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Working Paper 03: Socializing Youth for Citizenship

by Jonathan F. Zaff
March 2003
“In the present study, we hypothesize that programs and policies to promote positive citizenship may need to begin by first focusing on informal interactions in youths’ lives, such as with parents and peers, and on the culture in which youth are raised.”



Abstract

Most researchers to date have theorized that programs to promote positive citizenship should begin with an opportunity for adolescents to participate in positive citizenship activities, such as community service or political volunteering. In the present study, we hypothesize that programs and policies to promote positive citizenship may need to begin by first focusing on informal interactions in youths’ lives, such as with parents and peers, and on the culture in which youth are raised. We hypothesize that these informal interactions socialize or “prime” youth to have the motivation and values that subsequently lead to positive citizenship behaviors. To examine this hypothesis, we analyzed a large, diverse, longitudinal survey. The data were collected during a historical period in which a major opportunity to participate in a positive citizenship activity, and one that was salient to a large percentage of the sample, was present: The Million Man March. Our subsequent findings contribute to the field of youth civic engagement by providing more concrete evidence for the unique effects that informal social interactions have on youth, above and beyond previous citizenship engagement, religiosity, parental education, ethnicity and gender.

Furthermore, we found that early adolescents who have altruistic values and a motivation to better society are more likely to engage in citizenship activities later in adolescence. More specifically for African American youth, ethnic-related experiences and attitudes that are salient or matter to the youths’ self-concepts appear to be important predictors of later citizenship engagement. From this finding, we theorize the key component of ethnic socialization to be the salience of the socialization and the subsequent citizenship activity to the youth’s self-concept. The results are discussed with regard to program and policy development as well as future research directions.

Most researchers to date have theorized that programs to promote positive citizenship should begin with an opportunity for adolescents to participate in positive citizenship activities, such as community service or political volunteering. In the present study, we hypothesize that programs and policies to promote positive citizenship may need to begin by first focusing on informal interactions in youths’ lives, such as with parents and peers, and on the culture in which youth are raised. We hypothesize that these informal interactions socialize or “prime” youth to have the motivation and values that subsequently lead to positive citizenship behaviors. To examine this hypothesis, we use data from a large, diverse, regional longitudinal survey to test whether the relationship between social, familial and cultural factors and positive citizenship behaviors is mediated by the development of altruism and motivation to be a good person in order to benefit society. The implications of our findings will be discussed in the context of program and policy development and future research directions.