Guest Opinion: Take a second for our kids | February 3, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - February 3, 2012

Guest Opinion: Take a second for our kids

by Nancy Shepherd

I used to love reading "My Turn" in Newsweek magazine. This was an article submitted by a reader on a topic of choice. The one article I remember over the years was from a new parent about applause. She openly contemplated what it would be like if each one of her actions was actually applauded by her family, co-workers and public. For example, walking down the hall to her office and getting to work just a few minutes late after a busy morning and having her workmates give her applause for the accomplishment. Just like the applause parents and friends give babies as they learn to walk, talk and yes, go to the potty. After a simple accomplishment, the adult claps and cheers, and will likely get a toothy grin from ear to ear by a very happy to please toddler. Ah, the joy of parenthood!

Somewhere, between terrible twos, the teenage years and adult life the applause stops. Today kids are exposed to a range of influences never imagined a generation ago. Doing what is right can be hard to figure out — especially when boundaries seem nonexistent. In the Internet age, our kids are growing up in a global world with access to global influences. There are complex social forces confronting youth. Yet, communities can fortify young people against the allure of risk-taking and negative behavior. A concerted effort by all members of the community can build assets in our youth, thereby strengthening our whole community. And, the applause just might start again.

"It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men." This quote by Frederick Douglas speaks to the Palo Alto community which has a long history of supporting youth and families. Our quality of life includes family-oriented services like extensive recreation programs, first class public education, youth training, a Children's Theater and library, and active middle school sports programs just to name a few.

Yet in 2010 the City Council adopted "Collaboration for Youth Well-Being" as a response to the suicide contagion by our youth. It was clear, Palo Alto is very successful with incubating innovation, but somehow we lost our way helping our youth find themselves. Project Safety Net, a group of over 40 organizations including the city, the school district, Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, mental health practitioners, youth nonprofits, volunteers, and many more was formed to effect a change in how our community supports our youth. The strategies of the group include work in the areas of education, prevention and intervention that together provide a safety net for youth and teens in Palo Alto.

In 2010 the City Council proclaimed and adopted the 40+1 Developmental Assets identified by the Search Institute that correspond with youth resilience and behavior, helping children become successful adults. Santa Clara County identified a 41st asset: Positive Cultural Identity. The more assets a teen has in their life, the less a teen is likely to engage in high-risk behavior. In 2010 over 4,000 elementary, middle and high school students in local schools were surveyed to measure their developmental assets. It found that 56 per cent of middle and high school students have enough assets to provide a great foundation for success in life. Unfortunately, 44 percent of our youth don't have enough assets to build a solid foundation for a successful future.

Project Safety Net is focused on getting our kids to thrive and has set a goal that every person in Palo Alto will be an asset builder. Asset building ranges from simple actions like greeting a child to a major commitment such as mentoring. Project Safety Net is asking Palo Alto to take a second, and make a difference for our youth.

"People not programs are what make a difference to kids," says Clay Roberts, a featured Developmental Assets speaker sponsored by Project Safety Net in October. "We need a movement," he says, and "the movement starts with you. Invite a conversation with kids."

Roberts describes three different levels of relationships. First, invite the relationship with a smile or nod of the head, make eye contact and let them know you care. Then build the relationship using trust. Figure out what's right about kids and understand their needs. Finally, leverage the relationship by taking it to a higher level. Keep in touch over time, mentor them, challenge them. Help kids learn behavior for success.

"Success is simple," says Arnold Glasgow, "Do what's right, the right way, at the right time." Yet the tragedy of teen deaths by suicide challenges us to reconsider what success looks like for youth. Our job is to believe in them, even if they don't believe in themselves. To help them emerge into the world of responsibility and purpose. To make things right again.

This year Palo Alto's elected officials from the city and school district are taking the movement to the community. We are inviting our business and civic organizations to adopt the Developmental Assets principles. Our hope is that all Palo Alto groups that engage with the public will make youth a priority. In fact, all adults can build assets in young people, whether you're a parent or not. Simple actions like spending time listening to kids. Paying attention to what's going on with young people around you — intervene if you see threats, bullying or unsafe behaviors. Adopt Project Safety Net's asset of the month as your own personal mission statement, "Our youth are watching, your actions are their lessons," was featured for January. Take it personally and see what happens. We can't do it without you!

For more information contact or visit the Project Safety Net website:

Nancy Shepherd is a member of the Palo Alto City Council, former president, Palo Alto Council of PTAs, board member, Palo Alto Foundation for Education, and trustee Mid-Peninsula High School.


Like this comment
Posted by Barbara Spreng
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 3, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Well done, Councilwoman Shepherd! I so appreciate you calling attention to the role that we all can play. Smile and make eye contact with youths, show interest and respect, celebrate effort (and the accomplishments that follow), reach out when you see a kid in need, show zero tolerance for bullying and click the link provided to learn more about Project Safety Net and its affiliated organizations. Every one of us has the capacity to show we care.

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