If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that our nation’s families are incredibly resilient. As one parent shared in Ascend at the Aspen Institute’s Parent Voices research, “we have no choice.” In addition to navigating a global pandemic, social isolation, increased stress and barriers to distance learning, many families are facing complex, overlapping challenges such as underfunded schools; food, income and housing insecurity, which can be exacerbated by involvement in the child welfare system; entanglement with corrupt justice systems; and systemic racism. Parents and caregivers have had to assume the roles of teachers, nurses and therapists while providing for their families. Prioritizing family well-being needs to be at the center of our new normal.
One tool that can address these inequities and put families on a path to upward social and economic mobility is the two-generation approach. It fosters family well-being by simultaneously working with children and the adults in their lives. It builds on what we know works — the inextricable links between children’s and parents’ education and welfare — and provides families with the resources, stability and tools needed to address the tangled roots of inequitable systems.
As children, parents and families grow and change together, the two-generation approach aligns real-life support with their goals, optimizing potential across generations. This results in healthy children meeting developmental milestones, healthy parents with family-supporting jobs and vibrant and civically engaged families and communities.
Twenty-eight years ago, Friends of the Children redefined the youth mentoring movement by creating an innovative long-term professional mentoring program. In partnership with schools, the child welfare system and community agencies, the program selects 4- to 6-year-old children and pairs each child with a paid, highly trained mentor, called a “Friend,” who sustains an intensive relationship over more than 12 years with the child and their family.
The Friends of the Children program works. A consulting firm that helps organizations design and implement transformative projects, ICF, conducted the “Friends of the Children 2020 Caregiver Survey.” Its results showed that 86 percent of parents and caregivers with a child in the program said that Friends supported them to better understand their child’s strengths and needs; 84 percent said that Friends helped strengthen family relationships; 91 percent said that Friends helped them support their child’s school success, and 92 percent said that Friends connected them to concrete supports that enriched and stabilized their family.
Friends of the Children has seen that a child’s relationship with their Friend buoys the entire family, with a powerful ripple effect on parents, caregivers, siblings, friends and communities. That’s why Ascend at the Aspen Institute — the national hub for collaborations that help families prosper— is thrilled to have organizations like Friends of the Children leading the movement to develop programs for youth and families on the two-generation model.
What would it look like to start from scratch in how we support children and families, particularly those who face racism and poverty?
The pandemic has compounded the preexisting issues and inequities that so many children and families face, widening disparities rather than narrowing them. Yet, there is a possible upside: If we as a nation are navigating such unprecedented, unchartered waters, why not use this moment to draw a new map?
What would it look like to start from scratch in how we support children and families, particularly those who face racism and poverty? How could we redesign our systems to care for every family, not just those from certain zip codes and certain backgrounds? How can we change the narrative of blaming and shaming parents for what are clearly systemic inequities and turn toward a whole-family approach?
Investing in two-generation programs isn’t the only solution to issues that hold families back: We must also change the systems that perpetuate racism, poverty, inequitable educational opportunities and disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice and child welfare systems. But the two-generation approach is worth investing more time and resources in — from all sectors — because we know it works. It provides parents a more hopeful pathway to being the parent they want to be and increases the chances that every child will have access to a bright future.
Terri Sorensen (@Terri_Sorensen) is the CEO of Friends of the Children and Anne Mosle is vice president of the Aspen Institute and the executive director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute (@AspenAscend).
This story about the two-generation approach was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.