Try It Tuesday: Help Kids Fall in Love With Their Lives by Finding Their "Sparks"

In this incredibly powerful TEDTalk, the late Peter Benson talks about the research he conducted into understanding what animates and motivates young people. First, some key points from his talk:
  • Only 1 in 4 kids is on a pathway to thriving. It's no longer about purpose and hope. It's about being alone, empty, medicated, confused and lost. 
  • "Youth are not vessels to be filled, but fires to be lit." 
  • The best of development is from the inside out, not the outside in.
  • Thriving begins with the idea of the human spark--what gives young people joy and energy? What gives their lives hope, direction and purpose?
  • Through his research, Benson has found that 100% of middle and high school students get the idea of "spark" in a heartbeat. They say that they can point out the kids who have it and the kids who don't. You can see it in their face and in their body posture. 
  • But then these kids say--"No one has ever asked me about that before. Usually people want to know about our drug use, our sexuality, our predilection to violence, our approach to school."
  • 2/3 of America's young people can name at least 1 spark. Another 20% can name their spark with a nudge from a caring adult. 
  • There are three kinds of sparks as identified by young people--a skill/talent, a commitment (social justice, stewardship of the earth), or a quality
  • Knowing student sparks draws us toward them
  • Human development is about awakening--how we are seen, how we are known and how we are embraced by others
  • Our spark is not necessarily the work that we will do every day. Our spark is our "life orientation"--our way of being present in our own lives. 

Major Categories of Sparks

Benson found several major categories of sparks, including:

  • Helping, serving, volunteering
  • Leading
  • Learning a particular subject matter that was interesting to the teen
  • Stewardship of the earth
  • Athletics
The number one spark that he found was the creative life--arts, writing, dance, drama, music etc. This is the arena in which most kids say "I'm my best self." 

Finding Student Sparks

Here's the question we should be asking all young people and helping them to discover for and about themselves: 

Tell me what it is about you that gives you joy and energy. What's going on in those moments when life feels the richest and the fullest with purpose and hope? What is your spark? I'm dying to know. 

If you hear a teen name their spark, identify it. Tell them that you hear it/see it and thank them for possessing it because their spark is "good, beautiful and useful to the world." 

The Thriving Equation

According to Benson, thriving requires:

Spark + 3 Champions + Opportunity

Spark champions are caring adults--family, teachers, people in the community--who see the spark, name it, help young people see the spark in themselves and help them find opportunities to express their sparks. 

Great things happen when we enact this equation. Benson's research shows that:

  • Academic performance skyrockets
  • Engagement goes up
  • Compassion for others increases
  • A sense of purposes rises
  • Violence decreases
But only 50% of teens say someone in their family nourishes their spark. Only 1/3 say someone in their school is a Spark Champion and in the broader community, only 25% of kids report having a Spark Champion. 

So the big question for us as youth development practitioners is:

How can we put identifying student sparks and implementing this equation for thriving front and center in our work with youth? 

Additional Resources

  • Sparks Worksheet--Helps teens begin to identify their sparks and helps them with a plan for the thriving equation. This could be a good resource to adapt for your own work. 

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