B is for Peter Benson: His Work Helping People To Find Their Sparks

Peter was a pioneer who helped people to find their sparks. In this first video he describes how we can help children to live flourishing lives. He believed that:

“Children want to be known for their sparks.

“When you see these sparks in them, affirm them. You shall know them by their sparks.”

Peter had a profound influence on the way many people encourage children, teenagers and adults. He and his colleagues at the Search Institute, for example, focused on the times that children came alive. Much of his work was around the theme of ‘Sparks’. He wrote:

“A spark is something that gives your life meaning and purpose. It’s an interest, a passion, or a gift.”

Peter died at the age of 65 in 2011. Announcing his passing under the title of Remembering A Life Well Lived, the Search Institute described him as:

“An inspiring leader who devoted his own life to making the world a better place for families, schools and communities.”

So let’s explore the work done by Peter and the Search Institute. You can discover more at the official website.


Peter looked for the good in everybody and everything. Whilst being a rigorous researcher, he conveyed his findings about people in a compassionate and inspiring way.

Joining the Search Institute in 1985, he played a key part in pioneering Positive Youth Development programmes in the United States and across the world.

Peter and his colleagues at the Institute focused on children’s Sparks. What does this mean? Here is an extract from the Institute’s web site.

Sparks are the hidden flames in kids that excite them and tap into their true passions.

Sparks come from the gut. They motivate and inspire. They’re authentic passions, talents, assets, skills, and dreams.

Sparks can be musical, athletic, intellectual, academic, or relational; from playing the violin to working with kids or senior citizens.

Sparks can ignite a lifelong vocation or career, or balance other activities to create an emotionally satisfying, enriched life.

Sparks get kids going on a positive path, away from the conflicts and negative issues – violence, promiscuity, drugs, and alcohol – that give teens a bad name and attract so much negative energy.

In this video Peter talks with the Dalai Lama and others about the concept of sparks.

Peter and his colleagues at the Institute developed ways to encourage these drives. Here are some of the principles they have followed.

People have Sparks

The Search Institute did research with American teenagers. Here is a list of what were found to be the ten most common sparks. These were the activities and areas in which young people felt most alive, joyful and inspired.

Creative Arts
Learning (e.g., languages, science, history)
Helping, serving
Spirituality, religion
Nature, ecology, environment
Living a quality life (e.g., joy, tolerance, caring)
Animal welfare

Peter and his colleagues produced many books, materials, courses and other tools that focused on how to enable people to find their sparks.

“That sounds fine,” somebody may say, “but what do you do after you have found somebody’s sparks?” This takes us to the next principle.

People can grow with the
help of Developmental Assets

People can take responsibility for shaping their lives, but they can also be helped by getting support.

After studying over 2 million young people in the United States, the Search Institute discovered 40 key factors that enabled young people to thrive.

These became known as Developmental Assets. The Institute has identified these assets, which it describes as the ‘building blocks of healthy development.

These factors are sorted into External Assets and Internal Assets. Some assets are needed at every stage of development, whilst some are specific to particular ages.

Below is an overview of the assets that enable young people aged 12 to 18 to grow. More details about these can be found on the Institute’s web site.

External Assets

* Support.

For example: young people are significantly helped by getting support from the family, other good adult relationships, a caring neighbourhood, a caring school climate and parental involvement in school.

* Empowerment.

For example: young people feel valued by adults in the community, they are given useful roles, serve others and feel safe in the community.

* Boundaries and Expectations.

For example: the family has clear rules and there are consequences, the neighbourhood takes responsibility for monitoring young people’s behaviour, there are good adult role models, positive peer influence, encouragement and high expectations from key people in the young people’s lives.

* Constructive Use of Time.

For example: the young person spends a considerable number of hours each week involved in music, the creative arts, sports, spiritual or other positive activities.

They are also able to spend time at home with friends.


Internal Assets

* Commitment To Learning.

For example: the young person is motivated to do well at school, they are actively engaged in learning, they do at least one hour of homework a day, they care about their school and read for pleasure.

* Positive Values.

For example: the young person places a high value on helping others, they believe in values such as working for equality.

They show integrity, are honest, take responsibility and pursue healthy, rather than unhealthy, behaviour.

* Social Competencies.

For example: the young person is able to plan ahead, make choices, has good interpersonal skills and feels comfortable with – and has a respective for – people from other ethnic backgrounds and cultures.

They resist negative pressure from peers and aim to solve conflicts in a peaceful way.

* Positive Identity.

For example: they feel in control, able to shape events, have good self-esteem, have a sense of purpose and also a positive view of their personal future.

The above is a summary of these assets. But please note the following important qualification from the Search Institute.

This list is an educational tool. It is not intended to be nor is it appropriate as a scientific measure of the developmental assets of individuals.

Copyright © 1997, 2007 by Search Institute. All rights reserved. This chart may be reproduced for educational, non-commercial use only (with this copyright line).

No other use is permitted without prior permission from Search Institute, 615 First Avenue N.E., Suite 125, Minneapolis, MN 55413; 800-888-7828.

What percentage of young people benefit from these assets? The Search Institute says:

“The Gap – The average young person experiences fewer than half of the 40 assets.

Boys experience three fewer assets than girls (17.2 assets for boys vs. 19.9 for girls).”

Bearing this in mind, the Institute has produced many programmes that enable parents, teachers, schools, youth organisations and communities to provide these assets for young people.

People from the Search Institute and many others have introduced such approaches into hundreds of schools and communities in the United States and across the world.

This brings us to the next principle.

People can Thrive

Peter and his colleagues believed it was important to begin developing a different definition of health.

They focused on the idea of ‘Thriving’. This means feeling fully alive, happy and, hopefully, giving to others.

Writing for the web site kidspiritonline.com, Peter described this approach in the article Thriving Starts On The Inside. Here are some extracts.

The idea of spark is very much like the idea of spirit. The word spirit comes from Latin and means ‘my breath, put into the world with vigor and courage.’

Your breath, your essence, your spark.

Most of us, however, discover our spark between the ages of 10 and 20. You know it when you feel it.

That is, you know it when you are doing something that makes you feel whole, when time stands still, when just doing it or being it is its own reward.

Being great at it or impressing people with it is not the point. Just knowing it, affirming it and putting it into play is the point.

Youth, when talking about their spark, almost always use romantic language in describing it.

They say things like, “I love it when I’m playing the piano,” or “I cherish the moments each day when I can help someone.”

The biggest choice you will ever make in your life is whose voice you will listen to. Is it the one inside of you that tells you what your spark is and nudges you to put it into play?

Or is it the voice of friends or adults who want to mold you into something else?

A thriving life is never molded by forces outside of you.

Thriving starts on the inside, with the knowledge and affirmation of your spark and the courage to put it into play.

That’s how we fall in love with life. The spark is a seed waiting to find fertile soil and a chance to flower.

Name it. Love it. Use it to light up our world.


The Search Institute has built on this approach and identified indicators of Thriving.

This provides a different definition of success – for individuals, communities and societies.

Writing on his blog, Neal Starkman provided this view of Peter’s work. You can find this at:


“What Peter Benson did that was so significant was to shift the way educators think about young people.

“Rather than focusing on what’s wrong with kids and trying to ‘fix’ them, he zeroed in on what was right with kids and tried to support them …

“This is Peter Benson’s important legacy: a way of looking at our nation’s future in terms of strengths, not deficits; a way of treating young people not as problems but as resources …

“Does this make sense to you? Then that’s another of Peter Benson’s legacies: to formalize a way of behaving toward young people that maybe we already knew but hadn’t figured out a way to put into action.”

Finally, here is a tribute put together by many people who knew Peter.

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