Rites of Passage Programs Increase Self-Esteem of Foster Children

July 12, 1996

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Programs that teach male African-American foster children about their cultural heritage may improve self-esteem and encourage the youths to take a positive interest in their communities and their future, new research suggests.

A study of one such program in Ohio found that upon completing the program, the participants said they had a greater respect for women, wanted to further their education, and felt they should take responsibility for their actions.

"African-American males are at a higher risk of facing problems such as drug use, poverty and divorce. Add to that a foster care situation, and the problems can be increased," said Patrick McKenry, co-author of the study and a professor of family relations and human development at Ohio State University.

Research suggests young people with high self-esteem are less likely to become involved with drugs or criminal activity and the more likely to complete their education, McKenry said. "Self-esteem isn't everything, but there is certainly enoughresearch to indicate it's a strong factor in a healthy and happy lifestyle," he said. "So many of these kids come into foster care situations with such a narrow vision of what they can do in life. Rites of passage programs such as the one we studied can be the first step toward helping them see their lives and futures in a positive light."

The researchers interviewed participants in the AA-RITES program, part of an independent living education program for people leaving the foster care system in Ohio. This program targets African-American males, primarily age 12-21, although other programs are offered for African-American females and members of other ethnic groups.

Participants in the AA-RITES program receive historical information about African communities and families, and are given several goals that pertain to team work and personal responsibility. Participants take field trips to cultural museums and centers, tour businesses operated by African-Americans and take part in community clean-ups.

But the secret to the success of this program, McKenry said, is that it ties the cultural history of African-Americans to present societal conditions in the United States.

"Many difficulties being witnessed in contemporary society have been linked to society's underutilization of rites of passage programs," he said. "It's important to show young African-Americans how many of these philosophies of community and family values intrinsic to the African heritage are alive and well in African-American families.

"A major goal of rites of passage programs is to instill a positive sense of race in order to overcome the negative images society has often associated with different ethnic groups," McKenry said. "We found that participants in the AA-RITES program were much more proud of their cultural background and were therefore more proud of themselves."

The study, published in a recent issue of the journal Family Relations, was co-authored by Stephen Gavazzi, an assistant professor of family relations and human development, and Keith Alford, a doctoral candidate in social work, both at Ohio State.

"The program works because of its experiential orientation," Alford said, "and because it allows for discussion of commonalties between cultures."

Ohio State University

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