Relationships as Roots

An Interview with Dr. Eugene Roehlkepartain

Dr. Eugene Roehlkepartain has noticed that when adults say relationships with kids matter, they really mean parents should care. They don’t really think about other kinds of adult-child relationships or other ways of interacting besides loving care. RKRF asked him to tell us why children need more than just nurturing parents to thrive, and to spell out some of the other characteristics of strong developmental relationships that accompany care.



Hi, this is Erin and Karen-Marie from Real Kids, Real Faith. We are here talking today with Gene Roehlkepartain, Senior Scholar with Search Institute, about a challenge that he’s noticed between what adults say about children’s important relationships and the kinds of relationships children actually need. Gene, could you tell us a little bit more about this challenge that you’ve identified?


Well, we worked with Frameworks Institute to ask adults. We keep hearing adults saying, “Yeah, relationships are really important. Relationships really matter.” We keep hearing people saying that kids don’t have enough relationships in their lives. So we began probing, asking people on the streets, “Well, what kind of relationships do kids need and what are your relationships with kids?”

We found a couple of things: that adults really have a narrow definition of the relationships kids need. So there’s a couple of things about that. They actually really only think kids need relationships with their parents, when it comes down to it. They define relationships very narrowly around you just gotta love them and then everything takes care of itself. From our perspective, that really doesn’t capture the depth or breadth and the kind of relationships young people need in their lives.

That’s the big ‘aha’ that we’ve got to work on.


That does sound like kind of a big ‘aha’. What are some of the specific issues that you’ve noticed in relation to this challenge? What’s the problem with thinking that just parents matter and not really having relationships that are more than just caring?


First of all, parents do matter. I’ll get that out there. They matter a lot. They are primary in lots of things. So don’t get me wrong on that. However, I don’t know there’s been a time in history when it’s been only parents.

When we put all the burden on parents, first of all, it’s really lousy for parents because the stress of that is overwhelming and it’s really bad for kids. We grow up best when we have lots of people around us looking out for us. It’s bad for churches too because we now have models in churches where they’re relying on parents to do all of the recruitment for doing everything with kids.

So you’ve got that issue, which is burnout. It’s like we’ve basically turned an aberration of the family, in some ways a small tiny nuclear family, into doing everything for kids, for 20 years or more. It’s really hard to do that. Kids don’t benefit from that.

Kids need to have a whole cloud of witnesses around them in real life, actually, who are there looking out for them, nurturing them, aunts and uncles and neighbors and everybody who say, “Yeah, I got your back.” Yet, right now the model is a very small number of people. One or two parents have that whole thing going on and other people don’t feel like they have permission to say anything to those kids.

There’s sort of this very narrow understanding about who’s responsible and who’s to blame. Now we’re getting to the thing where parents are blamed for anything that goes wrong, because they’re solely responsible for everything. That’s a really vicious cycle. It’s really bad for the kids because they’re not getting the range of those positive influences and supports that they need. To me, there’s lots of reasons to be concerned about that. But to go far beyond, now it’s not just parents’ fault. So there’s that.

The other piece is around love, and if you think deeply about love, love has many dimensions. But most of us think of it fairly superficially in terms of it’s just this one nice feeling. People just don’t actually dig deeper into the breadth and depth of what a relationship really is.

One thing we’re doing at Search Institute is we sort of started breaking down what kids need in their relationships. They need love, and they need challenges, and they need support, and they need people who are there to expand possibilities for them, to open up  new worlds for them. They need people who share power with them to give them a sense of autonomy and development.

All of these other things are what happen in our relationships that are part of what help us grow and learn and thrive. So if we just say, “Oh, we just love him to death”, that’s all, just we give them hugs and they’re fine. Yes. They need hugs. They do need us to care for them and love them, and they need so much more.

I guess that’s what worries me about when people say, “Oh, we just love him to death”. It’s just parents doing it. Kids don’t have the wealth of experience in relationships that they really do need. So…


Can you tell me more about these relationships and what these relationships might look like?


That’s really what we’ve been working on. We have a framework, we call it developmental relationships, and we try to break it down and make it tangible. I kind of whipped through that. But the idea here is that if you could be intentional about thinking about the kind of relationships you want to build with kids, then maybe we can get on the same page about that.

So we talk about relationships having five dimensions, whether it’s a parent relationship, a teacher relationship, a mentor relationship, a Sunday school teacher relationship. Whatever it might be, where yes, you need to express care where there’s this mutuality of care where you’re listening, you’re expressing appreciation, where there’s words being exchanged, all of those kinds of things that make you feel like someone cares for you. That’s one of the five dimensions.

The next one we talk about is challenging growth, where you say, “I want you to be your best. I want to push you to be your best.” If something goes wrong, we’re going to learn from those mistakes so that you can continue to grow. So all of these dimensions of challenge. In the parenting literature, you’ll hear echoes of [inaudible 00:06:15] when you put challenging and care together. Where you’ve got to challenge someone to push hard, but also then really support them and care for them as kind of the balance of those. So it’s not just one, but by itself, it’s the two. Both hands working together around that authoritative kind of parenting model.

Then there’s support, which is more utilitarian. How do you help? How do you scaffold for children so that they can learn to get things done, so they can reach goals? There’s helping them with skills and surrounding them with advocacy to work in systems, or to get through things so that they’re not on their own trying to figure things out. But then stepping aside so they actually do learn the skills. That’s support. So those kinds of ways and learning the balance in all of that.

Then sharing power, in some ways, we love talking about it the most because people freaked out about it. You’re going to give up your power to your kids? In the long run, how do you transfer a sense of autonomy and responsibility and capacity to do things in the world, a capacity to take care of yourself even, but in the long run to make a difference in the world? How do we learn over time to move from tying a kid’s shoe, then they’re tying their own shoes, to thinking for them, to them coming up with ideas for themselves and beginning to make their way in the world. So that’s sharing power or this transfer of power.

I often say every relationship has a power dynamic. So how do we make those healthy power dynamics? That’s the other piece of that.

Then finally, the last piece of the framework is to expand possibilities. It’s through relationships that we are introduced often to our dreams. That’s often what you hear mentors talk about. Is it through this person that I found my vocation. It is through this person that I had never thought of playing the bassoon and then I heard it from this person and they introduced it to me. Or, you can just imagine all the different things. I never thought of philosophy and then I got to know this professor and it just came alive. Through these relationships we discover the world beyond what we already knew and it opens up to us.

So that’s the fifth element. How do we expand possibilities for who we are to find our calling, our voice, and our place in the world? So those five elements can happen in any relationship.

We would argue that most of the things you learn, you’ll learn through relationships and stuff sticks through relationships. That can be a parent, it could be a friend, it can be a teacher, it can be anybody. So we’re in the process of trying to understand those, contextualize those, and just think about how do we help people become more intentional about those and more inclusive about those so we’re not just doing those with the kids that are easiest to be with, but we’re also inviting more and more kids to those kinds of relationships.


That’s really exciting stuff. I know from looking at some of your work on the Search Institute website, that you have a great visual metaphor that you and others  have come up with to help parents and other adults think about these developmentally sound relationships with young people. Could you tell us a little bit about that metaphor?


This all gets a little abstract or very abstract sometimes. We’re coming to describe relationships as like roots. They’re like roots in a tree. You don’t actually see them or pay much attention to them sometimes. But without roots, a tree doesn’t survive.

If you begin thinking about what a root does for a plant, you begin to recognize that that’s the source of sustenance. In some cases, it’s also a source of stability. Then you go from there, beginning to understand that the roots, we may not pay much attention to them, but we don’t live without them. So how do we begin to understand that it’s through our roots that we flourish, that we’re resilient because of our roots.

Often it’s our roots that find what we need. There’s actually roots that will go look for nutrients that we don’t have and help us get those nutrients. Some roots are tap roots that go deep and other roots are, I don’t know what they’re called, there are other kinds of roots that go out wide. There’s all these different kinds of roots that we need.

So, you begin to imagine that as a metaphor for thinking about relationships. There’s not just one kind of root that does one thing, but there’s a variety of roots that we need. It’s those kinds of things, and I think it enriches our understanding of relationships, to begin to use that as a metaphor, to begin to open up the conversation.

I once had a horticultural center training, where we said, “What do you think about when you think about roots and relationships”? They went crazy, and it’s great fun to do that because there’s so much variety in how relationships can nurture if we think of different kinds of plants and how that works. That opens up possibilities as we think about how we nurture relationships and how that works with different young people and how they’re reciprocal.

That’s the other thing about relationships, if you think about it. It’s not one way, it’s reciprocal. So then that opens up a whole other conversation about how we think about nurturing kids.


That’s really cool. Especially for those of us here in the United States, North America, where Spring is just coming into being, at least we’re seeing signs of it, to think about roots and nurture is kind of an exciting way to imagine relationships.




I really want to thank you, Gene, for taking a little bit of time to think about relationships and children with us. I know that you’re continuing to do a lot of work in that area, and we’re looking forward to talking with you again sometime about that additional work as it comes to fruition. Thanks again.



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