Young male with his mentor


Must Reads: A Priest, a Pediatrician, and Other Leaders on the Importance of Relationships to Young People

Ask young people what they need to thrive and it always comes back to relationships—people who know them, care about them, who are in their corner and on their side. And when we ask young people what helped them get back on track after a detour, the answer is invariably a person who offered support and encouragement. It might be a relative, a neighbor, a peer, a boss, a coach, a teacher, or a mentor.

Many people have long recognized the importance of relationships, but I sense (and very much hope for) a growing and much broader recognition of the central role that caring adults and relationships play in helping young people develop. Over the past few months, there have been a notable series of articles, books, and materials by thought-leaders both in and outside of the youth development sector that help underscore the centrality of relationships in a young person’s life.

Here are six I highly recommend and urge you to read if you care about relationships in the lives of young people:

1. In School and Out, Relationships Matter

If you’d expect anyone to know a thing or two about the power of relationships, that would be the CEO of Communities In Schools, Dale Erquiaga. After all, CIS’ motto is, “It’s relationships, not programs, that change children.”

So, it’s little wonder that Erquiaga published a terrific piece laying out the argument for why young people need relationships with caring adults in their lives. He covers brain development, epigenetics, and what Kent Pekel from the Search Institute calls the “relationship gap.”

Erquiaga also reminds us that the subject of relationships is a rare topic that everyone can agree on: “It's certainly not as easy as swiping left or right to find a relationship. But it does seem like something the left and right can both agree on as we debate how to improve schools.”

2. Developmental Relationships: The Active Ingredient in Youth Interventions

Search Institute continues to build on their strong track record around the power of relationships with a new study. In 2012, a group of researchers from said that “developmental relationships” for young people is like fluoride in toothpaste: it’s easy to get distracted by flashy colors or innovative ideas, but it’s this central ingredient that really makes a difference.

With that idea in mind, Search Institute is in the middle of a multi-year study examining how we can strengthen these relationships in young people’s lives—particularly young people from marginalized communities—and this paper describes their findings so far. 

3. The Power of Relationships: How and Why American Adults Step Up to Mentor the Nation’s Youth

This summer MENTOR released a follow-up to their 2014 report The Mentoring Effect. The new report, The Power of Relationships, provides the most comprehensive picture of what adults think about mentoring kids who are not their own.

The report is full of interesting insights, including the fact that two-thirds of Americans consider it highly important for young people to have mentors, but they estimate that only a quarter of youth have the mentors they need. 

Echoing Dale Erquiaga’s comment about caring adult relationships being an idea that can attract broad-based support, the MENTOR report finds that mentoring unites people, even in a time of division. The research shows deep and enthusiastic support for public and private investments in mentoring.

4. Where American Renewal Begins

The New York Times columnist David Brooks has long recognized and often written about the importance of relationships. It was only a matter of time before he found his way to Thread in Baltimore—and he was predictably captivated by what Thread is doing.

Thread provides underperforming students with a “family” of volunteers, adults who provide the support that is so crucial to their success. “In short, the organization weaves an elaborate system of relationships, a cohesive village, around the task of helping kids,” Brooks writes. His column does a terrific job of conveying the work and the ethos that makes Thread so special. 

5. Who You Know

Julia Freeland Fisher, who leads the education research division of the Clayton Christensen Institute, set out to write a book about education technology and ended up writing a book about the power and importance of relationships. While educators and advocates often think about the developmental importance of relationships, Fisher zeroes in on the vital nature of the social capital that relationships can provide.

Who You Know is a short, smart volume, and it provides specific guidance for schools interested in creating models that increase a student’s access to caring adults, investing in models that strengthen teacher-student relationships, and using the latest technologies that expand students’ networks to experts and mentors. 

6. The Underrated Healing Power of a Healthy Relationship

Finally, I recently had the privilege of reviewing two remarkable new books about relationships: The Deepest Well: Healing from the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity by Nadine Burke Harris and Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship by Father Greg Boyle. 

Burke Harris is a highly-respected pediatrician, Father Boyle a Jesuit priest. Both work with children and youth, but they come from vastly different (and often opposing) perspectives of science and faith. Yet, in two powerful books, Burke Harris and Boyle arrive at the same conclusion: that positive, caring relationships play a crucial role in healing toxic stress and putting young people back on a path to success. If a physician and a priest agree on what’s most important, the rest of us should pay close attention.

These are just a few of the books, studies, and articles that remind us just how much relationships matter. It’s great to see more awareness and energy around this important topic, and I hope you continue to keep the momentum going by reading, reflecting, and of course, sharing. 

*This piece was originally published on LinkedIn