Does Your Child Have an Inner Compass?

Eight abilities that help youth chart meaningful lives.

Posted Oct 05, 2015

Courtesy of Marilyn Price-Mitchell
Source: Courtesy of Marilyn Price-Mitchell

Children want to be involved in their communities, but increasingly, they are derailed—pulled by the distractions of our tech age and the stress and pressures of doing well in school. We live in a results-driven world that motivates children to strive for good grades, win ball games, and gain large numbers of Facebook and Twitter followers.

I don’t think anyone will argue that we need to change the direction of youth involvement. Seventy percent of youth volunteer, but that number is misleading because only 18 percent do so on a consistent basis. In his book, The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, William Damon notes that political and social interests rank low among teenagers today.

As a culture we can reverse the course, so more youth become responsible and caring people—in other words, “tomorrow’s change makers.” Through years of research, developmental psychologist Marilyn Price- Mitchell, Ph.D. constructed a tool for parents, teachers, and all those who work with children to cultivate skills and internalize the abilities that not only help them thrive and become their best selves, but also help foster empathetic engagement for a lifetime.

The Compass Advantage

Over the course of her study with involved adolescents, some of whom faced difficult personal or family challenges, she developed The Compass Advantage framework for understanding positive youth development. It consists of eight core abilities for adults to nurture in children: Empathy, Curiosity, Sociability, Resilience, Self-Awareness, Integrity, Resourcefulness, and Creativity (Illustrated above.)

Each element strengthens a child’s developing sense and understanding of self and lays the groundwork for future functioning in the world. Dr. Price-Mitchell spoke with adolescents and asked them how they got to be the contributors they are today as older teens and young adults. For example, addressing the compass point of Sociability, Jennifer, now a graduate student and one of Price-Mitchell’s 44 research participants, attributes her ability to collaborate with others to a high school teacher. She “taught me how to express my feelings,” said Jennifer. She also mediated a conflict between Jennifer and another student, demonstrating positive communication skills. Looking back, Jennifer attributes that mentoring to a gain in self confidence and her ability to undertake ambitious and collaborative work to end sex trafficking and violence against women.

Another study underscores the long-lasting power of the abilities outlined in The Compass Advantage framework. Dr. Heather Lawford and Dr. Heather Ramsey measured generativity in adolescents and emerging adults and came to similar conclusions: parental nurturing and/or mentor guidance led youth toward more purposeful and meaningful lives.

Like Price-Mitchell, Lawford and Ramsey analyzed young people’s stories to get to the core of who they would become. In their study, “Now I know I can make a difference”: Generativity and activity engagement as predictors of meaning making in adolescents and emerging adults,” one 18-year-old explained how she participated in a community program as a child and became a program leader. “I was once a camp kid and I would watch my leaders and see that they were making a difference in the community through the youth. I also wanted to be able to make a difference. Many leaders were involved but one stood out because he actually wanted to reach out to us in everything we did. I was thinking that I had to also be a change in my community. . . . I felt like it was almost my duty to one day become a street leader and make a difference to the younger generations too. . . . It has had the biggest impact on me because it changed my way of living, thinking, and interacting . . .”

Lawford and Ramsey note “out-of school activities are useful in growing developmental assets in youth as they transition into adulthood. As such, activities can introduce young people to a specific goal that might serve as a sense of purpose, or alternatively can offer the practice and experience that allow youth to advance a pre-established sense of purpose."

Courtesy of the Publisher
Source: Courtesy of the Publisher

Dr. Price-Mitchell introduces The Compass Advantage and offers many examples of this and of parental involvement in her book, Tomorrow's Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. Out-of-school activities provided her research participants with numerous developmental benefits, including new perspectives, planning and problem-solving skills, communication skills, and the development of empathy and self-awareness.

7 Habits of Nurturing Adults

How do parents and other adult mentors use The Compass Advantage in practice? Children flourish with the aid of caring adults who nurture the core Compass abilities. Price-Mitchell explains the seven practices, shared by teens, that parents and mentors adopt:

  • Notice when teens feel challenged.
  • Encourage positive risk-taking.
  • Recognize and value unique interests.
  • Support creative approaches to expression.
  • Help make connections.
  • Stand alongside them.
  • Invite deep conversations.

Instilling the core Compass abilities in adolescents — whether you are a parent, coach, educator or aunt — is essential for positive youth development if we want to inspire young people to thrive and make a difference, to become responsible citizens and tomorrow’s change makers.


Damon, William. The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life. New York: Free Press (2008; paperback 2009) 

Lawford, Heather L.; Ramey, Heather L. “Now I know I can make a difference”: Generativity and activity engagement as predictors of meaning making in adolescents and emerging adults. Developmental Psychology, Vol 51(10), Oct 2015, 1395-1406.

Price-Mitchell, Marilyn. Tomorrow's Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. Bainbridge Island, Washington: Eagle Harbor Publishing, 2015. 

Copyright @2015 by Susan Newman