, relatively little government support exists for studies of positive development,
particularly positive development that cross-cuts topical domains. Although some rigorous
research has been done on several isolated topics (such as moral development and health-promoting behaviors), many aspects of positive development have been virtually ignored by
researchers. Furthermore, we have been able to find only one article (and it is co-written by the
first author: Moore and Glei, 1995) that simultaneously examines multiple indicators of positive
Even though very little attention has been given to positive development by the research
community, the practice community has been moving forward on identifying positive child
behaviors to measure and promote as part of their program goals (Chalk and Phillips, 1996).
One reason for the interest of the practice community in positive outcomes is the
discovery that, in order to engage youth, positive goals are needed. Few kids are interested in
programs designed by adults to squelch their negative behaviors. Rather, youth want programs
that manifest an interest in the child or youth and his or her goals and interests. Programs that
build competencies, relationships, and new experiences are more successful in attracting and
involving children and youth.
Practitioners' views of positive development tend to stress positive behaviors and
achieving a level of competence in one or more life skills. At this moment in time, the practice
field appears to be leading the way in expanding the definition of positive development (United
Way of America, 1998).
A number of examples of positive outcomes that have been identified in the practice
community suggest directions for discussion and research. For example, the International Youth
Foundation (1998) has developed a definition of youth development that incorporates several
desirable youth outcomes: a sense of self-worth and confidence; a sense of accountability,
responsibility, and control; and competence in the areas of physical and emotional health,
intellectual development, civic action, and employment. Also, the Council on Civil Society
(1998) and Public Agenda (Frakas and Johnson, 1997) both identify civility and good citizenship
as important, positive attributes for all youth.
Focus groups conducted for the Task Force for Child Survival and Development have
yielded additional candidates for measures of positive development. Adults and children were
asked to describe what a "successful 25-year-old" would be like. Their answers included such
characteristics as: having self-confidence and self-esteem; learning from their own and other's
mistakes; and possessing faith, spirituality, or maintaining some form of religious practice. In
fact, religiosity was one of the most important features of a successful 25-year-old; it was
overwhelmingly endorsed by all age groups (Chervin, Reed, and Dawkins, 1998).
Another organization, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, established a
life-skills training working group in order to assess the effectiveness of programs designed to
train youth in life skills. Life skills training was defined as "the formal teaching of requisite
skills for surviving, living with others, and succeeding in a complex society" (Hamburg, 1990, p.
3). Hamburg identified several skills that adolescents need in order to function in modern
society, including problem-solving, planning and decision-making skills; strategies to help them
resist peer and media pressure; coping skills to deal with daily stressors; and skills to increase
self-monitoring and self-regulation (Hamburg, 1990).
Despite these insights from the practice community and the children that they serve, it is
not straightforward to define and track positive development over time and across groups. This
is true for several reasons.
First, there is little agreement among policy makers, researchers, and the general public
on the definition of positive development. In particular, groups that differ in religion, race or
ethnicity, education, region, gender, and age may differ in the characteristics that they value.
Second, there is relatively little empirical research that focuses on the presence of positive
behaviors, rather than the absence of negative behaviors. It would be helpful to know which
positive behaviors are predictive of positive adjustment and productivity in adulthood, but few
studies have addressed this important question.
In addition, there is scant communication between the practice community -- which has
experience conceptualizing and measuring distinct positive behaviors -- and the research
community, so that there is currently only a limited common knowledge base.
Finally, the methodological work that researchers have done on the study of negative
behaviors does not necessarily inform the methodological work that still needs to be done on
positive development. For example, researchers who design studies that examine negative
behaviors must be concerned with under-reporting and denials by respondents, whereas
researchers who study positive behaviors need to be concerned about over-reporting by children
and adolescents. In addition, very little methodological work has been done on clarifying several
somewhat nebulous constructs associated with positive development, such as character and
While the challenges to defining and tracking positive development are substantial, we
would suggest that it is past time for this important work to begin.
Basic Research on Positive Development
A recent poll of American adults conducted by Public Agenda (Frakas and Johnson,
1997) indicated that adults have stridently negative views of contemporary teens, seeing them as
"rude," "irresponsible," and "wild." Just over one in ten adults describe teens in positive terms,
such as "smart" or "helpful." Indeed, there is widespread attention to and agreement about the
risky, negative, problematic, unwanted, and noxious behavior in which children and adolescents
engage. However, the frequency of these negative behaviors may actually be over-estimated.
There is a need to substantiate the popular beliefs about youth behavior with actual data -- data
that include measures of both positive and negative behaviors so that a comprehensive picture of
child development and well-being can take shape.
Currently, there is no collective agreement in the research community on what represents
the set of measures of positive development. Indeed, there is generally more agreement among
researchers regarding what constitutes negative development than what constitutes positive
development in children and youth (Maynard, 1997; Yamaguchi and Kandel, 1987; Moore,
Morrison, and Glei, 1995). However, work has begun within the research community to remedy
Researchers who participated in a 1994 conference convened to strengthen the field of
child well-being indicators (Hauser, Brown, and Prosser, 1992) suggested a number of measures
of positive development. For example, Takanishi, et al. (1997) suggested educational attainment,
including post-secondary education; perception of opportunity for future adult social and
economic status; health-enhancing attitudes and behaviors, including exercise and fitness; use of
seat belts, dental hygiene and a healthy diet; positive mental health; responsible parenthood; and
responsible citizenship, including civics knowledge, voter registration, community service, and
For younger children, Aber and Jones (1997) developed a set of positive indicators based
on mastery of stage-salient tasks faced by young children (Sroufe, 1983). For example, children
aged 0 to 3 need to develop "trusting relationships with primary caregivers and a sense of basic
security," while children 4 to 7 need to develop "the ability to self-regulate thoughts, behavior
and emotions." At ages 6 to 9, children need to develop "skills to negotiate conflicts and solve
interpersonal problems in nonaggressive ways" (Aber and Jones, 1997, p. 399).
In addition to these socially oriented tasks, educators, researchers, and policy makers
emphasize children's "readiness for school" as an indicator of positive development. However,
there is little agreement in the research community on the set of criteria that constitutes school
readiness (Kagan, 1995). Most researchers, however, acknowledge that school readiness
encompasses skills and abilities in multiple domains, including the domains of physical well-being
and motor development, emotional development, cognitive development, language and
communication development, and approaches to learning (Forgione, 1998; Kagan, 1995; National
Educational Goals Panel, 1997; Phillips and Love, 1997; West, Hauskin, and Collins, 1993).
For example, Phillips and Love (1997) propose that children's learning style -- the degree to
which they are curious, attentive, and persistent when faced with new tasks or challenges -- are
important markers of school readiness. These skills and positive approaches to learning are
fostered through children's interactions with supportive caregivers and environments and provide
a base from which the challenges of school can be met.
Indeed, successfully negotiating the transition to formal schooling is a critical task for
children; adapting to the social and academic demands of school in the first few grades can set
children on a positive educational trajectory (Entwistle, 1995; Entwistle and Alexander, 1993).
For older children, school engagement is a key indicator of scholastic achievement, school
completion, and later life successes (Connell, Spencer, and Aber, 1994; Hawkins, Catalano,
Kosterman, Abbott, and Hill, 1999; Wellborn and Connell, 1987).
In addition to the 1994 conference on indicators of child well-being (Hauser, Brown, and
Prosser, 1992), several reports prepared by the research community have sought to define
positive development. For example, Turning Points, prepared by the Carnegie Council on
Adolescent Development (1989), defines desirable outcomes for youth as being intellectually
reflective; being en route to a lifetime of meaningful work; being a good citizen; being a caring
and ethical individual; and being healthy. Another report of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent
Development, A Matter of Time (1992), emphasizes the importance of constructive time use for
young adolescents, particularly during the non-school hours.
Other research-based work has identified the components of youth programs associated
with more positive development. For example, Roth, Brooks-Gunn, and Galen (1997) have
identified positive youth development programs as those which counter risk factors and enhance
protective factors, which have an asset-based approach rather than a remedial approach, and
which stress skill and competency development rather than the prevention of specific problem
behaviors. Similarly, some years ago, Gisela Konopka (1973) identified opportunities needed by
youth, including experience in decision-making; interacting with peers and acquiring a sense of
belonging; experiencing success, especially in school; developing new skills and competencies;
providing assistance to others; and enjoying sustained relationships with caring competent adults
who recognize and reward pro-social behavior.
In addition, the Search Institute (Benson, 1993; Leffert, Benson, Scales, Sharma, Drake,
and Blythe, 1998) has developed a widely used measure of assets, including the assets of
commitment to learning, positive values, and positive identity. Researchers from the Search
Institute also report that self-esteem has been one of the primary outcomes assessed in youth
development intervention evaluations (Scales and Leffert, forthcoming).
Thus, despite relative inattention to positive development, researchers have given some
thought to the issue over the years. However, little work has addressed positive development
broadly construed, that is, across multiple outcome domains.
Positive Development Across Multiple Domains
In a series of papers during the 1990s, Moore has called for a greater emphasis on
research and data collection on positive outcomes (Moore, 1997; Moore and Glei, 1995; Moore,
Evans, Brooks-Gunn, and Roth). Noting that parents do not just want children who avoid
mistakes and missteps, Moore and Glei (1995) used data from the National Survey of Children to
examine positive development empirically. They developed a Positive Well-Being Index which
includes six component measures: positive parent-child relationships, life satisfaction, the
absence of depression, religiosity, placing importance on correcting social and economic
inequalities, and community involvement. This paper was titled "Taking the Plunge,"
acknowledging the authors' awareness that positing certain behaviors or characteristics to be
desirable is a value-laden and risky, albeit essential, endeavor.
Although selection of the variables for the Positive Well-Being Index was constrained by
the realities of data availability as well as theoretical considerations, one criterion was that "the
capacity of a youth to achieve success, as measured by this index, is not precluded by coming
from a family with limited financial resources" (Moore and Glei, 1995, p. 20). This decision
does not contradict the widespread agreement in America regarding the importance of
socioeconomic attainment in the definition of success. Rather, it reflects an attempt to broaden
the definition of success to include new constructs. Analyses revealed that youth who had close
parent-child relationships as young children had higher scores on the Positive Well-Being Index,
as did youth with better-educated parents and youth who had experienced fewer marital
transitions while growing up. In addition, the researchers found that youth who might otherwise
be thought of as "at-risk" still had high scores on components of the positive well-being scale.
Specifically, youth from lower-income families and black youth scored higher on the Index
because of their greater concern with correcting social inequalities and their greater religiosity,
while children with lower scores on a standardized test of verbal expression in grade school
scored higher on the religiosity component of the scale. These analyses illustrate that some
groups not generally seen as successful may in fact be successful on some developmental
dimensions. The study also demonstrates that it is possible to create a composite measure of
positive development that incorporates multiple aspects of positive behavior.
We have not as yet been able to locate other empirical work that examines multiple
aspects of positive development, such as that using the Positive Well-Being Index (Moore and
Glei, 1995). We have conducted an extensive Internet search for empirical studies of positive
development, using various keywords and examining sociological, psychological, and general
social science citation data bases. We have been surprised by the dearth of empirical research on
positive development, broadly defined, particularly empirical work based on nationally
representative samples. Although we cannot yet define our search as exhaustive, it has been
sufficiently extensive to conclude that there does not appear to be a broad empirical social
science knowledge base on positive outcomes among children or youth. The studies that exist
appear to reflect narrow (albeit important) studies within disciplines, or within sub-disciplines,
on one particular aspect of positive development.
For example, educational attainment has received substantial research attention, as has
health promotion (Millstein, Petersen, and Nightingale, 1993). With the support of the Carnegie
Foundation, an entire book was devoted to Promoting the Health of Adolescents, including
socioemotional as well as physical health. Although, where possible, chapter authors focus on
health-promoting lifestyles (e.g., Elliott, 1993), much of the research on which the authors draw
derives from "silo" research traditions, in which a deep but narrow knowledge accumulates about
a particular topic, such as diet or exercise (Sallis, 1993).
Moral development is another very positive and rich, yet rather narrow, research area in
which considerable excellent work has been done (Piaget, 1932; Kohlberg, 1975, 1981; Gilligan,
1977, 1982; Damon and Gregory, 1997). However, many of these studies use local, non-representative samples, and data generally do not follow individuals over time.
Another source that can inform the discussion of positive development across domains is
the fascinating and important work accumulating on positive outcomes among at-risk youth who
are often referred to as "resilient" (Garmezy, 1985; Rutter, 1987; Werner, 1989; Winfield, 1991).
One notable feature of the research on resiliency is its identification of the existence of protective
factors across multiple domains. Another contribution of this research is the acknowledgment
that individual risk factors do not necessarily lead to poor outcomes for children.
Resilience researchers find that multiple factors distinguish resilient children from those
who are not able to succeed in the face of adversity. These protective factors include individual
attributes identifiable even among babies (e.g., being more active and affectionate), family
characteristics (e.g., from smaller families), family relationships (e.g., having a close bond with
at least one caregiver), and non-family relationships that provide emotional support (Zimmerman
and Arunkumar, 1994). Family processes such as parent-child relationships and parenting
behaviors such as monitoring, communication, cognitive stimulation, and discipline are of
particular interest since they are not fixed but can be affected by education or participation in a
Moreover, resiliency research also provides some important caveats. One is that resilient
children are not usually "invulnerable," that is, somehow immune to all problems (Zimmerman
and Arunkumar, 1994). Indeed, Luther and Zigler (1991) studied a sample of urban ninth
graders and found that those seen as academically resilient often showed evidence of emotional
maladjustment. This may reflect adjustment in one sphere at the expense of another sphere, they
suggest, or it could even be a reaction to peer rejection because of academic success. For our
purposes, it signals that positive development in one domain cannot be presumed to imply
positive development in all domains. Indeed, high achievement across all domains seems
unrealistic even for advantaged children much less disadvantaged children. However, if success
in multiple and non-traditional domains is allowed to "count" as success, the successes of
children growing up under adverse circumstances may be more apparent. An example is
provided by a young man who lived in a group foster care home for 14 years while growing up.
This young man dropped out of college, and thus might not be seen as educationally successful,
yet he founded an organization that has built 150 playgrounds in low-income communities (The
Washington Post, February 25, 1999, p. DC 6).
The resilience literature also provides experience in the definition and use of protective
factors in analyses. Protective factors are generally seen as the opposite end of a single
continuum with risk factors, yet they tend to be treated as distinct constructs that add to or
interact with risk factors to affect children's outcomes (Zimmerman and Arunkumar, 1994;
Moore et al., 1995). Further work is needed to critically explore the notion that risk and
protective factors fall on a continuum. In addition, the research community needs to further
articulate the factors that foster positive development and that contribute to resilience among at-risk populations. It is our belief that positive development is more than just the opposite of
negative development, but this assumption needs to be tested.
Positive Indicators of Child Well-Being
We have noted the lack of theory and data concerning positive development, broadly
defined, in the fields of psychology, sociology, and the general social sciences. The social
indicators field is another research arena in which positive development has been relatively
Social indicators are measures of well-being that are collected on a regular basis from a
representative sample of the population, so that trends can be tracked over time and within
subgroups (Moore, 1997). Social indicators have been used for many years to describe and
monitor the state of our society. For example, social indicators are used to monitor fluctuations
in population growth and infant mortality rates. They are also used to set standards and
benchmarks, and to hold people or agencies accountable for improving the social well-being of
individuals and communities (Brown and Corbett, 1997).
Two recent publications, Trends in the Well-Being of America's Children and Youth
(Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, 1998) and America's Children: Key National
Indicators of Well-Being (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 1998), have
become especially important in documenting children's positive development. These annual
publications compile information from multiple government statistical agencies on the condition
of our nation's children. They include information on children's economic security, health,
education, and social development.
But, a careful examination of these publications reveals that many indicators of child
well-being are actually monitoring negative rather than positive aspects of children's
development. The number of negative indicators (e.g., the percentage of students who have used
illicit drugs in the last 30 days) far outweighs the number of positive indicators (e.g., the
percentage of high school seniors in the U.S. who rate making a contribution to society as
"extremely important"). However, if we only monitor trends in negative behaviors, discussions
about children will continue to have a negative tone. The only good news will be a decline in
In fact, the need for more positive measures is noted in indicators reports themselves
(Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 1998, p. 40). However, those who
produce these reports have encountered numerous obstacles in providing measures of positive
development. Reflecting the lack of consensus regarding what constitutes positive development,
available data are quite thin. Few national data bases currently contain a broad set of measures of
positive development. Instead, existing measures are, for the most part, scattered throughout
several of the newer data sets (e.g., The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,
referred to as Add Health; the Survey of Program Dynamics; the Early Childhood Longitudinal
Study-Kindergarten Cohort; and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997 Cohort).
Because many of the data sources that include measures of positive development are relatively
new, the long-term tracking of positive development is just beginning.
We would argue that it is essential to develop valid and reliable social indicators that
assess positive development. If valid and reliable measures cannot be produced, then
conversations about children and families will continue to have an unbalanced focus on negative
behavior, and positive development will continue to be construed as the mere absence of
negative behaviors and outcomes.
An Expanded Approach
Indeed, it will be hard to move beyond goals comprised of the absence of problem
behaviors to goals that also reflect the presence of desired behaviors unless new measures of
positive development can be identified. Below, we make a number of very concrete suggestions
regarding measures of positive development. Our working assumption is that positive
development is not just the absence of negative behaviors but the presence of real and desirable
characteristics, activities, and behaviors across multiple domains.
Many of the constructs described here are fairly nebulous. People may feel that they
"know" what is meant by a particular phrase, but it is not clear that a concrete consensus exists
for at least several of these constructs. Thus, the first task that is necessary is to define the
constructs. This is particularly important for constructs such as "character," "civility," and
"religiosity/spirituality". The second task, once solid definitions are established, is to identify
specific behaviors that assess the construct. The third task is to identify or construct items that
measure these behaviors in existing surveys or in intervention programs designed to enhance
In this section, we begin the first task: the process of defining constructs of positive
development. One important caveat is that the set of positive constructs we highlight here is by
no means an exhaustive list. However, many of the constructs are very community-focused, and
therefore overlap with ideals held by the Communitarian Network.
While an intuitive sense of what constitutes "character" is widespread and many people
feel they can recognize a person of character, it is difficult to actually measure this construct in a
concrete way. It encompasses the notions of responsibility, truthfulness, good values, and
steadfast adherence to one's principles. Character is not anticipated among young children; but
during the pre-adolescent and adolescent years, enduring values develop and begin to be
Public concern is high over a perceived loss of important values in the process of child
rearing and over inadequate values among children. For example, a survey sponsored by the
National Commission on Children (1991) found that adults, both parents and non-parents,
expressed strong concern that important values were receiving too little emphasis among
contemporary families. Thus, it would appear that the constellation of characteristics
incorporated into the notion of character, and the absence of character, are very salient to the
An aspect of public and even private life that has become a very salient issue in recent
years might be described as civility (Frakas and Johnson, 1997; Institute for American Values,
1998). Obviously, having "good manners" is a reflection of civility, but the construct as
intended here goes well beyond saying "please" and "thank you," and has little to do with
knowing which fork to use at a formal dinner party. Civility is manifested in the treatment of
others with respect. Respect can be shown in a variety of ways. For example, respect can be
shown by taking turns, by sharing, by not speaking harshly or rudely to other people, by listening
to others who are speaking, and by not pushing or shoving or hurting others. Unfortunately, a
recent survey conducted by Public Agenda (Frakas and Johnson, 1997) found only about 12
percent of adults think it is very common for teens to treat people with respect. Although
standards for civility become somewhat more demanding as children become older, the elements
of civility seem more independent of age than is true for some other positive behaviors.
Parent-Child Relationships and Activities
Socializing children to be productive and compassionate citizens is not an easy endeavor.
However, this task is one that parents and other socializing agents face every day. The social
dynamics within a family are the first that children encounter, and are therefore an important
model for how to behave in the larger society (Halle and Shatz, 1994). The messages that
parents convey to their children through their actions and words are the basis for children's
understanding of appropriate social rights and responsibilities in the greater society.
Indeed, patterns of parent-child interaction and activity influence the cognitive and social
development of children from the first days of life onwards. For example, in infancy and early
childhood, the amount of verbal interaction between parent and child spurs language
development and reading ability, and can have long-ranging influence on academic skills such as
mathematics in the school years (e.g., Bradley and Caldwell, 1980, 1984; Bradley et al., 1989).
The emotional quality of the relationship between parent and child in the first years of life, often
referred to as the quality of the "attachment" between parent and child (see Ainsworth, Blehar,
Waters, and Wall, 1978; Bretherton, 1985), also has immediate as well as long-term effects on a
child's cognitive, social, and emotional functioning. When there is a "secure" attachment
between infant and parent, the child is provided the necessary emotional security to explore
his/her environment freely -- both in the present moment and in the future (Cassidy, 1986).
Secure attachments between mother and child in the first few years of life have been found to be
associated with persistence at challenging activities (Frankel and Bates, 1990; Matas, Arend, and
Sroufe, 1978), social competence with peers in the preschool years (Suess, Grossman, and
Sroufe, 1992), and self-reliance and greater problem-solving ability in kindergarten (Arend,
Gove, and Sroufe, 1979).
Much has been written about the increasing influence of peers during the adolescent years
(Brown, 1990). However, most adolescents retain strong bonds with their parents (National
Commission on Children, 1991), and many continue to spend time with their parents. In general,
having a positive relationship with parents constitutes an important indicator of positive youth
development. Youth who disconnect from parental influence are at particular risk for delinquent
activities and psychological problems (Resnick, Bearman, Blum, Baumen, Harris, Jones, Tabor,
Beuhring, Sieving, Shew, Ireland, Bearinger, and Udry, 1997). Less clear are the implications of
being close to one parent but not the other; but a substantial literature now suggests that children
in single-parent families are disadvantaged in numerous ways relative to children raised by both
of their biological parents (McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994). Furthermore, studies that have
included assessments of both infant-mother and infant-father attachments have found that
children who were securely attached to both parents in infancy are more sociable, and more
socially competent than children who were securely attached to only one parent (Parke, 1996).
Hence, as a measure of positive development, it is proposed that children be close to both of their
biological parents. Parental report would not be adequate to assess this construct; it is essential
that the child directly report on his or her feelings.
While positive affect is clearly an important element of positive development, an
additional and more behavioral indicator also seems appropriate. Specifically, do the parents and
children spend time together and do things together? It may not matter what the activities are.
Some families are oriented toward music, while others prefer sports, and others like to shop. The
important aspect is that the child is engaged in the activity with a parent. Just sitting and talking
ought to count. In fact, talking with a non-resident parent on the telephone or communicating
regularly via e-mail might be included in a listing of parent-child activities, to equalize the
opportunity for interaction across family types.
A more difficult question is whether parallel but unengaged activities should be counted
as a "parent-child activity." Should time spent watching television together be considered as a
parent-child activity? Should parental attendance at a child's school performance or soccer game
count as doing something together? In the absence of evidence that sitting together at a
symphony is more beneficial than watching the child perform at a school concert, it is suggested
that all types of activities be counted. However, it is suggested that researchers investigate
whether watching television together with a child has positive developmental implications for
that child, comparable to reading together, playing games together, or going for a hike together.
As argued by Judy Dunn (Dunn, 1988; Dunn and Kendrick, 1982), interactions with
siblings are an important component of child development. Interactions with siblings influence
the course of a child's social and moral development, including the development of good
citizenship and good character. For example, Dunn and Munn (1986) found that friendly
behavior directed toward a younger sibling by an older sibling was associated with the younger
sibling's development of relatively mature behavior in both conflictual and cooperative
situations. Also, the young sibling had a similar positive effect on the older sibling's social
behavior. Indeed, positive sibling relationships early in life are associated with higher quality
social skills with peers (Mendelson, Aboud, and Lanthier, 1994). Strong sibling relationships are
also a source of fun, satisfaction, and support while children are young and represent a source of
social support over the life course. As with parent-child relationships, both the amount of
interaction and also the quality of the interpersonal relationship are important.
The rules and norms of social interaction first encountered in the home environment
through interactions with parents and siblings are further refined through social interactions with
peers. Although many adults have a negative impression of the influence of peers on
adolescents, the implications of peer relationships are often more positive than negative
(Bearman and Bruckner, 1999). At any age, relationships between peers provide opportunities to
hone social skills and prosocial behavior. In addition, peer relationships can provide cognitive,
social, and physical stimulation through joint activities and conversations. Indeed, developing
cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships with peers is considered essential for
successful negotiation of life (Borenstein, 1996). Children who have poor peer relationships are
at risk for later life difficulties, especially school dropout and criminal behavior (Parker and
Friendships in particular can provide emotional security and intimacy, and often serve as
an additional source of support outside of the family, especially in times of crisis. Good
friendships are one of life's pleasures at any age, and they can provide a protective buffer against
mental health problems and destructive behaviors.
Throughout history and across the world, people have lived in social groups such as
families and communities. One characteristic of a successful human being is his or her ability to
live and work peacefully and productively with others in these groups. Social capacity is the
ability to interact positively within intimate and family relationships and also "the ability to
demonstrate positive concern and caring in a larger social arena" (Moore, Evans, Brooks-Gunn,
and Roth, 1997).
Social relationships form first with family members. Accordingly, attachment to parents,
siblings, and other caregivers is a marker of a developing social capacity in very young children.
However, even preschool children typically interact with non-family members. In all of their
interactions, children can potentially gain experience in cooperation, sharing and empathy, and
they can come to experience pleasure from the happiness of others.
Social capacity should not be confused with popularity. A person high in social capacity
may have many friends or only a few. Social capacity is, instead, the ability to feel concern and
caring for a range of people, including but not limited to the immediate family. However, it
includes an active element as well as empathy and caring.
In terms of measurement, it seems that other constructs, such as volunteering and having
positive relationships with family members and peers, overlap with the broad, underlying notion
of social capacity. Where social capacity differs is in combining the cognitive and behavioral
components. Thus, a person may have empathy and character, but may or may not actively live
out these virtues. Alternatively, a person may be a social activist for reasons that have nothing to
do with values or caring. Social capacity takes account of both action and the motivation for
Despite the legal separation of church and state, it might nevertheless be argued that
involvement in some type of religious or spiritual activity would index positive youth
development. This is indeed what many youth development workers have found in their work
with adolescents (Chervin, Reed and Dawkins, 1998; Marshall, 1998; Search Institute, 1998).
Attendance at services and other activities sponsored by religious organizations has been
found to be correlated with better health and less risk-taking (Bearman and Bruckner, 1999;
Moore, Manlove, Glei, and Morrison, 1997). We assume that, beyond attendance, measures of
belief and commitment also reflect positive development (e.g., frequency of prayer, reading, and
meditation). An important caveat in a secular society might be an accompanying acceptance and
tolerance of others who follow a different faith or tradition.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution, and discrimination is proscribed
by numerous laws. Yet, the successful integration of diverse groups into national life requires
that the public absorb and live out these laws in their daily lives. Despite conspicuous
exceptions, it would appear that tolerance for religious, racial, ethnic and other differences has
increased in recent decades. For example, responses to a 1994 survey of American high school
seniors indicate increased acceptance of racial integration (Bachman, Johnston, and O'Malley,
Tolerance is an attribute that encompasses respectful attitudes and nonviolent,
nondiscriminatory behaviors toward others who differ from oneself. Tolerance does not imply,
of course, giving up personal values or goals. Neither does it imply endorsing other people's
values and goals if they conflict with one's own. Rather, what we mean by tolerance is a
willingness to accept other people who differ from oneself in terms of religious beliefs,
demographic background, sexual orientation, values, and goals. Tolerance may also lead to
respectful dialogue, or to participation in activities that celebrate difference. These latter
behaviors, we suggest, reflect not only tolerance but also a certain level of true respect, inclusion
An important reason for including tolerance in a listing of desirable characteristics is that
tolerance complements and enhances other positive characteristics that are important for children
and youth. For example, having a strong sense of one's own religion while also respecting other
people's contrasting religious beliefs and practices strengthens the value and meaning of
religiosity and spirituality.
Although the attribute of tolerance is a laudable goal for today's young people, as we
move toward the next century and become an increasingly diverse society, children and society
more broadly will be well served to move beyond tolerance toward acceptance and even
appreciation of persons who differ in their social and demographic characteristics.
In general, researchers have found that involvement in activities is associated with
positive development. For example, recent research has shown that involvement in at least one
school club decreases the chances of a youth's engagement in risk-taking behaviors (Entwisle,
1990), reduces the probability of a non-marital teen births (Moore, Manlove, Glei, and Morrison,
1997) and increases the chances of high school completion for teens who are at risk for school
dropout (Mahoney and Cairns, 1997). Noting these kinds of associations, efforts to provide
youth development opportunities for disadvantaged and at-risk youth have been widely mounted
in recent years. However, such approaches have a very long history, with organizations like
Scouts, YMCA and YWCA having been active for many decades.
Because there is no reason to assume that some types of activities are inherently superior
to others, we posit that participation in any array of clubs, teams, and organizations is positive.
However, marginal membership and inconsistent attendance are not expected to be meaningful.
Thus, the level of participation needs to be considered, as does whether or not a child holds a
leadership position. On the other hand, it is not assumed that more involvement is uniformly and
linearly a good thing. Zill, Nord, and Loomis (1995) found that involvement in extracurricular
activities of up to 5-19 hours per week was associated with less risky behavior, but that
involvement of 20 hours or more a week did not have as great a deterrent effect on risky
behaviors. Thus, regular, moderate involvement in an activity, perhaps in a leadership role or
with real responsibilities such as Scouts have, at any level, is suggested as an indicator of
Sports and Exercise
The health advantages of exercise are widely known, yet many children and youth do not
exercise frequently (National Center for Health Statistics, May, 1996). Although participation in
varsity athletics has been found to be associated with a higher incidence of binge drinking and,
for males only, with a higher probability of teen parenthood, in general athletic participation is
related to more positive outcomes (Zill, Nord, and Loomis, 1995).
While many if not most children and adolescents will not participate in formal or varsity
athletics, all kinds of regular athletic participation can contribute to positive development. At
present, it is not clear what aspects of exercise and athletic participation are positive for social (as
distinct from physical) development. Researchers need to consider whether and how often
children engage in a variety of physical activities and whether activities are solitary or done with
others, whether they are informal or done as part of an organized team, and whether adults are
involved as coaches or supervisors. The amount of time expended in these activities over the
course of a year and whether there are times of complete inactivity might also be explored.
Participation in Cultural and Literary Activities
Information is obtained fairly regularly about the frequency with which children and
adolescents read (other than for school), but relatively little information is available about other
kinds of cultural participation in which children and adolescents might be engaged (see Zill and
Winglee, 1990, for a review). How many children have seen a symphony, a dance performance,
a play, or an opera during the past year? If children or adolescents have seen such a performance
in the past year, how many times have they gone? While rock concerts and musicals may need
to be considered separately, attendance at any kind of live performance may represent a
significant cultural experience for children and adolescents whose primary exposure is television
and movies. Even performances by other children and youth may be significant cultural
exposure, and such experiences may represent the only opportunities available to children in
rural areas and small towns.
In addition, while it is useful to know that children and adolescents are reading anything
at all, it would be even more useful to know what kinds of literature they are reading. Are they
reading comic books, or books written for younger children? Or are they reading non-fiction and
biographies as well as fiction, or books written for adults with demanding vocabularies and
In addition to being cultural consumers, children may be involved in performing. They
may sing in a choir, act in a play, write poetry, or play a musical instrument. Whether they take
lessons or are guided by an adult will vary across activities; accordingly, it may be most
appropriate to identify whether a child engages in any cultural pursuits at all, and if so, how
many hours a child invests in such activities over the course of a year.
Because access to opportunities varies with economic status and urban-rural residence, it
would be appropriate to control for such differences in assessing how often children and
adolescents participate in cultural activities.
While general agreement about what constitutes an environmental life style would be
difficult to attain, certain basic behaviors that reflect a concern for the environment can
undoubtedly be identified and accepted as indicators of positive development. Environmentally
conscious behaviors relevant to a broad spectrum of the population would include recycling,
cleaning up litter, and energy conservation.
This construct might be assessed by measuring any of a number of concrete behaviors.
Specifically, children might be asked whether and how often they personally recycle cans,
bottles, and paper. They might also be asked whether and how often they litter and how often
they clean up litter. Although these questions have a social desirability element, items might be
developed that overcome this bias as much as possible. Youth might also be asked whether they
ever engage in a series of activities, such as car pooling, taking public transportation, walking,
biking, or reducing the heat or air conditioning, explicitly in order to save energy. Currently,
such information is not available through national-level surveys.
Volunteer Community Involvement
As important as it is that children and youth be well adjusted and happy, it is also
important that children ultimately become contributors to the communities in which they live.
Serving one's community - be it your neighborhood or your country - helps to foster a sense of
compassion and responsibility for others. Children and youth learn the principles of tolerance,
cooperation, and interdependence through participation in community organizations (Flanagan et
al., in press). Perhaps most importantly, the exposure to community service engenders a sense of
belonging and "connectedness" to the larger community (Flanagan and Gill, 1999). This is
particularly important during adolescence, because it is a critical time for identity development
(Youniss, McLellan, Su, and Yates, 1999; Youniss and Yates, 1997). Nevertheless, even
elementary age children can benefit from varied kinds of community activities, such as food
drives, visiting people in nursing homes, or cleaning up trash from a playground. The benefits of
community service are far-reaching, not only for the child him/herself, but also for the
community. In particular, young people bring energy and creativity to citizen service activities;
this energy can be inspiring for all involved.
A rich history of social science research shows that participation in civic activities such as
student government or civil rights movements during one's youth predicts to a social orientation
in both thought and deed 10 to 25 years later (DeMartini, 1983; Fendrich, 1993; Hanks and
Eckland, 1978). For example, membership in 4-H and other organizations during adolescence
has been found to predict membership and leadership in community organizations in adulthood
(Ladewig and Thomas, 1987). Recent research has found that participation in school- or adult-based activities predicts positively to adolescents' political and religious involvement, and
predicts negatively to adolescents' substance use (Eccles and Barber, 1999; Youniss, Yates, and
Su, 1997; Youniss, McLellan, Su, and Yates, 1999). In sum, civic activity during youth is
positively related to concurrent positive behaviors, as well as predictive of long-term civic
Children and youth may become involved in community activities through school,
religious organizations, groups such as Scouts, or with their own families. Community
involvement can occur regularly throughout the year; it can be an intense but relatively brief day
or week of volunteering, or it can be varied and occasional. Moreover, community involvement
may be engaged in alone or in groups. Community involvement can take many forms. It may be
service to persons, to families, to organizations, to animals, or to the environment (such as
parks). It may involve helping directly (e.g., tutoring) or indirectly (e.g., donating food).
Recent research comparing voluntary and mandated service found that adolescents who
volunteered their services were more likely than those who did mandatory service to be involved
in more direct forms of service, such as tutoring, and less likely to be involved in functionary
forms of service, such as re-shelving books (Youniss, 1999). It may therefore be important to
distinguish between service done as a requirement (e.g., for high school graduation) and
volunteer work that is completely uncompensated.
Because of the very great variety of activities that might be undertaken for the benefit of
the community, and the varied ways in which service can be provided, the construct should be
defined and measured broadly. The research literature may be able to guide the grouping
together of different types of involvement that are more predictive of community involvement
among adults or more strongly associated with positive youth outcomes than are other types of
involvement. However, the amount of involvement rather than the type may prove to be
While a distinction should be made between children and youth who have not engaged in
volunteer community involvement and youth who have, the amount of involvement represents an
additional significant distinction. Ideally, it would be useful to obtain an estimate of the number
of hours devoted to volunteer activities annually. Thus, regular commitments of several hours a
week could add up to be equivalent to the hours invested by youth who give a week or more to a
particular project. Also, youth whose activities occur in a particular season would not be
overlooked, while youth currently engaged in volunteer activities receive full credit, if an annual
accounting of hours can be obtained.
Some very important conceptual and empirical work done by Robert Sampson, Stephen
Raudenbush, and Felton Earls (1997) explores the meaning and implications of neighborhood
relationships. They define "collective efficacy" as "social cohesion among neighbors combined
with their willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good" (Sampson, Raudenbush, and
Earls, 1997, p. 918). To access this construct, survey questions were designed to ask adults how
likely it would be for someone to intervene if a child skipped school, showed disrespect to an
adult, or spray painted a building, and whether they felt people were willing to help their
neighbors in their community.
To explore the implications of collective efficacy, the research team assessed attitudes
about social cohesion and informal social control in 343 neighborhood clusters in Chicago. They
then compared these attitudes with measures of violence and crime in the neighborhoods. They
found a strong link between residents' feelings of collective efficacy with perceived
neighborhood violence, with reported violent victimization, and with neighborhood homicide
rates. This correlation held over and above the effects of other neighborhood characteristics,
such as socioeconomic disadvantage and levels of residential mobility. While cross-sectional
and limited to a single city, this study provides compelling evidence for a positive community-level construct, specifically collective efficacy.
Measuring Positive Development
Having proffered a set of positive characteristics, behaviors and outcomes for children,
youth, and their families, a next task is to find appropriate measures to make these constructs
concrete. As we have hinted throughout the last section, measurement is hindered by problems
of social desirability. For example, it is difficult for researchers to devise survey questions that
measure the possession of the attributes that constitute character. In particular, it is difficult to
ask respondents directly if they are persons of character. However, more subtle or unobtrusive
measures directed at children and adolescents might be developed for large-scale representative
surveys (e.g., an interviewer could "inadvertently" leave a stamped envelope with an adolescent
that the interviewer had indicated s/he intended to mail and tabulate how many of the letters are
returned). In addition, questions can be developed for other persons to answer about the child or
adolescent. For instance, in the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), parents and
teachers both provide data about the student. In the same way that parents and teachers rate
negative behaviors, they might be asked to rate a child or adolescent with regard to his or her
varied positive characteristics.
It is desirable to obtain the perspectives of multiple reporters and to use multiple
methods. For example, in addition to parent and teacher reports, children may be asked directly
how they spend their time. Time use data might reveal time spent exercising, volunteering, and
attending religious services.
Currently, there is extensive coverage, both in the media and in our national survey data,
of negative adolescent behaviors and poor child outcomes. The dearth of information on positive
outcomes desired for and achieved by children contributes to the negative attitudes that the
public seems to hold about children and youth. The scarcity of information on positive
development is due, in part, to a lack of consensus among experts in the field regarding positive
outcomes desired for children. Lack of agreement regarding what are positive outcomes
undermines our collective capacity to raise healthy, high-achieving children, because parents,
communities, youth leaders, and teachers lack a sense of what goals should be sought.
We hope that the issues we have raised in this paper will spark productive conversations
that will lead to a better understanding of the full range of development and behavior capable
among children. We suggest that our ultimate goal, as a community, should be new and more
upbeat conversations, with an eye toward establishing positive goals and creating assessments of
progress toward positive outcomes for children and youth. If our horizons extend only to
preventing negative outcomes for individual children, our programs and policies and public
discussions will have quite a different tone than if our goals include positive development for
children as individuals, children within families, and children as members of and contributors to
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