Preventing Problems vs. Promoting the Positive:

What Do We Want for Our Children?

Kristin A. Moore, Ph.D. and Tamara G. Halle, Ph.D.

July, 1999

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 risk-taking.

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 development.

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 civility.

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 this situation.

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 volunteer work.

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 program.

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 underdeveloped.

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 bad outcomes.

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 positive development.

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 manifested.

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 public.


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.

Sibling Relationships

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.

Peer Relationships

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 Asher, 1987).

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.

Social Capacity

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 action.


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, 1997).

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 and acceptance.

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.

Extracurricular Activities

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 positive development.

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 complex plots?

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.

Environmental Lifestyle

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 involvement.

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 especially important.

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.

Collective Efficacy

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 the community.


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