• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 19th January, 2010

Suddenly C is for supporting parents

Had the notable US developmental scientist Richard Lerner been sidling past the London offices of the Demos think tank a few days ago, he might have recognized floating on the breeze the familiar sound of his “middle C”.Lerner has long been the prominent advocate of positive youth development, a philosophical and practical antidote to the lingering damage done to science, adolescence and 20th century politics – so he would argue – by the psychologist G. Stanley Hall.In pioneering the study of adolescence in the early 1900s, Hall swallowed the mistaken evolutionary theories of Ernst Haeckel and with them the argument that all of our ancestral adult stages are compressed and recapitulated in a single life span. During the “storm and stress” of adolescence, Hall thought, the beast was civilized. Haeckel and Hall together were thus implicated, long after their deaths, in the most catastrophic of all twentieth century errors: that politics is applied biology.Richard Lerner was still feeling the need to work at the myth of the troubled adolescent in 2007 when he published The Good Teen, reminding The Smithsonian magazine that for the previous half century research had been successfully demonstrating that only a small minority of the pathways through adolescence were characterized by storm or stress.“But even today, if you ask typical parents why their kids are doing well, they say, ‘They're not taking drugs, they're not engaged in unsafe sex, they're not drinking alcohol, they're not engaged in crime. We all too often define young people as being positive because of what they're not doing. That's a very dispiriting message.”Positive youth development finds its way into the language of US programs through the alliteration of the five Cs, which Lerner defines as competence (not just academic but social, vocational and health competence), confidence, then character (that it's fundamentally important to do what's right). Next come connection (working collaboratively with parents, peers, siblings, teachers, coaches) and finally caring (a sense of compassion or social justice).“Policy makers get re-elected by decreasing crime in their district, by lowering teen-pregnancy rates, not by promoting confidence in young people,” he told The Smithsonian.“People tell me all the time, the only way to change policy in this country is to give a politician a problem they can solve. I'm saying there are not just problems, there are possibilities of positive characteristics in kids. That won’t change unless members of our communities begin saying to politicians, yes, we want to prevent, but what are we doing to promote?”That middle C is suddenly all the rage at Demos HQ. As it feels the political pulse in a General Election year, it has just launched its own inquiry into character – its meaning and value.In doing so, the Demos Inquiry website points to Liam Byrne, shadow chief secretary to the UK Treasury, as a long-standing interest in the importance of character, and quotes him telling the Fabian Society Lernerishly:“Our young people want to develop, not only their understanding of the things around them – but an understanding of the things inside them – self-confidence, self-esteem, ambition, motivation, nerve… This is why I have come to believe that a new agenda for character education is so important.”David Cameron, leader of the UK Conservative Party has also started using the C-word. Twenty times he used it in his speech at the Demos character inquiry launch: “With a pretty good canon of evidence behind me I would argue that while our innate personalities are part-shaped by genetic inheritance, our character can be learned. There are things we can do to help build responsible character in people. So yes: I am going to talk about individual behavior and character today.” he said.Richard Reeves, director of Demos, observed:“Cameron has put character at the center of social policy for the next year at least. Does he have the character to face the unrelenting pressure and awesome responsibility of No 10? Only time will tell.”The Guardian correspondent Polly Toynbee said she didn’t need to wait, fretting over the what she called the MP’s “final homily” that day: "Parenting is the coalface of creating character," she said he said. ““Adept at allusion yet elusive on everything,” she called him.• Richard Lerner’s thinking is also prominent in new school-based efforts to bring lasting peace to the Basque region of Spain. See Basque Spain schools build trust in peace.

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