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Attention adults: You can ignite the ‘spark’ of teens’ hidden strengths

As a person who spends lots of time with other people’s kids, I recently observed the energetic, self-confidence of joyous 4-year-old Lily, the unbridled “life is grand” exuberance of 17-year-old soccer-playing Sam and the pride of 18-year-old Britt

As a person who spends lots of time with other people’s kids, I recently observed the energetic, self-confidence of joyous 4-year-old Lily, the unbridled “life is grand” exuberance of 17-year-old soccer-playing Sam and the pride of 18-year-old Brittany, whom we have known for 10 years, as she hosted my wife and me for the first time at her very own apartment located within walking distance from the junior college she attends.

We are delighted that each of these wonderful kids, in their own way, is thriving with a capital T.

Lily, Sam and Brittany are among dozens of young people who share their lives with my wife and me, enriching our own. By definition, a mentor is a wise and trusted friend and guide who is focused on developing the character and capabilities of a young person — in large part, we’ve found, by being an encouraging friend.

Parents as mentors
But what about providing unique mentoring resources for parents? Certainly a parent can be a mentor, too, arguably the most important mentor in a child’s life. One internationally prominent Minnesotan, Peter Benson, is doing something practical to help parents as mentors to their own kids.

The unassuming Benson has been quietly at the forefront of exploring positive human development for years, authoring a dozen books and training some 30,000 professional youth workers from six continents as he heads what he calls an “action tank,” overseeing some 50 social scientists, writers, trainers and consultants.

Benson, the CEO of Minneapolis-based Search Institute since 1978, describes in his new book, “Sparks,” how parents can ignite the hidden strengths of teens, often the most vulnerable population in society

Alma Powell’s involvement
After writing the book, some seven years in the making, Benson persuaded Alma Powell to read his manuscript. Powell — who with her husband, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, cochairs America’s Promise — was impressed with Benson’s message. She persuaded her husband to join her in contacting their own 10 grandchildren to discover the individual “sparks” in each of their lives.  

Alma Powell ended up writing the foreword to Benson’s book, saying, in part, “Our challenge is to strike the flint that ignites the spark.”

Benson, who created the widely circulated Search Institute’s “Developmental Assets,” describes the spark in a young person’s life as something that “originates inside each person and is good, beautiful, and useful to the world.'”

Benson’s research shows that when compared to youth without sparks, those who have it do better in school, are more comfortable and optimistic about themselves and their surroundings, and are physically healthier and less likely to experience depression.

Several spark ‘flavors’
Benson writes that there are at least three spark “flavors,” including talents (music, writing, etc.), concerns (environment, helping people) and special personal qualities (caring, listening, empathy). 

Young people understand the notion of spark in their lives. A survey with the Gallup organization that Benson commissioned indicated 100 percent of the American teenagers got the idea; nearly seven in 10 say they have it, and six in 10 can articulate exactly what is the spark in their life.

Additional facts:

•    54 percent of all youth sparks relate to creative arts

•    25 percent of all youth sparks relate to athletics

•    10 percent of all youth sparks relate to religion and spirituality

•    Sparks can “burn out,” and need supportive attention from caring adults

•    35 percent of teens find adult support in the schools

The revelation of something valuable
Benson emphasizes the power of nurturing sparks by quoting the 20th century American poet E(dward) E(stlin) Cummings: “… we do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals deep inside of us there’s something valuable … once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any other experience that reveals the human spirit.” 

Benson’s work has concluded that the involvements of at least three adults, 60 percent of whom come from outside the family, are needed to help teens climb their own mountains.

We know that as mentors, we can be one of Benson’s “Spark Champions” as well. 

Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm; he can be reached at Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com.  Slocum consults with the Minnesota Statewide Afterschool Alliance; he was named a “National Mentor of the Year” in 2005.

Related content

“Sparks: How Parents Can Help Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers,” published by Jossey-Bass, $24.95 hardcover, is available at bookstores and online through the Search Institute.

January is National Mentoring Month. For information about the more than 500 established programs in Minnesota, consult the Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota.

Want to add your voice?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Susan Albright at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.