They participate in service projects, serve on boards and committees, study hard, pay attention to inclusion as well as diversity, work after school, win prizes, show creativity, caring, and a lively interest in their several worlds of school, family, sports, clubs, electronic communication, and hanging out. Their parents provide for, love, and are proud of them.
And, of course, they're not perfect. (They are our kids, after all.)
But there's something missing from this picture of typical kids growing up in a favored community. We think it is the way many of us adults hold kids in our thoughts, especially teenagers. There's an arm's-length quality to it ... as if they are slightly hazardous.
When did you last walk down University Avenue and smile at a kid you didn't know and say "Hi"? We objectify or stereotype them. Like all stereotypes, a lot is missing or wrong about the one labeled "kids." To make that label authentically richer, let's acknowledge in policy and practice the blooming, buzzing, exciting and talented reality that is our kids.
In the recent set of three Youth Forums, roughly 100 people (kids and adults) attended each one. They fashioned a list of actions that would shorten that arm's-length distance. Some were about school surveys leading to dialogue among teachers, students, administrators and parents; co-creating with businesses youth-friendly projects and spaces; and building youth involvement into city commissions and programs.
In another venue—the March 31st "Growing Up Asian in Palo Alto" meeting of 200+ adults and youths—the kaleidoscopic self-reports of kids started unraveling the stereotype of a math/science dominated adolescence. In these settings and others, we've seen that young people have many thoughtful and insightful comments if given a safe and supportive environment to express themselves.
Communities around the Bay Area are building asset-based perspectives about kids. They're creating ways to engage them in community problem solving, municipal government, programs that help them meet their own and the community's needs.
They've shifted from "kids as a problem" to kids as resources, as people who can be meaningfully present for each other and in community affairs. Research is helpful here, where it is frequently noted that young people seek support, advice, solace and celebration from their peers rather than adults in their lives. While this will naturally occur in person and via social media, communities should continue to find ways to provide safe and nurturing settings — with clearly defined ways of accessing services and adult counsel if needed.
Part of the impetus for the asset-based approach comes from Project Cornerstone and its list of 41 "developmental assets." These are family, community and school qualities that, when present in a young person's life, predict less risky behaviors and more positive ones. More can be learned about this important program at www.projectcornerstone.org. The concept is finding its way into Palo Alto initiatives. Stay tuned.
In addition to recognizing youth support of each other, we need to honor the many insights and actions they bring to their families, other adults and the community at large. In engaging them, we build Palo Alto's social and intellectual capital.
There are roles for the schools, the business community, city government, service organizations, the faith community, nonprofits and others.
And there is an essential role for kids themselves to help their community redefine young people as maturing citizens who think well, work hard, have fun, enter into activities with imagination and an intention to do good work, all the while building trust and respect.
Each time we act in this arena, whether as kids or adults, we are defining the kind of community we are. And we are learning that, whether as adults or kids, we're better off as a community whenever we get to know each other and work together.