“I keep going back to the share power thing. I think that’s something I struggle with most because it was scary to me, but putting that out there, I do feel more powerful actually because I guess it just opened up the respect on both ends a lot more.” – Parent in the Keep Connected Prototype Study
Water? Check. Microphone? Check. Consent forms? Check. It was about 6 p.m. on an unusually hot and humid spring evening as I waited for participants to arrive for our focus group. These parents were about to complete Keep Connected, a workshop series designed by Search Institute to help parents and preteens stay connected and learn conflict resolution as kids transition into middle school. The window air-conditioning units groaned in the background, working hard to clear the humidity.
Soon I was greeted with an excited and talkative group walking in together after their last parent session, carrying remnants of their dinner and catching up with each other. I introduced myself, talked about the kinds of questions I would be asking, and after the participants had a chance to ask their own questions, we began the focus group.
The participants sat close to me and to each other. They leaned in, listened closely to one another, and often built on one another’s thoughts. This was different from many focus groups I have conducted. In six weeks of participating in Keep Connected, they had formed relationships, and it showed in their rapport with each other. As the discussion went on, we covered a range of topics about their experience in the program. But one topic was clearly important to the group: What it meant to share power with their kids.
Keep Connected is based on Search’s Developmental Relationships framework. Each week, through activities and discussions, parents and kids learn about one of the five elements of developmental relationships: Express Care, Challenge Growth, Provide Support, Share Power and Expand Possibilities.
Sharing power in a developmental relationship is about mutual respect, asking for and taking action based on a young person’s ideas, collaborating with them to make decisions, and even prompting them to take the lead in planning and decision making. This prospect was daunting for many of the parents we talked to. They had spent most of their parenting lives doing more telling than sharing. However, as this group described the times they tried sharing power in the past few weeks, it was clearly having an important impact on their families.
Sharing power can be a tool for conflict resolution in families. One parent noted that by starting to share power with her preteen daughter, the daughter had become more responsible. “She now comes up with a plan, ‘This is how I’m gonna be getting home,’ and I think that’s a share power thing. She’s thinking ahead cause she knows I get mad at the last minute when she’s calling me, like ‘Can you pick me up?’ and I thought she was getting a ride.” Another parent talked about how they had begun letting their kids plan and make family dinners. Yet another said, “We do a lot of compromising, we talk a lot about problems and brainstorm to come up with solutions.”
The group I interviewed on this muggy spring evening was not alone. Across the focus groups we conducted in five diverse communities, the impact of sharing power came up with both youth and parents. One parent explained, “I think it was when the power—the sharing power came up, I think it was eye-opening how [our kids] wanted more power and maybe we weren’t giving them enough power. So, I think we’ve been trying to shift that.”
A young person told us that, of all the things their family tried out together, “share power made the most difference. It makes me feel more involved in my family.” Another said, “I think that my parents have changed as a person because they listen to me and they share the power with me. Cause now I can make more decisions with them…like, if we go camping, they’ll ask us where we wanna go and then we’ll all decide.”
From small everyday decisions like choosing what to eat for dinner to larger ones such as letting a young person stay home alone or letting kids take the lead in planning a family vacation, Keep Connected participants found ways to start sharing power with one another. That’s not a surprise: In Search Institute’s first study on developmental relationships, Don’t Forget the Families we found that sharing power in families most strongly predicts several positive outcomes for youth. Yet, it is one of the most overlooked aspects of youth-adult relationships.
Sharing power doesn’t have to be “scary” as one parent noted, or overwhelming. It can be a tool for bringing a deeper level of mutual respect, trust and closeness to a relationship. Kids feel engaged and excited about their growing role in decision-making and parents are often pleasantly surprised at how maturely their kids take on new and challenging responsibilities. It might seem frightening, but as it turns out, for most families it really works. Take it from a few parents and kids who tried it.
— Jenna Sethi, PhD, Qualitative Research Associate, Search Institute
For more ideas about how to share power in your family go to parentfurther.com
To see the Keep Connected program in action, check out this 2 minute video of youth and parents at I. J. Holton Intermediate School in Austin, Minnesota, one of five organizations participating in the Keep Connected pilot project. Click here to be notified when the Keep Connected program becomes available.