Are Youth Groups Good for the United States?

Let's diversify clubs and teams for young people.

Posted Aug 12, 2019

Joy and Lifelong Skills through Groups
Source: Shutterstock

Many parents remember experiences they had as teen members of clubs or teams or organizations as among the highlights of their lives.  Lifelong friends are made in summer camps; learning an instrument as a member of the band provides years of pleasure; leadership skills acquired as a member of student government can propel adult careers. 

A great deal of research suggests that participating in clubs and on teams in adolescence has the benefits that parents imagine.  We know that organizations that provide structured, thoughtful activities can help teenagers learn self-control, do well in school, move onto college—the range of benefits is quite wide. These experiences can also provide an understanding of the importance of rules for the sake of group success, the place of roles in building mutual trust, and accepting leadership or respecting it. 

Although some parents may over-schedule their kids, research seems to suggest that participating in activities, groups, clubs, and on teams provides dividends even for those who are quite busy. In today’s rush to make their children competitive, some parents forget about the value of peers in forming positive social and moral values. 

For parents, then, the answer to the question “Should I encourage my children to participate?” is yes.  In all likelihood, your child will have a good time and gain skills—just like you did when you were a kid.

Traditionally, youth groups have also contributed to civic life.  Young people are often introduced to community service by their schools, churches, and youth groups.  For example, the boy scouts and girl scouts take seriously as part of their missions the promotion of concern for communities and democracy.  These organizations and many others give young people the opportunity to practice democratic processes, develop pride in their communities, and learn about the United States.  One of us first saw the inside of a voting booth as a member of such a group.  The other learned about balancing peer interests and adult demands through participation in school government.

Even more important than transmitting the skills of democracy, youth groups produce the social glue that binds citizens to common goals that are necessary for effective governance.  Youth groups can promote connections among youth and adults from different groups, and these connections can contribute to the foundation of trust that allows communities to function democratically.  Indeed, not that long ago in our nation, many community organizations supported youth affiliates that introduced teenagers to democratic practices.

Today, however, youth groups are not as well-positioned to promote democracy as they were a generation ago.  For example, team sports have unfortunately become distorted by a focus on preparing youth for college scholarships.  The shift away from neighborhood and community schools has likewise put emphasis on individual achievement over group success.  

Daniel Hart
Youth Groups can Unite
Source: Daniel Hart

Today, youth groups are drawing participants from relatively homogenous populations in terms of ethnicity and family income.  Instead of providing experiences of meeting and getting along with others from different backgrounds, many groups today offer youth-only reflections of themselves. The significance of the loss of diversity in youth groups is exacerbated by learning about others indirectly through media portrayals that are limited if not stylized. It is also abetted by the loss of the “common school” and the racial and economic segregation of many urban public school systems.

We are not calling for nostalgia or imagining an ideal social environment in which children can grow up. Rather, we are encouraging parents to avoid the never-ending competition to push their kids ahead by, instead, trusting their own sense of the value of organizations that provide peer relations to enrich their children’s development as amiable people who learn what’s important in life.   The full benefits of youth groups are most fully realized in diverse groups, which allow for the development of skills and enjoyment—but also the experience of binding with the many groups that constitute our country.