There are varied opinions about the takeaways found in Shel Silverstein’s 1964 children’s book The Giving Tree about a boy and an extremely generous tree. The tale begins when the Boy is small and the Tree allows him to swing from her branches and play in her shade, as well as eat apples. The Boy grows older and expresses a desire for material things and experiences and, eventually, he pointedly tells the Tree that he needs money. Having no money, the Tree offers her apples for the Boy to sell. By selling the apples, the Boy drifts into adulthood with the material resources needed to support himself in building a life. At the end of the book, the Boy finally returns to the Tree as an old man looking for a place to rest after he has experienced a full life. Whether you view the Boy’s relationship with the Tree as one grounded in selfishness or not, the book explores human growth and transformation by highlighting the yearning of young people at a certain point in their development for “things.”
It is a reasonable expectation on the part of young people that their families and community will supply the resources that are needed to successfully shepherd them on their life’s trajectory. Unfortunately, many teen-agers and young adults nowadays have well-founded reasons to worry about whether there will be enough familial and/or public resources available to help them successfully transition to adulthood. For young people struggling with poverty or complex social welfare challenges, a lack of resources—or access to limited resources—is even more worrisome and heightens the responsibility of policymakers to craft programs to ease some of that worry.
A little more than year ago, New York City’s Children’s Cabinet embarked on an effort to better understand the interplay between policy and program implementation in the lives of children—the Cabinet wanted to articulate what it means to be a child who will grow up in one of the largest cities and what role government should play in supporting them on their journey to adulthood. Together the twenty-four agencies and mayoral offices that are part of the Children’s Cabinet began working to assess the range of programs and initiatives designed to meet the needs of children and their families. Aside from the initial questions that sparked the discussion, the Cabinet also explored whether there were opportunities to better coordinate programs and reduce the chances of working at cross- purposes, which sometimes does happen.
The Cabinet’s process included gathering input from external stakeholders, including education and youth development leaders, parents, caregivers, and young people from across the City. These initial findings helped to set a course of action aimed at leveraging research and outcome data to prioritize investments and cross-agency program development, as well as resource sharing—all the while appreciating the voices of young people and parents and recognizing how data are limited in that they often do not provide the anecdotes to articulate how people experience programs. So a set of “guiding principles” was developed and, from the outset, it was understood by the agency leaders and external stakeholders that there would need to be a “champion” charged with moving these principles from paper to practice. Bear in mind that such a process was expected to be iterative, with new data potentially yielding new opportunities or the most urgent needs of families causing the redirection of resources. For instance, as the shifting policy landscape unfolded at the federal level, local policymakers would be need to be adaptable and to develop a framework broad enough to allow for shifts.
II. Growing Up in NYC
New York City is home to almost three million children, youth, and young adults aged twenty-four and under. These young New Yorkers reflect the enormous diversity of the City in that they come from all socioeconomic levels, many ethnicities, and a wide variety of family structures. Young New Yorkers attend many different kinds of educational institutions—from community-based early childhood centers to local colleges and universities—and, in the case of young adults, work in an array of jobs. The vast majority of these young New Yorkers have caring adults––in their families and communities––to guide and support them on their path to adulthood and to help them achieve their hopes and dreams. These networks of support also provide adolescents with much-needed stability and social capital so that they are prepared to make the best transition to adulthood.
Toward that end, the Growing Up NYC framework is centered on three basic concepts. First, there is the belief that childhood extends into adulthood because an increasing body of evidence supports the idea that child development is shaped from before birth and continues well past adolescence as young people’s brains continue to develop. In this sense, it also defines childhood along a zero-to-twenty-four age continuum and acknowledges the importance of fostering partnerships with parents, families, and communities to address young people at every stage of their development. The first concept assumes that, at each stage of development, government leaders should design programs that offer children, youth, and young adults the resources and supports they need to meet major cognitive, emotional, and physical milestones.
Second, children’s development takes place in various environments, including their homes, schools, and neighborhoods. These environments may vary in importance over time and often overlap and blend into each other. To adopt the best policies and implement them in the most effective ways, there is a focus on these environments to assess opportunities for improvement and the current levels of support available to children and their families.
Third, the policymakers must commit to developing key investment and policy tracking tools designed to evaluate the degree to which they have succeeded in meeting the needs of children. The work on behalf of young people should proceed from the notion that all children are entitled to support and have access to experiences that further their growth and cultivate their abilities so that they become successful adults.
It is well-settled that when children are given the support they need to thrive, the whole society benefits and communities are made stronger long into the future.
Much like the Tree yearning to help the Boy have all of the resources he will need to strive toward adulthood, policymakers must focus on young people having the best educational, work, and social opportunities to improve their chances of successful transition to adulthood.
III. Defining Childhood
“Childhood is commonly understood as a biological and developmental phase in which individuals lack maturity and are therefore in need of protection.” “As such, childhood is a powerful normative grounding for legal frameworks and social institutions such as familial responsibilities owed from parent to child and the state’s duty to establish child-serving institutions such as schools.” Unfortunately, the early “constructions of childhood were deeply racialized, and [notably] Black children were largely excluded.” Generally, black children were not afforded the protection of the state, and their families, relying heavily on their children’s labor, required them, out of necessity, to participate in work or care for smaller children or the elderly. While there have been favorable legal and cultural shifts, remaining on the margins are large numbers of black and Hispanic children as well as other vulnerable youth who do not fit the normative construct of childhood. Granted, the degree to which any child will struggle is relative to the background of the gender, race, and economic realities of his or her life.
Therefore, it is important in a climate of shrinking public resources and conflicting priorities that the policymakers charged with tending to the needs of children do so in a comprehensive and coordinated fashion. It is only through coordinated efforts that the needs of all children—especially those who vulnerable—will be identified and addressed in publicly funded programs.
During the Obama administration, there was a push for state and local government leaders to focus on outcomes through a greater understanding of “what works,” as indicated by administrative data. The use of data to improve performance sometimes dictated funding or encouraged innovation. Consequently, local policymakers have used data to design and measure their efforts, particularly when it comes to strengthening the fragile safety net of resources made available to children and families. As communities across the United States face unprecedented rates of unaffordability, homelessness, and incarceration, policymakers are charged with “doing more with less” and must craft responsive programs and policy that have demonstrable impact so that young people are able to successfully transition to adulthood. In order to address the needs of the most vulnerable populations now and into the future, many policymakers and government leaders, much like those in New York City, are developing policy and practice frameworks that leverage data and knowledge across multiple agencies to develop programs. It is no longer enough for any one public agency to solely focus on its mission; instead, there is an emerging understanding that work must occur across multiple agencies in an effort to share resources.
IV. Establishing Guiding Principles
Embedded in Growing Up NYC is the following set of principles designed to advance programs and initiatives that represent the collective beliefs and values that support healthy development and improved well- being outcomes for children, youth, and young adults.
- Support children along an interconnected age continuum.
- Address the immediate needs of children, youth, and young adults with an intentional focus on the subsequent stages of growth.
- Strengthen their capacity to build the skills and competencies they will need to succeed in all aspects of their lives.
- Adopt a holistic approach, supporting the “whole child.”
- Focus on the holistic developmental needs of children, youth, and young adults.
- Consider their health and well-being and social, emotional, and educational growth in order to support a positive transition to adulthood.
- Support families and sustain home life.
- Recognize that strong families are foundational to the success of young people.
- Provide parents and caregivers with information, opportunities, and resources to support their children in becoming self-sufficient, happy adults who contribute to their families and communities.
- Promote child-centered communities.
- Provide safe places, spaces, and opportunities for children and families to engage in recreation, social engagement, and community- building activities.
- Engage and invest the broader community in programming and supports for children.
- Leverage and align resources and programming.
- Align and sequence agencies’ programming to reduce inefficiencies, increase access to programming, identify and address gaps in services, and intensify positive outcomes for children, youth, and young adults.
- Identify opportunities to develop new programs or share resources to better meet the needs of specific populations.
- Invest in evidence-informed practices and interventions.
- Prioritize public investments in programs that have proven positive impact on young people.
- Support research and evaluation of new efforts with a focus on identifying best practice models.
- Innovate with new models that cut across silos.
- Seek innovative and fiscally efficient ways to address persistent, unmet needs and challenges for children, youth, and young adults.
- Eliminate long-standing bureaucratic barriers that do not serve the interests of children.
- Connect government and constituents in new ways.
-Bring City services to the people, connecting them with government where they live, work, and play.
- Leverage both technology and direct person-to-person outreach.