Boys and girls club


Changing the Narrative Around Relationships

Erin White

Kids of all ages need adults in their lives who care about them. It’s a fundamental, common-sense sort of truth. And yet, the importance of these relationships is often overlooked and misunderstood.

Research and practice have taught us that building relationships and webs of support is one of the three most important areas of focus for those who work with young people, which we explore in Our Work: A Framework for Accelerating Progress for Children and Youth in America.

But in order to help more young people have access to the kind of relationships they need, we need to challenge some of the inaccuracies that exist in the popular narrative—and to point out how what we’ve learned can apply to both organizational practice and individual action.

Here are some of the biggest myths or misconceptions about relationships that need to change:

Myth One: There is No Science to Relationships.

As anyone who has fallen in love knows all too well, relationships change our brains. In the last two decades, neuroscience has shown that relationships are crucial to the healthy, positive brain development of young children, and that they can prevent and ameliorate the type of stress that can negatively change the brain as those children grow up.

While brain science has shown that relationships have a biological impact, social science has demonstrated that they have a practical impact too. Learning occurs when the student engages with and feels cared for by people, like parents, caregivers, and teachers, who complement their engagement with the academic material.


Learn more about these organizations here.

Research shows that relationships with caring adults, both formal and informal, are a significant part of why and how young people stay focused and graduate high school, navigate through postsecondary education, and obtain and maintain employment. Those milestones promote economic mobility, especially for young people growing up in poverty.

A recent study from the Center for Promise documents that more adults living in a community results in more young people staying on a path toward academic success, regardless of other factors. For every seven more adults in the neighborhood, one fewer young person leaves school. The effect is amplified in predominantly Black or African-American communities: It only takes five more adults in the community to keep one more young person in school.

Myth Two: We Don’t Know How to Turn that Science into Practice.

Leading researchers have documented many practices and policies that can make relationship building both more common and more productive.

For example, The Search Institute has “identified five elements—expressed in 20 specific actions—that make relationships powerful in young people’s lives,” captured in the Developmental Relationships Framework:



The Ready By 21 Readiness Project uses the Developmental Relationships Framework and other research to show how adults in education, community, and other youth development settings can create relationships with young people that are “caring, motivating, equipping and empowering.”

There are also great programs in and out of school settings that use relationships as the vehicle to teach, guide, and nurture young people, such as the ones highlighted in the recent blog post, “Five Programs that Build Relationships.”

Myth Three: You Have to Be Everything to a Young Person to Be a Good Caring Adult.

Perhaps the biggest myth of all is that adults have to be heroes in order to really make a difference. While one adult can have an impact, young people are most successful when they have a  “web of support” around them, a constellation of adults and near peers who provide different types of emotional, practical, and social support and learning.

Sometimes the most important thing an adult can do is introduce young people to other caring adults, helping to form this critical network. It’s also important to remember that you do not have to be a youth program director or a researcher to become an important part of this web.

Father Greg Boyle discusses what it takes to be a caring adult at the Recommit to Kids Summit in April.

“People often disqualify themselves, and they presume they can’t be a caring adult for certain children, because they don’t share the same experience, race, or background,” Father Greg Boyle recently said out at our 20th Anniversary Recommit to Kids Summit.

Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world, is a longtime advocate for the power of simple human connection. He believes that you do not have to be hero or an expert to make a difference.

“If you’re proud owner of a pulse,” he continues in the video above, “you can be the loving caring adult who pays attention.”

This story is part of the #Recommit2Kids campaign, marking the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and calling the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth.