Character Development Among Youth: Linking Lives in Time and Place

Richard M. Lerner

To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt

Parents, youth-development practitioners working in schools or in out- of-school-time programs, policy makers, and of course developmental scientists share an interest in identifying the contexts of youth that are associated with positive development. With increasing frequency, this interest is focused on a key indicator of such development: Character (Lerner et al., 2017). Embodied in the vision of the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” the growing interest in character development is predicated on the aspirations of parents, community leaders, and youth-development practitioners and researchers that enhancing children s character will benefit both individuals and civil society (Wang, Batanova, Ferris, & Lerner, 2016).

Consistent with this societal emphasis, current applied developmental scholarship seeks to understand the processes through which an individual’s actions in key ecological settings result in positive outcomes (e.g., Bornstein, 2015; Crosnoe & Benner, 2015). Much of this research is framed by theoretical models associated with relational developmental systems metatheory (Lerner, Lerner, Bowers, 8c Geldhof, 2015).

A Brief Overview of Relational Developmental Systems Metatheory

A metatheory is a theory of theories. It is a conception of how to write theories. A metatheory proscribes and prescribes the attributes that a developmental scientist might include in theories or models of development (Overton, 2015). Models derived from relational developmental systems metatheory depict universal functions of a living, open, self-constructing (iautopoietic), self-organizing, and integrated/holistic system. Relational developmental systems metatheory is derived from a process-relational paradigm (Overton, 2015), wherein the organism is seen as inherently active, self-organizing, self-regulating (agentic), nonlinear/complex, and adaptive. Relational developmental systems-based ideas specify that the process of development involves mutually influential relations within this selforganizing system and, for ontogenetic development, between individuals and their contexts, represented as individualOcontext relations.

As history is part of the context involved in these relations, temporality, the potential for change, is involved at all levels of organization within the relational developmental system. These changes may be stochastic or systematic, and when they are systematic they reflect plasticity. In other words, plasticity is the potential for systematic change in individualO context relations across the life span. This feature of development, when seen through the lens of a relational developmental system-based model, becomes a key asset in, a strength of, human development (Lerner et al., 2015; Overton, 2015).

The process of individual development involves specific instances across life of individual О context relations. In other words, development happens because of specific individualO context relations across time and place (Elder, Shanahan, & Jennings, 2015); no two people develop across life with the same series of time and place relations, including monozygotic (identical) twins (Joseph, 2014; Richardson, 2017). As a consequence, human development is fundamentally idiographic (Molenaar & Nesselroade, 2015; Rose, 2015). Therefore, within models of development framed by relational developmental systems metatheory, the individuality of all humans, the diversity of human development, is of primary substantive significance. This conception of diversity has important implications for developmental methodology and for the questions asked in developmental research.

The standard approach to statistical analysis in the social and behavioral sciences is not focused on change but is, instead, derived from mathematical assumptions regarding the constancy of phenomena across people and, critically, time (Molenaar, 2014). These assumptions are based on the ergodic theorems, which hold that (a) all individuals within a sample may be treated as the same (this is the assumption of homogeneity); and (b) all individuals remain the same across time, that is, all time points yield the same results (this is the assumption of stationarity). These ideas lead, then, to statistical analyses placing prime interest on the population level. Interindividual differences, rather than intraindividual change, is the source of this population information (Molenaar, 2014).

If the concept of ergodicity is applied to the study of human development. then within-person variation across time would either be ignored or treated as error variance. In addition, any sample (group) differences would be held to be invariant across time and place. However, from a relational developmental systems-based perspective, development varies across people and across contexts, and these facts violate the ideas of ergodicity. That is, developmental processes have time-varying means, variances, and/or sequential dependencies. The structure of interindividual variation at the population level is therefore not equivalent to the structure of intraindividual variation at the level of the individual (Molenaar, 2014). Simply, developmental processes are non-ergodic. As such, differences between people in developmental trajectories (i.e., in the course of within-person changes) are important foci for research and, as well, for program and policy applications aimed at enhancing development across time and place.

These implications arise because the focus in relational developmental systems metatheory on the specificity of individualO context relations and, as a result, on the belief in the fundamental idiographic nature of human development, provides a rationale for a distinct approach to diversity, one that has implications for the description, explanation, and optimization of human development. To indicate the research implications of this approach, it is important to understand the “specificity principle” (Bornstein, 2017). This principle involves researchers asking a multipart “what” questions when conducting programmatic research exploring the function, structure, and content of development of diverse individuals across the life span. For instance, in seeking to understand how diverse youth may have a specific series of individualOcontext relations associated with adaptive, healthy, or positive development, researchers might undertake programs of research framed by a multipart question such as: “What features of positive development emerge; that are linked to what trajectory of individual О context relations; for youth of what sets of individual psychological, behavioral, and demographic characteristics; living in what families, schools, faith communities, neighborhoods, nations, cultures, and physical ecologies; at what points in ontogenetic development; and at what historical periods?”

Through conducting programmatic research addressing such specificity- based questions, the particular ontogenetic sets of individualOcontext relations involved in a person’s life may be identified and, in addition, the specific relations associated with his or her positive development may be discovered (e.g., see Rose, 2015). When such individualO context relations are found, that is, when there are mutually beneficial individualO context relations, then adaptive developmental regulations are said to exist (Brandtstadter, 1998). The presence of mutually beneficial (adaptive) individualO context relations across time and place, then, is the basis of positive and healthy development (Brandtstadter, 1998). Therefore, one key outcome of such specificity principle-framed research can be the identification of the diverse ways in which individualO context relations may capitalize on the potential for plasticity in human life and result in adaptive, healthy, or positive development (Spencer, Swanson, & Harpalani, 2015).

In essence, then, models derived from relational developmental systems metatheory are optimistic views of human development. Specificity' principleframed research focusing on the diversity of human development may be able to identify the specific individual О context relations liked to positive development for specific individuals or groups of individuals and, then, developmental scientists could capitalize on the relative plasticity of human development and assess whether, by creating the conditions for such relations among other, similar individuals, more general positive development could be promoted.

There are many examples of relational developmental systems-based conceptions (Lerner, In Press) that have both the attributes associated with this metatheory and, in particular, the goal of using the model to promote adaptive, healthy, or positive development among diverse individuals. Examples include the bioecological model proposed by Bronfenbrenner (e.g., Bron- fenbrenner & Morris, 2006), the phenomenological variant of ecological systems theory (PVEST; see, e.g., Spencer et al., 2015), the life-course development model of Elder (e.g., Elder et ah, 2015), and the developmental systems model of Gottlieb (e.g., Gottlieb, 1998). In addition, relational developmental systems-based models have begun to be a major frame for character development research (e.g., Nucci, In Press).

Relational Developmental Systems Metatheory and Character Development

There are several reasons why relational developmental systems-based ideas have been used as a frame for character development research. Scholars in this field have been interested in exploring whether the character virtues presented in Aristotle’s (1999) Nicomachean Ethics (written in about 350 B.C.) are part of the attributes possessed by thriving youth (e.g., Nucci, In Press). In addition, researchers have assessed whether character fosters positive civic engagement and positive and valued contributions to communities and to the institutions of civil society (Berkowitz, 2012). Indeed, key models of character development (e.g., Lerner & Callina, 2014; Nucci, In Press) conceptualize character as attributes of an individual’s relations with his other social context that involve coherently “doing the right thing” (morally and behaviorally) across time and place to provide mutually positive benefits to both self and others. Character involves linking lives across time and place for the benefit of self and society (Elder et al., 2015)

For example, Nucci (2001) emphasized that character virtue development involves “human welfare, justice and rights, which are a function of inherent features of interpersonal relations” (p. 7). Moreover, Berkowitz (2012) indicated that character development invariantly involves interpersonal relations that reflect “a public system of universal concerns about human welfare, justice, and rights that all rational people would want others to adhere to” (p. 249). Similarly, Narvaez (2008) explained that a person with character lives a life that is good for oneself and for one’s community.

The emphasis on character as involving mutually beneficial relations between an individual and his or her community context has also been a key basis for the growing interest in studying character development within key settings for youth development, such as families, schools, and organized, out-of-school-time activities (Vandell, Larson, Mahoney, & Watts,

2015) . With regard to the in-school setting, character is a part of the social- emotional learning (SEL) framework exemplified by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) model (e.g., involving responsible decision making; see Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). In turn, out-of-school-time settings are important to add to families and schools as among the key contexts of youth development because the majority of school-age youth in the United States and Canada (e.g., Holt, 2015) as well as millions of youth in the rest of the world, participate in organized, out-of-school-time activities (e.g., sports, faith-based initiatives, or national and international programs such as 4-H or Scouting) (Lerner et al.. In Press; USAID, 2013). In addition, researchers have studied the impact of organized, out-of-school-time activities on character-related attributes (e.g., positive purpose; kindness; generosity, or contribution to others; diligence, perseverance, or grit; and honesty, integrity, or fairness) and, as well, on several academic, social—emotional, behavioral, noncog- nitive, and physical indicators of positive development that may be either moderators or covariates of character development (Vandell et al., 2015).

As evidenced by the July 2016 meeting of the National Academies of Science committee on defining and measuring character, this research has attracted the burgeoning interest of practitioners and applied developmental scientists (and funders) (e.g., Ettekal, Callina, & Lerner, 2015; Wang et al.,

2016) . Results of this research include important, but still preliminary, evidence that out-of-school-time program participation is linked to (a) individual thriving (or positive youth development); (b) the enhancement of positive civic engagement within, and community contributions by, youth who manifest character virtues such as purpose, generosity, helpfulness, and kindness; and (c) development in other settings, such as the family and the school (Lerner et al., 2015).

In short, whereas there is no one definition of character development that elicits universal agreement among researchers or practitioners, most researchers, and many leaders of character education programs, both in schools and in communities, agree with the above-noted relational developmental systems-based conception of character as involving linked lives; that is, character involves a person coherently enacting morally and behaviorally appropriate actions at specific times and places in order to contribute to the betterment of a world that is contributing to/benefitting the person. Such a relational conception of character is reflected in Berkowitz’s (2012) definition of character as “the complex constellation of psychological characteristics that motivate and enable individuals to function as competent moral agents.”

A deconstruction of this definition enables several points to be made about character. First, character is complex: It has multiple components. Many people today discuss character as involving moral virtues and, in addition, performance, intellectual, and civic dimensions (e.g., Seider, 2012). Second, character involves a persons actions in context; that is, character involves acting positively on the social world (ones family, school, or community, for instance) that is acting on you; this facet of character involves, then, one’s regulation, or control of one’s behavior, to act, and to feel impelled (motivated) to act, to “do the right thing” (Nucci, In Press). Character development involves, then, attaining the feelings, thoughts, and skills to coherently across time and place act to serve self and others, to link lives across time and place, in mutually beneficial, positive ways.

This conception of character development has framed my thinking and research for about 30 years. Telling the story of this work will enable me to explain what I have learned about the nature of character and about how this knowledge may be applied to bring young people and their world together to develop an individual’s character and to promote civil society and social justice.

A New Vision of Youth Development

Beginning in the late 1960s, I embarked on the study of adolescent development. During the early years of my career, I found that adolescents were viewed through the lens of deficits and problems. My fellow researchers, and the public in general, viewed adolescence as a period of inevitable storm and stress, and the stress was believed to occur not only for the adolescent but as well for his or her parents, teachers, and other adult members of the community (cf. Bandura, 1964). Adolescents were regarded as likely to be dangerous to themselves and others because of what was believed to be a biologically based predilection to engage in a host of problem behaviors involving, for instance, alcohol and drug use and abuse, sexual promiscuity and unsafe sexual practices, risk taking and recklessness, and delinquency and crime (e.g., Anthony, 1969; Freud, 1969).

For many researchers and also for parents and teachers, goodness in adolescents was defined by the absence of these problem behaviors (Benson, 2008). Young people were not generally thought of as individuals who possessed personal attributes that would signify the presence of good character; for example, they were not seen generally as young people who cared about and were generous to others, who set and effectively pursued positive life goals, and who sought to matter positively to their communities by contributing to its welfare and, even more, to civil society' and democracy.

Yet, as a college teacher, I knew many young adults who possessed precisely' these attributes. As a parent and a member of my community, 1 interacted daily with good kids, with young people who would do the right thing, even when no one was watching. As a developmental scientist, I wondered how did these young people, who came from varied racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and from all parts of the United States and nations around the world, come to possess these attributes while still an adolescent or so soon after passing through their adolescent years. Did a miraculous transformation occur once these young people began participating in sports, Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, or faith-based community' programs, or when they stepped onto a college campus? Perhaps, these adolescents and young adults of character had always been individuals of character. Perhaps the deficit view of youth was in fact wrong.

I concluded that it might be that developmental researchers needed a new lens through which to view youth, one that defined goodness not by the absence of problems but by the presence of character virtues and other attributes that reflected an adolescent manifesting what came to be called positive youth development (Lerner et al., 2015). By' the late 1980s, and with considerable help from my colleagues and students and, in particular, the leaders of many of the United States’s and the worlds top youth serving organizations—4-H, Boy Scouts, YMCA, Girl Scouts, Boys & Girls Clubs, Girls, Inc., Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and the International Youth Foundation, for instance—I set out to build and test a model of positive youth development (Lerner, 1995, 2004).

With my wife and chief scholarly collaborator, Professor Jacqueline V. Lerner of Boston College, I focused on indicators of positive character (of character virtues), for example, on integrity, a moral compass, on knowing what is right to do in different situations, and having the motivation, commitment, and skills to do the right thing. As well, character pertains to moral competence and spirituality (e.g., Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 2002; Nucci, In Press). Therefore, character is not just an isolated attribute of a person. Good character, if present in a person, should relate to a young person’s personal well-being and to the way' he or she conducts his or her life, as a positive contributor to family, community, and broader civil life. 1 believe that this system of relations is what led Narvaez (2008) to suggest that good character enables a person to produce a life that is good for one to live within one’s community. Because of our conception of the importance of character for both individual thriving and for the well-being of society', Jackie Lerner and I thought it crucial to study other attributes we believed should be associated with the development of a y'oung person of character.

Our thinking was shaped by the ideas of the then president of the International Youth Foundation, Rick Little, whose work led us to focus as well on four other attributes: Competence (involving success in academic areas but, as well, social and vocational abilities), confidence (a belief in one’s abilities to enact the behaviors needed to demonstrate valued academic, social, and vocational behaviors), connection (positive relationships with family members, teachers, peers, coaches, faith leaders, and mentors), and caring (compassion for other people, especially those people who are at greater disadvantage than the young person) (Lerner et al., 2015). These Five Cscharacter, competence, confidence, connection, and caring—defined the components of positive youth development (Lerner et al., 2015). In addition, when these attributes were developed at high levels, the young person should also show active and positive engagement with his or her social world as, for instance, manifested as contributions to family, school, and community settings or to civil society and to the institutions of democracy (Lerner et al., 2015). In short, 1 began to study character development as a marker—along with several other markers—of positive development in youth.

Studying the Course and Bases of Positive Youth Development

Across the next two-plus decades, I conducted several studies that followed the development of young people across the first three decades of life. I sought to both chart the course of character development, and of the other Cs of positive youth development, among diverse American youth, and I tried to discover the bases of the character development of these young people. It is useful to summarize what I have learned from this work.

With my students and colleagues at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University, and with the financial support of the National 4-H Council and the Altria Corporation, I launched in 2002 what I labeled the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development, a longitudinal study beginning at Grade 5 and ending at Grade 12. Overall, across eight waves of the study, approximately 7,000 youth and 3,500 of their parents from 42 states in the United States were surveyed. Only about 2,500 of these young people were participants in 4-H programs (Bowers, Geldhof, Johnson, Lerner, & Lerner, 2014; Lerner et al., 2005). By design, we studied youth who engaged in a wide array of youth development programs. We sought to identify the bases of character, competence, confidence, connection, and caring among a sample of all American young people and to test the idea that positive youth development resulted in youth contributions. The method and findings of the 4-H Study have been reported in scores of publications spanning more than a decade (e.g., Bowers et al., 2014; Lerner et al., 2005, 2015). Accordingly, I discuss here only those findings most pertinent to character development.

One key finding is that parents are the major source of support for the development of character and other facets of positive youth development (Theokas & Lerner, 2006). However, after the family, engagement in out- of-school-time programs are most often linked to higher positive youth development and, as well, to lower depressive symptoms and risk behaviors. Therefore, a key implication of these findings is that when families cannot provide the resources needed for promoting character development or the other Cs of positive youth development, parents can turn to youth development programs to bolster the thriving of their children. Indeed, we learned that community support can enhance the character development of youth through providing young people with programs that are marked by three key features. That is, within safe space for young people, community-based programs can enhance character development and, as well, the other facets of positive youth development, when they possess program features that I have termed the “Big Three” (Lerner, 2004) as follows.

  • 1. Positive and sustained adult-youth relations (relations between a young person and an adult who is competent, caring, and continually available, for at least a year, such as a mentor, coach, or teacher) (e.g., Rhodes & Lowe, 2009).
  • 2. Life-skill building activities (e.g., enhancing skills pertinent to the selection of positive goals in life, optimization of the means to attain these goals, and compensation skills needed to demonstrate resilience in the face of a blocked goal and even failure) (Gestsdottir & Lerner, 2008).
  • 3. Opportunities for youth participation in and leadership of valued family, school, and community activities (Lerner, 2004).

Although I have presented these Big Three features as a list, in actual programs, these features need to be simultaneously and integratively present for character and the other Cs to be promoted effectively. For instance, in the programs of the Boy Scouts of America, the adult leaders of these programs articulate the components of the Big Three as a holistic set of procedures they use integratively to positively influence the lives of youth (Hershberg et al., 2015). Similarly, post-secondary students in a vocational training college had a similar, holistic understanding of the positive use of the Big Three by their instructors (DeSouza, 2016).

My colleagues and I also used the 4-H Study data to examine possible relations between youth intentional self-regulation (self-control) skills and participation in youth development programs possessing the Big Three. For example, as anticipated, we (Urban, Lewin-Bizan, & Lerner, 2010) found that both the self-control strengths of youth and the resources provided to young people by youth development programs are involved in thriving. We found that youth who participated in these programs and who had the greatest capacity to self-regulate their behaviors benefitted the most from involvement in youth development programs. They had the highest character scores, as well as the highest scores for the other Cs of positive youth development. In turn, they had the lowest scores for depressive symptoms and risk behaviors. All these relations were particularly strong for girls. This gender difference may reflect more advanced psychosocial development among girls and/or greater emphasis by their socialization agents (e.g., their parents) on attributes pertinent to the positive youth development process (e.g., Blakemore, Berenbaum, & Liben, 2009). Although such speculations about the bases of these gender differences need to be addressed in future research, these results were confirmed in another 4-H Study report (Gestsdottir, Bowers, von Eye, Napolitano, & Lerner, 2010).

Extending the Assessment of the Lerner and Lerner Model of Positive Youth Development to Global Youth

There were many limitations of the 4-H Study. For instance, there were limitations of design, sampling, and measurement that have been discussed in prior summaries of this work (e.g., Bowers et ah, 2014; Lerner et ah, 2015; see also Spencer & Spencer, 2014). For example, given that the 4-H Study sample was largely White and that less than 10% was Black and less than 10% was Latino, questions about the generalizability of the findings of the study to the diversity' of U.S. youth may be raised (Lerner et ah, 2017; Spencer & Spencer, 2014). Of course, questions may also be raised about generalizability to the diversity of the world’s youth. Although there are several important relational developmental systems-based models of positive youth development (e.g., Benson, 2008; Catalano, Hawkins, Ber- glund, Pollard, & Arthur, 2002; Damon, 2004, 2008; Eccles, 2004; Flay, 2002; Larson, 2000; Masten, 2014; Spencer, 2006; Spencer et ah, 2015), the visibility' of the 4-H Study (Petersen, Roller, Motti-Stefanidi, & Verma, 2017), and the international interest in relational developmental systems- based models of human development more generally (e.g., Lerner, 2015), have been associated with several attempts to extend the assessment made in the 4-H Study to youth in nations other than the United States. Such work is consistent with ideas forwarded by USAID (2013) with regard to still unmet research needs pertaining to positive youth development research involving youth from the majority world (see also Lerner et al., In Press).

A 2013 USAID report calls for rigorous, longitudinal studies of holistic programs aimed at promoting positive youth development; the report argues that such studies should be framed within a conceptual model applicable to international settings and, as well, should be marked by the use of psy'cho- metrically strong measures. At the time of writing, a key focus of international work pertinent to at least the Lerner and Lerner model of positive youth development has been about measurement of this construct. That is, this work has focused on verifying if the Five Cs measure of positive youth development developed for use in the 4-H Study (e.g., Bowers et al., 2010; Lerner et al., 2005) may be applicable to youth from nations other than the United States.

Studying Positive Youth Development Internationally

Holsen, Geldhof, Larsen, and Aardal (2017) assessed whether the Five Cs measure can validly' index positive development among 1195 Norwegian upper secondary' school students (ages 16 to 19). A sample of 839 participants who took part in the 4-H Study was used in the study as well. In comparison to the U.S. sample, findings from the Norwegian sample indicated that facets of the Five Cs did not covary together as strongly, implying that youth in Norway may distinguish between the individual scales that comprise each C more strongly than U.S. youth. However, tests of weak and strong measurement invariance suggested an overarching positive youth development factor as well that a majority of the Cs retained their qualitative interpretation between the two samples.

In turn, data testing the Five Cs model among Icelandic youth closely follow what has been reported in assessments of the U.S. youth involved in the 4-H Study. A study of over 2000 U.S. youths and over 500 Icelandic adolescents, approximately 14 years old, attained what is termed weak invariance. That is, the factor loading pattern of the positive youth development model, or the strength of the relation between each item and its underlying construct, was invariant across cultures. Furthermore, results suggested minor differences on the intercepts between youth in the United States, suggesting that comparisons using the positive youth development measure across those two Western cultures are meaningful (Gestsdottir, Geldhof, Lerner, & Lerner, 2016).

Taken together, the studies by Holsen et al. (2017) and Gestsdottir et al. (2016) suggest that the measurement and meaning of the Five Cs may not be very different between the United States and Western European youth. Data from the assessment of youth in Lithuania with a measure of the Five Cs support this inference (Erentaite & Raiziene, 2015), with perhaps one exception. Caring as a stand-alone factor correlated positively with anxiety'. Holsen et al. (2017) found a similar relation with the residual variance that was associated with the Caring construct (controlling for overall positive youth development) among Norwegian youth.

To conduct further assessments of the global generalizability of the Lerner and Lerner Five Cs model of positive youth development, quantitative work (e.g., invariance testing) needs to be extended to the breadth of the constructs included in the model, and not only' the Five Cs measure (or, perhaps, another measure of youth strengths not indexed by' the Five Cs, e.g., purpose) (Damon, 2008). In addition, the survey approach used in the 4-H Study needs to be triangulated with qualitative methods to afford understanding of what may be the distinct meaning of positive y'outh development among youth from the majority world. In addition, qualitative research might be a good means to begin to explore the possibility' that there may be developmental assets in majority world settings that are qualitatively different than the sets of assets identified in minority world settings (Spencer & Spencer, 2014).

In other words, identifying qualitative differences in the meaning of positive development and in the assets promoting such development across national and cultural settings are important foci for future research. This research will enable developmental scientists to discover more nuanced, and potentially culturally specific information about adaptive developmental regulations, that is, about the individual^context relations that are associated with healthy and positive development (Brandtstiidter, 1998).

I believe that adaptive developmental regulations (Brandtstadter, 1998) are a fundamental part of thriving for youth around the globe. That is, mutually beneficial individuals context relations are involved in positive youth development for all youth, in that such relations constitute the fundamental feature of adaptive functioning (Brandtstadter, 1998). However, the content of these relations may vary. What global youth bring to these individuals context exchanges, what the context provides to them, and how thriving may be actualized in global youth from the majority world has not yet been elucidated adequately. We do not know, therefore, if or the extent to which the Lerner and Lerner model can be applied to global youth, at least with regard to the manifest variables involved in their thriving. This same limitation on generalizability exists to varying extents with regard to the other relational developmental systems-based models of positive youth development (e.g., Benson, 2008; Damon, 2008; Spencer et al., 2015).


Results from the 4-H Study and from other tests of the models and measures associated with this work have indicated that character, along with the other Cs of positive youth development, develop when youth strengths, such as self-control skills, are combined with important environmental resources, for instance, a supportive family and participation in youth development programs. These findings encouraged us to look more deeply into the individual and contextual bases of character development. With the support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust, colleagues and students in the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development and I launched several research projects that focused specifically on character as a key component of the positive development of young people.

Focusing on Character in Positive Youth Development From Childhood Through Young Adulthood

Owing to the findings of the 4-H Study, a key goal of my research program on character development per se is to assess the relation between individual strengths and key contextual resources, specifically youth development programs emphasizing character development. In the research conducted to date, I have studied individuals both younger and older than the adolescent participants in the 4-H Study, while also continuing to study adolescents as well. My goal has become to understand the bases and course of character development across the first three decades of life.

A focus on these decades of youth may enable developmental scientists to better understand the origins of character development and, as well, the potential links between this development and leadership and contributions to civil society. To illustrate this potential contribution to understanding youth development, I will describe briefly a sample of projects completed or underway within the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development.

All of the studies I shall summarize in this section have used longitudinal designs, which are the sine qua non of developmental analysis, in that such temporal designs are the only way to identify intraindividual change (Little, 2013; Molenaar & Nesselroade, 2015). However, the problem of selection— of what economists term “endogeneity” (e.g., Heckman, Ichimura, & Todd, 1997, 1998)—besets longitudinal studies, given that, even if representative samples are present at the beginning of a longitudinal study, selective attrition will increasingly bias the sample. Not only may people who volunteer to be in a longitudinal study be different from people who do not agree to participate in such research, but people that stay in a study, perhaps especially a long-term one, have been found to have “something about them” (something endogenous to them) that differs from participants that drop out of a study (see, e.g., Siegler & Botwinick, 1979). Are changes seen in the individuals, who remain in a longitudinal study, due therefore to something about the nature of developmental process or to what may have been a preexisting endogenous factor (e.g., the tenacity needed to stay at a task, obedience to authority, or trust in institutions)?

The problem of endogeneity' may be particularly problematic when longitudinal studies are used to assess whether particular experiences of one group (e.g., participation in a community-based, youth development program) are associated with developmental changes that differ from those seen within members of a group not participating in the experience (program). Here, the researcher may not be able to infer that the program was causally associated with any' differences between participating groups because it may be that there were preexisting, endogenous factors that led some individuals to participate in (self-select into) the experience.

As a consequence, because of the problem of endogeneity', randomized controlled trials have been regarded as the “gold standard” design to test for causality (McCall & Green, 2004). Many potential funders of developmental science research have eschewed longitudinal studies because of the inability to demonstrate causality' due to selection effects. However, the landscape of research aimed at causal analysis has changed. Econometric methods are being used in developmental science research to address endogeneity' in longitudinal research. Among the important tools provided by econometricians are propensity score analyses, instrumental variable analyses, and regression discontinuity designs (Lerner, Agans, DeSouza, & Hershberg, 2014). In the research I summarize in this section, propensity score analysis was used to address the problems of endogeneity'.

A propensity score is the probability' of a unit (e.g., person, classroom, school) being assigned to a particular treatment given a set of observed covariates. Propensity scores are used to reduce selection bias by equating groups based on these covariates (e.g., Heckman et al., 1998; Rosenbaum & Rubin, 1983). Propensity' score matching procedures enable researchers to appropriately make inferences about the effects of a program on participants in comparison with a group of individuals (typically termed “counterfactu- als”) matched as closely as possible with the program group except for the fact that the counterfactual group includes no program participants.

Studying Boy Scouts of America: The Character and Merit Project

Through support provided by the John Templeton Foundation, we worked with the Cradle of Liberty Council of the Boy Scouts of America, located in the greater-Philadelphia area, to study the impact of the Boy Scouts of America programs on character and other attributes of positive youth development. The goal of the study was to learn about the development of youth in the Boy Scouts of America Cub Scouts programs and, specifically, if and how the different facets of the program may help build character, life skills, and positive goals among participants. Across three years, we collected quantitative data from more than 2,500 Scouts and comparison group youth between the ages of 6 and 11 years.

Among the key findings of the research were that Scouts’ character increased significantly across a 30-month period for cheerfulness, helpfulness, kindness, obedience, trustworthiness, and hopeful future expectations. In a propensity-score matched comparison group of boys who did not participate in Boy Scouts of America programs, self-ratings showed no significant change for any attributes except for a significant decrease in religious reverence (Wang, Ferris, Hershberg, & Lerner, 2015). The more engaged Scouts were in their Boy Scouts of America programs, the greater the growth of their character attributes (Lynch et ah, 2016). Scouts that participate in highly engaging Cub Scout packs become significantly more engaged in Scouting over the time of their involvement in the program more so than Scouts participating in less-engaging packs. When both Scouts and their packs have high engagement, positive outcomes such as kindness, cheerfulness, and goal pursuit skills improved at a significantly higher rate than in less-engaged Scouts and packs.

The findings of this research document the powerful potential of Boy Scouts of America programs to enhance positive development of youth and, in particular, to enhance the development of key facets of character virtues. We believe that this impact of Boy Scouts of America participation occurs because these programs exemplify the integration of the attributes of effective programs summarized by the Big Three discussed earlier (Flershberg et ah, 2015).

Towards the Development of the Virtuous Tradesman: The Assessment of Character in the Trades Study

Across its more than 120-year history, the Williamson College of the Trades, a three-year trade college located in Media, PA, has fostered among deserving but socioeconomically disadvantaged young men the values and character attributes of faith, integrity, diligence, excellence, service, entrepreneur- ship, future-mindedness, honesty, and purpose. With a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, my colleagues, students, and I partnered with the administration, faculty', and students of the Williamson College and with vocational and other post-secondary colleges and institutions in the greater- Philadelphia area to evaluate the impact of each schools curriculum and mission on character, moral, and civic development in students and alumni (Johnson et al., 2014). Across three years (2012 through 2015), we collected data from existing and entering classes of students, and evaluated the implementation and impact of their education on character development. All students were assessed in each year of their course of study, and selected students were also assessed post-graduation. These assessments involved both quantitative and qualitative information about students, teachers, administrators, and alumni.

Using propensity score matching procedures, Williamson College students were compared with a matched sample of youth in other trade/college settings. Across three waves of testing, encompassing the three years of the Williamson College program of study, the Williamson College students showed greater gains in several of the Cs of positive youth development (i.e., competence, confidence, and connection), as well as in scores for overall positive youth development. In addition, the Williamson College students also showed greater gains in purpose, faith, and hopeful future expectations.

Based on our research with this sample (DeSouza, 2016; Hershberg, Rubin, Johnson, Callina, & Lerner, 2016), we believed that there was evidence that these differences derived from the Williamson College experience across the three years of the program of study. In particular, our findings indicated that the greater gains among Williamson College students was associated with the interpersonal relationships among students and with faculty and with the educational structure and discipline at Williamson College. These features of a Williamson College education were found to impart vocational, character, and life management skills, ones reflective of the presence of the Big Three (DeSouza, 2016; Hershberg et al., 2016).

Works in Progress

At the time of writing, my colleagues, students, and I are in the initial phases of two other character development projects that we believe have the potential to add important information about the course and implications of this development in understudied groups of y'oung people. The first study', labeled Project Arete, is a study of cadets’ character and leadership development at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The mission of the United States Military Academy at West Point is to promote character and leadership development among cadets through activities that occur within three “pillars” of officer training: academics, military training, and athletics. Given the resources that are invested in cadets’training and the enormous responsibilities of West Point graduates as United States Army officers, it is critical for the United States Military Academy to understand which character and leadership development practices are effective for enhancing moral leadership and for predicting job-relevant behaviors and outcomes. (Callina et ah, 2017).

In 2015, with a generous, five-year grant from the Templeton Religion Trust, colleagues at USMA—notably, Professor Mike Matthews, COL Diane Ryan, and LTC Daniel Smith, of the Department of Behavioral Science and Leadership, Dr. Dennis Kelly of the United States Military Academy Office of Institutional Research, and Dr. Jeffrey Peterson of the USMA Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic—my Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development colleague, Kristina Callina, and I launched a longitudinal study that seeks to identify character development strategies and activities at the United States Military Academy that are especially salient in promoting cadet character virtues (including the character domains of moral, performance, civic, leadership, and social). The study is called Project Arete, for the Greek word meaning overall excellence, or the qualities that make something the best of its kind. Within the culture of the United States Army, excellence is believed to be achieved when officers possess the character virtues and moral leadership qualities requisite to serve the nation with honor (Callina et ah, 2017).

The second work in progress is a multinational longitudinal study of the Compassion International Model of Promoting Positive Youth Development. In cultural settings around the world (e.g., in Eastern cultures such as China), character is strongly emphasized as a key facet of the positive development of youth (e.g., Shek, Yu, & Fu, 2013). With the support of Compassion International, an international child sponsorship organization, a collaboration involving the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, Compassion International, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Boston College began in 2016 to study the role of character, and of other features of positive development, among the worlds poorest youth (Sim & Peters, 2014; USAID, 2013). To address the socioeconomic marginalization associated with poverty, and an often self-fulfilling trap of hopelessness about chances to thrive or grow into healthy, fulfilled, and responsible adults (Lerner et al., In Press), Compassion International uses a strengths-based approach to youth development in an attempt to enhance thriving among the more than 1.7 million youths they serve across 26 of the worlds poorest nations. The Compassion International model reflects in the approach to positive youth development that Jackie Lerner and I have developed through our research.

Data collection began in fall 2016, in the first of three countries within which we anticipate working in this project: El Salvador (Lerner et al., In Press). We will also study the longitudinal development of youth involved in Compassion International’s programs in a country in Africa and another in Asia. In each nation, we will compare the development of Compassion International program participants to youth who are not participating in Compassion International’s programs with regard to character, the other markers of the Five Cs, and contribution. We envision this research contributing to the growing literature across the world studying character and related constructs (e.g., Catalano et al., 2012; Shek & Sun 2013; Shek & Wu, 2016) and, in particular, to the study of character and related attributes among adolescents (Shek & Lin, In Press).


The study of character development has been more than a focus of my research. Across more than a quarter century of effort, it has become the passion of my life. I believe my colleagues, students, and I have discovered some important commonalities across the different people and programs we have studied. Across the first three decades of life mentors and models, skill building, and opportunities to not only participate in but to take a leadership role in valued family, school, and community activities are the three key features of successful character-building initiatives. When presented to youth within a safe, supportive setting, then these Big Three features of successful character development efforts can enhance the lives of youth in their families, in their schools, and in their communities (DeSouza, 2016; Hershberg et al., 2015, 2016; Lerner, 2004).

Character development can be, then, the foundation on which other key facets of a person’s thriving can be built (competence, confidence, connection, and caring), and can provide a key basis for enabling every young person to contribute positively to their own lives and to the betterment of their families, schools, and communities. In short, a pathway for a thriving young person and a flourishing civil society can be created on the foundation of promoting character virtue development.

However, this understanding of the potential to enhance character development among diverse young people, gained from, now, several decades of research, is an idea neither intuitively obvious nor readily accepted in civil society. In the 1990s, I used the term outreach scholarship to describe a way of doing research that involved the collaboration of university researchers and community members who were enacting youth development programs aimed at enhancing thriving among diverse young people (Lerner & Miller, 1998; Lerner & Simon, 1998; McHale & Lerner, 1996). Outreach scholarship involves academic and community partners combining their knowledge and talents to do research that enhances the lives of the people served by community-based programs. If the two groups involved in such work approached it with humility and a commitment to combine the best of research with the wisdom of people who were experts in the nature of life in their communities, then the scholarship enacted in these collaborations could be readily transformed. The collaboration could produce program improvements and, possibly as well, policies to institutionalize efforts proven to be effective in promoting character.

In a sense, then, outreach scholarship has a subversive function. By reflecting the vision of the community members working to promote character among the youth served in their programs, combined with the evidence for the effectiveness of these programs derived from the enactment of high- quality' research, the naysayers, skeptics, and pessimists about the possibility' of enhancing character among global youth can be effectively countered. I believe the research my colleagues and I have done with Boy Scouts and the students of Williamson College for the Trades, and that we are currently doing with the cadets of West Point and with the youth participating in Compassion Internationals programs, as well as the other research ongoing in Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, provides compelling evidence that all communities have it in their power to develop and deliver programs that can enhance character development among the young people they serve.

Author Note

Richard M. Lerner was the 2016 recipient of the International Society' for the Study of Behavioral Development Distinguished Scientific Award for the Applications of Behavioral Development.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The preparation of this article was supported in part by grants from the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.


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Part V

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