Don't Forget the Families

Search Institute's Newest Study of Developmental Relationships

Family relationships are key to developing character strengths

In the midst of growing national interest in strengthening children’s “soft” or social-emotional skills as critical for learning, work, and life, a new study from Search Institute highlights the power of family relationships as a critical, but often neglected, factor in the development of character strengths in children.

Titled Don’t Forget the Families, the study of 1,085 parenting adults of 3- to 13-year-olds from across the United States found that the quality of parent-child relationships is 10 times more powerful than demographics (race, ethnicity, family composition, and family income) in predicting whether children are developing critical character strengths they need for success in school and life. (See Figure 1.) These strengths include being motivated to learn, being responsible, and caring for others.

“We cannot leave relationship quality to chance,” the study’s authors assert. “We need to become more intentional in forming, strengthening, and sustaining the web of transformative relationships in the lives of children and youth.”

Getting specific about relationships

The heart of the study is Search Institute’s new framework of developmental relationships. Developmental relationships are close connections through which young people develop the character strengths they need to grow up successfully. These relationships are characterized by five essential actions:

  1. Express Care: Show that you like me and want the best for me.
  2. Challenge Growth: Insist that I try to continuously improve.
  3. Provide Support: Help me complete tasks and achieve goals.
  4. Share Power: Hear my voice and let me share in making decisions.
  5. Expand Possibility: Expand my horizons and connect me to opportunities.

As shown in Figure 2, parents are much more likely to express care to their children than they are to share power and expand possibility (Figure 2). Families from all backgrounds experience similar levels of these actions within developmental relationships. Parenting adults were as likely to report developmental relationships across differences of race or Hispanic ethnicity, education, household income, immigrant status, sexual orientation, and community size.

The importance of sharing power in family relationships

The study examined the association between each of the essential actions in a developmental relationship and character strengths in children. It found that sharing power is most consistently associated with a range of important character strengths. Sharing power involves specific actions such as showing mutual respect, giving children a voice in decisions, collaborating in solving problems, and adjusting to the child’s needs. Despite its importance to kids’ development, sharing power is one of the least common things parents do. So these actions are fruitful ways for parents to become more intentional in strengthening developmental relationships with their children.

The challenge of financial strain

The study found that most families that struggle financially still have high-quality relationships with their children. However, when families facing financial strain do maintain strong relationships, their children are much more likely to be doing well in the midst of those challenges. In particular, sharing power and challenging growth appear to cultivate resilience in financially strained families.

Practical strategies for families

The developmental relationships framework points toward specific, everyday ways families interact with, care for, and invest in their relationships together. The report includes concrete ideas and activities that families can use to explore developmental relationships. In addition, Search Institute’s website for families, provides more than 100 family activities based on the developmental relationships framework.

Rethinking family engagement

The study’s authors argue that too many family engagement efforts are about getting families to support what an institution does, like a school or youth program, and “overlook the one thing about which parents care deeply and that can powerfully benefit their children’s development: relationships in the home.” The findings challenge schools, organizations, and coalitions to rethink and reinvest in family engagement as a critical, but overlooked strategy for working together for children’s success.

“There is a rich but perhaps untapped reservoir of relational power across the economic and cultural spectrum in the United States,” the report concludes. “With intentionality, it has even more potential to address the challenges that young people face while also nurturing in them key character strengths that are foundational for success in life.”

Don't Forget the Families: The Missing Piece in America's Effort to Help All Children Succeed, Kent Pekel, Ed.D., Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Ph.D., Amy K. Syvertsen, Ph.D., and Peter C. Scales, Ph.D.

Practical Resources

Don't Forget the Families Webinar

Presented October 29, 2015 by study co-author Gene Roehlkepartain, Ph.D., Vice President, Research and Development at Search Institute.