Your Kids

Half Full or Half Empty?

Fuller Youth Institute | Mar 7, 2007

Photo by Catherine MacBride.

Half full. Or half empty.

The age-old debate about whether a glass 50% full of water is either half full or half empty is not just an interesting personality test. It’s surprisingly relevant to the way we interact with kids in our ministries.

Do you view your kids as full of problems, or full of possibility?

Do you see them with strengths to build upon, or weaknesses to compensate for?

As has been confirmed by new research conducted by the Fuller Youth Institute (formerly Center for Youth and Family Ministry), the reality is that each kid is a mixture of problems and possibilities. Through a portion of our Urban Youth Workers in America (UYWA) Study, FYI took a closer look at the “full-ness” and “empty-ness” of both urban kids and non-urban kids. Our study confirms what anyone who has spent much time with kids realizes: below the surface, each kid is their own unique swirling mixture of both pain and potential.

The Background of the Urban Youth Workers in America Study

40 Developmental Assets

The UYWA Study is closely related to two decades of applied research conducted by the Search Institute, a well-respected and well-known research center located in Minnesota. Based on surveys with over 2 million youth in the United States and Canada since 1989, Search Institute has developed the “40 Developmental Assets.” The assets are 40 different building blocks of development that help people of all ages (including teenagers!) thrive. The more teenagers access these assets through their relationships and surrounding communities, the more likely they are to exhibit leadership, avoid high-risk behaviors, and succeed in school. The 40 assets are listed and further described at

Paying attention to the wide variety of assets available and important to kids can help us have more holistic ministry. By holistic ministry, we mean ministry that acknowledges and tries to develop the whole potential of kids. Those who practice holistic ministry seek to develop kids not just spiritually, but also emotionally, socially, physically, and academically. Holistic ministry recognizes that God has made us as whole people, and His Kingdom has implications for every aspect of our lives.

Across the country, we’re discovering youth workers – both urban and non-urban – who are eager to let the assets shape their ministry philosophies and programs. There seems to be a growing recognition that while all kids need Jesus, Jesus is not all that kids need. They also need assets like family support, a caring school climate, a chance to serve others, and appropriate boundaries and expectations.

The Goals of the UYWA Study

The two principal researchers in the UYWA Study, Dr. Pamela King from Fuller Seminary and Dr. Kelly Schwartz from Nazarene University College, obtained permission from Search Institute to sift through its 1999 dataset of 212,000 kids. In particular, the goals of the UYWA Study were to:

  • Identify the assets that were most prevalent in the portion of the 212,000 kids who could be described as “urban.” [[The designation of kids as “urban” was based on two criteria: living in cities of over 250,000 residents and having a mother who did not graduate from high school. Of the initial dataset, 7,171 youth fit both of these criteria.]]
  • Identify the assets that were least prevalent in that same group of urban kids.
  • Compare and contrast the assets present in urban youth with those present in non-urban youth.

As we studied kids’ assets and the implications for youth ministry, we discovered some surprises that impact how we interact with all types of kids.

Urban and Non-Urban Kids: Major Differences

Ethnic Backgrounds
The majority of the non-urban kids are Anglo/White (78%). In contrast, the two largest ethnic groups in the urban sample are Hispanic/Latino (41.3%) and Black/African-American (25.8%).

The family structures of the two groups of kids also differ quite significantly. Almost 75% of non-urban kids reside in two-parent families, while less than 60% of urban kids reside in similar two-parent homes. Twice as many urban kids live in mother-only families as non-urban kids.

Urban and Non-Urban Kids: Medium-Size Differences

Overall Asset Levels
Of the 40 Developmental Assets, the non-urban kids on average have more (19.6) developmental assets than do the urban (17.2) kids. Looking at overall asset levels between the two samples, a smaller percentage of urban kids have 21 or more assets (34.6%) compared to non-urban students (44.1%), while a larger percentage of urban youth have 20 or less assets (65.4%) compared to non-urban kids (55.9%).

When looking at asset numbers by grade level, non-urban kids consistently exceed urban kids at each grade level from sixth grade to twelfth grade.

Prevalence of the Assets
Recognizing that it would be helpful to narrow these 40 assets into fewer categories, before the launch of the UYWA study, a group of researchers conducted their own analysis on the same dataset of 212,000 youth. As a result of their number crunching, they simplified the 40 assets into a list of 14 asset factors. [[Theokas, C., Almerigi, J., Lerner, R., Dowling, E., Benson, P., Scales, P., & Von Eye, A. (2005). Conceptualizing and Modeling Individual and Ecological Asset Components of Thriving in Early Adolescence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 25(1).]] Asset factors are clusters of personal and social support systems that interact with each other to accomplish two goals: protect kids from risk and promote healthy development. These 14 asset factors can be divided into two categories: individual assets and ecological (or environmental) assets.

Seven Individual Asset Factors:
  1. Social Conscience
  2. Personal Values
  3. Interpersonal Values
  4. Rules and Boundaries
  5. Risk Avoidance
  6. School Engagement
  7. Activity Participation
Seven Ecological Asset Factors:
  1. Connection to Family
  2. Community Connection
  3. School Connection
  4. Contextual Safety
  5. Adult Mentors
  6. Positive Identity
  7. Parental Involvement

The UYWA Study compared the levels of these 14 asset factors in urban and non-urban kids. For all 14 asset factors, the differences between the two groups of kids are relatively small. Yet there are interesting twists in both the individual and ecological asset factors. Of the seven individual factors, there are two categories in which urban kids score higher than non-urban kids: social conscience and personal values. Of the seven ecological factors, urban kids score higher than non-urban kids in one category: connection to family.

Urban and Non-Urban Kids: Not-So-Different

The Gender Factor
Turning back to the more extensive, initial list of 40 Developmental Assets, females in both samples exceed males in the number of assets they say they have.

The Age Factor
Another similarity between the two groups of kids is the reduction of the assets throughout middle school and high school. The late middle school and early high school years show a dip in reported number of assets for both urban and non-urban youth. The greatest disparity in the number of assets between urban and non-urban kids is during middle school.

Implications for Youth Workers

All Kids Have Some Level of Risk and Have Some Types of Resources
So it turns out that urban kids have fewer resources than non-urban kids. For most of us, no big surprise there.

But the gap between urban kids and non-urban kids is not as great as many of us would have guessed. Of the 40 assets, urban kids on average have 2.4 fewer assets than non-urban kids (17.2 for urban kids compared to 19.6 for non-urban kids). Sure, that’s less, but that’s means that urban kids have just a handful fewer assets available to them as non-urban kids. That’s surprisingly good news for urban youth workers.

Here’s more good news for urban youth workers: urban kids actually score higher than non-urban kids in three categories: social conscience, personal values, and connection to family. These are values that youth workers can build upon as they try to help urban kids love and serve both Jesus Christ and others around them.

Now for the bad news for youth workers who work with all types of kids. While it’s tough to know whether or not there’s some sort of “magic number” of assets that guarantees that kids will thrive, Search Institute hints that 31 assets is a common benchmark that separates kids who thrive from those who struggle. The averages for both samples fall far short of that 31 asset benchmark.

Focus Young, Focus Male
Our data shows that from sixth to twelfth grade, the average non-urban kid drops from 23.7 to 18.3 assets, and the average urban kid drops from 19.9 assets to 17.6 assets. The greatest plummet happens from sixth to ninth grade, after which asset levels remain relatively stable throughout the rest of high school.

Combine this finding with the previously mentioned difference between high school girls and guys and the implication is quite simple: focus young, focus male. Youth workers who want to try to intervene by building assets into kids need to focus on middle schoolers, especially boys, before they hit the slippery slope of asset decline. For some of us, that might mean re-thinking the way we think about middle school ministry and divide our money, time and energy between high school and middle school ministry.

The Assets as a Springboard
Whether you view your ministry through the perspective of the full list of 40 Developmental Assets or the more abbreviated list of 14 Asset Factors, your kids have assets. That’s something to recognize and celebrate.

All of us will benefit by viewing the kids in our ministries—either as individuals or as a whole—and asking:

  • What assets do they have?
  • How do these assets provide a springboard that aids in their personal and spiritual transformation?

Your Role as an Asset Builder
Using that same list of assets, think about your kids and answer the following two questions:

  • What assets do they lack?
  • What can I do to help them access these resources?

More and more youth workers are changing their paradigm for their role in kids’ lives. They are looking to schools, neighborhoods, and other faith-based and community-based organizations for resources that can supplement what they provide for kids.

Curt Gibson, a veteran youth worker with over twenty years of experience who currently directs the Neighborhood Student Mentoring Program at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, reports that viewing his kids through an asset framework has changed the way he does ministry. He trains his leadership to think differently as well. “Instead of trying to be the resource for their kids, they should find the resources for their kids.” [[To read the full interview, see Clark Clark and Kara E. Powell, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2006).

Teaching the Assets to Your Kids
As someone who has embraced the value of the assets in his work with non-urban kids outside of Los Angeles, Mark Maines has decided not to keep the value of the assets a secret from his kids. Working in collaboration with other local youth workers, he’s developed a three year curriculum that frames entire teaching series around the assets.

For instance, one of the Forty Developmental Assets is restraint. Mark and the team developed a teaching series based out of the book of Ecclesiastes that examined the unrestrained life in order to highlight the role of restraint in our own lives. Another asset is cultural competence. To develop this asset in their youth ministry, Mark is using the local metro rail system to introduce students to the various ethnic regions (China-town, Korea-town) in their area while helping students see God’s redemptive plan for all peoples throughout the Scriptures. He was able to teach about Babel (Genesis) and Jerusalem (Acts-Revelation) while standing alongside students in the heart of Los Angeles.

According to Mark, “We were looking for a way to reinvent our programs to better utilize our time with students. Once we accepted the research behind the 40 Developmental Assets, we quickly concluded that there was no better way to spend our time with students than to build assets. We assessed what assets we had direct influence over and began looking for the examples of the assets in Scripture. One question that has been especially helpful for our teaching is: Where does this asset first show itself in Scripture?”

Teaching the Assets to Your Church
Churches like Mark’s aren’t just being explicit about the assets with their youth ministries. They are integrating the assets into the framework of their entire church. The assets inform every ministry in five different ways:

  • Curriculum development (what they teach) – all of the church’s programs are encouraged to connect their teaching to the asset framework when possible.
  • Ministry programs and philosophy (what they do) – the church tends to shy away from doing anything that does not directly build assets into the lives of children and youth.
  • Training (how they develop leaders) - the highest expectation for volunteer staff is that they would become “asset builders” on behalf of the community’s young people.
  • Recruitment (who they call to serve) – the church’s leadership pool increased exponentially when they shifted their thinking to an asset based model. The church discovered that regardless of age, gender, education or occupation, any adult in the community was a potential volunteer leader because every adult can help develop and nurture at least one asset.
  • Advocacy (what they use their collective voice for) - whether it’s the training seminar they offer parents or how they encourage public school administrators and the policies they create, their church is now more informed and more equipped to use its collective voice to help ensure that young people have the resources they need.

Do kids lack the resources they need to thrive? You bet.
Are kids hurting? You bet.

But in the midst of the pain and emptiness we see each week on kids’ faces and in kids’ lives, this research shows we have something to celebrate: each one of them has some assets that can help contribute to their growth and development. And for that, we thank God. And we cheer.

Action Points

  • What is one practical way you can begin to help other adults in your church and community see kids as half-full instead of half-empty? What are the assets your kids tend to have more of? Less of?
  • “Focus young, focus male.” What might be the implications of this research-based advice in your ministry? How can your team begin to think differently about increasing the assets of junior high guys specifically?
  • Pinpoint one asset category from the list of individual and ecological factors that your youth ministry might directly impact. Talk to two other adults about ideas for increasing that asset category among your students.
Fuller Youth Institute

The Fuller Youth Institute equips diverse leaders and parents so faithful young people can change our world. We turn academic research into practical resources to help make the church the best place for young people to grow. We believe in young people, and we believe in the church.

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