10/21/2011 05:31 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2011

Psychologist Broadened Americans' View of Teens

Teenagers and their families recently lost a good friend to cancer. His name was Peter Benson. He was 65 and an energetic psychologist who helped change the way Americans think about 12- to 18-year-olds and their communities.

For much of the 20th century, scientists spoke of adolescence as a period of inevitable depression and rebellion. Phrases such as "the terrible teens" and "raging hormones" bled into everyday conversation, frightening parents, teachers and ordinary citizens.

Beginning in the late 1980s, a different view began to emerge. It was this: All teens experience some anxiety and conflict, but most are inclined to do what is right particularly if encouraged by adults who focus on youths' talents rather than their shortcomings.

This belief is at the heart of Search Institute, an education and training network in Minneapolis that Benson took over in 1985, which now reaches into more than 600 communities in 45 states and 60 countries on six continents.

Benson came from a middle-class Midwestern family. His family moved every five years when his father, a Lutheran pastor, was assigned a new congregation. He learned to make friends easily and talk to anyone.

He drew on those skills in his work. His genius "was to give people a language, a vocabulary, for talking about what kids need," said psychologist Peter Scales, who directed several national youth initiatives before joining Search. "It was rooted in science but made perfect sense to adults and kids alike."

Benson was in the middle of a fishing trip when he came up with what would become his signature concept. Shelby Andress, an independent trainer and speaker, tells the story: Benson and a buddy were out on a lake and Benson was wearing his friend out trying to come up with a term to describe the resources, internal and external, that enable kids to succeed in life. "Things" just didn't seem quite right. Suddenly, the word popped out: "Assets!"

The Search staff got busy in 1990 testing which assets most influenced young people. They came up with 20 concepts such as positive family communication, caring neighbors, and an encouraging school climate. They also tested the strengths that teens themselves might possess and shaved that list down to 20 concepts including a love of reading, self restraint, and a sense of purpose. The result was a list of 40 assets -- half within the child, half in the outside world -- that they believed young people should have. The list became the basis of the institute's curriculum.

The assets framework, adaptable to almost any population, caught on quickly among educators, juvenile justice authorities, national youth organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, and other elites. The Dalai Lama consulted Benson about it; America's Promise Alliance, chaired by Alma Powell, incorporated the assets philosophy into its work.

According to an academic book coming out this year and edited by Richard Lerner, a leading scholar in youth development, the assets concept has become one of the most-quoted youth development approaches in the world. A Google look for the word "assets" shows Search Institute in fourth position among 572 million hits, following two economic definitions and the third, a undergarment line, of all things.

Not all Americans are ready to acknowledge the virtues of young people. And not all journalists embrace the word "assets" when it comes to talking about young people. The word is too jargony for reporters, more suggestive of mutual funds and pricey property than of, say, caring and competence. Also, journalists see their job as writing about things that don't work. As charismatic as Benson was, he and his staff found it difficult to interest reporters in programs that actually produce positive results.

In the early 1990s, stories were filled with examples of beer-chugging, weed-smoking, propane-huffing, suicidal teens. The headline on a 1993 piece I wrote for the Washington Post said it all: "When Life's the Pits."

The research of Benson and his colleagues at Search, combined with that of several other scientists, compelled me to write a different story in 1995: "Positively Teens: The Rebellious Kid Is the Exception, Not the Rule."

Sixteen years later, I'm still writing about young people, now mostly those in their 20s, and like more and more of my colleagues, striving to write a fuller account of how younger Americans work, play and love. Do readers not deserve that?