Guest post: Digging into Family Relationships: What Really Matters?

What are the most important things families do to ensure that children and youth grow up well? Our brainstorm list would certainly include some basic physical needs (which are also the responsibility of society). But it would be dominated with words like love, cherish, teach, and guide.

NCFL Guest Blogger Series

If you were to boil it down to one word, you might pick- relationships. At their core, families’ strengths and challenges lie in the qualities of their relationships.

Too often, though, our programs do little to reinforce this core relational focus in families, particularly beyond the early childhood years. In recognizing the power of families for learning, we can inadvertently focus so much on the content we want them to know that we forget that their power comes through the bonds that bind them together. How can we support them in keeping those bonds from becoming frayed?

Search Institute’s framework of developmental relationships offers a research-based lens to help families (and others) be intentional in nurturing those bonds throughout childhood and adolescence. The framework articulates five specific elements that matter in relationships that help young people learn, grow, and thrive. They are:

  • Express care—Show me that I matter to you.
  • Challenge growth—Push me to keep getting better.
  • Provide support—Help me complete tasks and achieve goals.
  • Share power—Treat me with respect and give me a say.
  • Expand possibilities—Connect me with people and places that broaden my world.

The framework opens up rich opportunities for young people and parenting adults to reflect, talk, and learn together. What do they value and hope for in their relationships? How do they need to change as they learn and grow? (They and their relationships are different than they used to be.) By digging beneath the broad idea of “relationships,” we can become much more intentional about specific practices and interactions, which are the building blocks of those relationships.

A number of tools are already available to use this framework with families, including, a website for parents, and a free interactive workshop you can offer to the families you serve. In addition, my colleague Fatima Muhammad will facilitate a session about the framework at the 2018 Families Learning Conference. I know she’d be eager to talk with you about your interests.

Through our Relationships for Outcomes Initiative (ROI), we’re partnering with NCFL to explore practical ways to bring this framework to life in programs and services for families. We’re beginning with designing prototypes in collaboration with Toberman Neighborhood Center in San Pedro, CA. Moving forward, additional resources and strategies that bring the framework to life across the NCFL network.

Focusing on family relationships may seem at first like a distraction from the “real curriculum.” Yet we would suggest that everything else we teach will have greater impact and staying power in families that are connected, learning, and growing together.


Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, PhD, is Search Institute’s vice president of research and development. He created the organization’s family engagement resource, Keep Connected.