I received a text from a childhood friend shortly after Christmas, and without opening it, I had a feeling what it was going to say. My friend’s mom had passed away the day before, and she was writing to let me know. Mrs. “P” had lived a long life, so the news wasn’t completely unexpected. In recent years she had struggled with dramatically declining health (but not a declining spirit if the photo I saw of her at a Seattle Mariner’s game the year before was any indication.)
Before I texted my friend back, I sat for a few minutes in my study, suddenly flooded with memories of a person who, long before developmental science identified it, had embodied the first of many developmental relationships I had in my youth.
Warm and friendly, with a fierce sense of no-nonsense, wrapped up in a compassionate and supportive approach, Mrs. P gave generously of her time and support to many youth. She led our Camp Fire group, hauling us around the countryside in the back of her Ford Country Squire station wagon to sell mints door to door on a rainy February morning, and to monthly outings at the skating rink in the neighboring town. She taught me to sew, a skill that I have put to good use at various times in my life. And she sewed for me, including making (in one day) a trendy one-piece outfit for me to wear at horseshows. In third grade I was surprised with a birthday gift from my friend consisting of a whole Barbie wardrobe, including a long navy blue velvet gown with real sequins carefully hand sown, in Barbie size, by Mrs P.
Mrs. P. loved kids. She loved sports. She loved kids who played sports. It seemed like she knew every student athlete in our high school and cheered for their success as well as their teams. She gave generously, and she cared. She cared about me.
As high school turned into college and career and life, I lost contact with my friend and her mom. But when my dad passed away, one of the first sympathy cards I received was from Mrs. P. She expressed her sorrow, but also shared how proud she was of how much I had accomplished in my life. Given that I have always been high energy and outspoken, even as a little kid (surprise), I am sure there were many days when she questioned where I was headed. Her note of condolence sparked 20 more years of annual Christmas cards and letters. I looked forward to hearing every year from her, now a friend, not a mom, and called by her beautiful first name of Nina. I took the time to hand write her a letter every year, filling her in on all the happenings in my life. Until last year… my letter was returned after not being delivered to the address where she was now staying. And then this year… I didn’t write at all.
In his powerfully personal Ted Talk entitled Getting Relationships Right, Kent Pekel, President and CEO of Search Institute talks about the relationship gap. Dr. Pekel points out that most youth development professionals, or really anyone working to help youth thrive, knows the critical importance of creating developmental relationships. At the same time, the investment in professional development and time to learn how to build developmental relationships has not followed. In a word, our practice does not often follow our principles.
Fostering developmental relationships is hard work. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes an investment. But it is possible, and important to get started. Dr. Pekel shares a simple method in the Four S Interview Protocol: What is your spark? What are your strengths? What are your struggles? and Where are your sources of support? This simple tool (which you can download for free at the Search Institute Website) can help all who work with youth begin the process of establishing a developmental relationship.
A few years ago I met up with my childhood friend as our paths crossed of all places in the San Jose airport. We chatted comfortably, even with such a short time to do so, and with at least 35 years having past since we had last talked in person. And I had to chance to visit with her mom and dad a few Christmases ago when they were in the Seattle area for an extended stay. It was a special time with Mrs. P that December day, and I was so glad I got to see her one last time.
Nina P. was the first of many adults in my young life who invested in me, and throughout the course of my youth embodied all of the qualities of developmental relationships. There were others as well, and as time passed these adults grew into mentors and friends. The investment that Mrs. P. made in my life, and in the life of many other young people is an enduring legacy to the power of developmental relationships over time.
How will you start focusing on fostering developmental relationships in the youth with whom you work?