Mohammed Abdul Hannan

How do we know if adolescents are doing well in life? What vocabulary do researchers, parents, teachers, policy makers, and often young people themselves, use to describe a young person who is showing successful development?

All too often in the United States and internationally, we discuss positive development in regard to the absence of negative or undesirable behaviors. Typically, such descriptions are predicated on the assumption that children are "broken" or in danger of becoming broken (Benson, 2003), and thus that young people are "problems to be managed" (Roth, Brooks-Gunn, Murray, & Foster, 1998). As such, when we describe a successful young person we speak about a youth whose problems have been managed or are, at best, absent. We might say, then, that a youth who is manifesting behavior indicative of positive development is someone who is not taking drugs or using alcohol, is not engaging in unsafe sex, and is not participating in crime or violence.

Benson (2003) believes that the focus on problems in Americans' discussions of youth, and the use in the United States of a vocabulary that stresses the risks and dangers of young people, occurs because we have "a culture dominated by deficit and risk thinking, by pathology and its symptoms" (p. 25) and he points out that "Intertwined with this social phenomenon is the contemporary dominance of what is often called the deficit-reduction paradigm. In this paradigm, research and practice are steered to naming, counting, and reducing the incidence of environmental risks (e.g., family violence, poverty, family disintegration) and health-compromising behaviors (e.g., substance use, adolescent pregnancy, interpersonal violence, school dropout)" (p. 24). The deficit model of youth that shapes our vocabulary about the behaviors prototypic of young people results, then, in an orientation in America to discuss positive youth development as the absence of negative behaviors (Pittman & Fleming, 1991)

For instance, Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, and Hawkins (1999, p. vi) noted that "Currently, problem behaviors are tracked more often than positive ones and, while an increasing number of positive youth development interventions are choosing to measure both, this is still far from being the standard in the field." They go on to note that "A major obstacle to tracking indicators of positive youth development constructs is the absence of widely accepted measures for this purpose . . . [M]any aspects of positive youth development go unassessed due to the underdeveloped state of the assessment tools" (Catalano et al., 1999, pp. vi-vii). The absence of an accepted vocabulary for the discussion of positive youth development is a key obstacle to evaluating the effectiveness of programs or policies aimed at promoting such change.

In short, characterizations of young people as problems to be managed or as primarily people in need of fixing reflect a deficit-based belief that there is some shortcoming of character or personality that leads youth to become involved in risky or negative behaviors. Given the presence of such a deficit, the appropriate and humane actions to take in regard to young people are to prevent the actualization of the otherwise inevitable problems they will encounter. Indeed, policy makers and practitioners are pleased when their actions are associated with the reduction of problem behaviors, such as teenage pregnancy and parenting, substance use and abuse, school failure and dropout, and delinquency and violence.

Everyone should, of course, be pleased when such behaviors diminish. However, it is very dispiriting for a young person to learn that he or she is regarded by adults as someone who is likely to be a problem for others as well as for himself or herself. It is very discouraging for a young person to try to make a positive life when he or she is confronted by the suspicion of substance use and abuse, unsafe sexual practices, and a lack of commitment to supporting the laws and mores of society. What sort of message is sent to youth when they are spoken of as inevitably destined for trouble unless parents or practitioners take preventive steps? How do such messages affect the self-esteem of young people, and what is the impact of such messages on their spirit and motivation?

There are, of course, some words for describing positive behaviors about youth, for example, pertaining to academic achievement, getting along with others, and activities relating to current or potentially successful entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, the vocabulary for depicting youth as "resources to be developed" (Roth, et al., 1998) is not as rich or nuanced as the one available for depicting the problematic propensities of young people (King, et al., 2004, 2005). Moreover, there have been relatively few positive indicators to which people may point in order to reflect the desirable, healthy, and valued behaviors among its children and adolescents (Lerner, 2004). This situation is changing, however.

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