Interview with Richard M. Lerner

None of Us Is Robinson Crusoe

Richard M. Lerner has researched how young individuals develop a healthy and productive personality. We talked to him about his “5 Cs of Positive Youth Development” and the role of human touch.


Daily Physical Contact?

In a recent NIVEA survey, the findings were that 20 percent of all male respondents had not had physical contact on the day before the interview. So what about you? Did you get a hug today?

Well, it depends what you mean by physical contact. Regarding my typical day: I meet people and shake their hands. If I know them, I hug them—so, of course, I have physical contact with people on a daily basis!
“We need to develop the ability to live with other people and get along with them.”

Growing Up Successfully

In your capacity as an expert for applied youth development, what does growing up successfully mean to you?

You need the attributes that allow you to not only thrive personally, but to thrive in relation to others. Simply put, none of us is Robinson Crusoe, and our daily environment is anything but an island. We need to develop the ability to live with other people and get along with them. This type of thriving allows you to enact your interests, goals, aspirations, and efforts. So, positive youth development (PYD) means becoming an individual who understands the intimate connections between self and others, and to their own social environment. Such a person strives to make a positive difference for self, family, community and civil society. As you know, I have a specific model of this, which involves the "5 Cs of Positive Youth Development": "Confidence," "Character," "Contribution," "Competence" and "Connection." These are outcomes that need to be fostered in order for young individuals to develop a healthy and productive personality in adult life. If this development turns out to be successful, you end up being a person who contributes in the ways that I have just mentioned. Of course, other scholars don’t need to adhere to Lerner’s “5 Cs Model.” For example, my colleague Bill Damon at Stanford University talks about “positive” or even “noble” purpose in order to define the attributes of a successful person. However, in all instances, PYD involves mutually beneficial relations between a person and their world.
“Every human life begins with the baby touching their mother.”

Touch is Essential

Why is touch essential for human development when you think about growing up successfully as well as overall human development? Does that actually influence us as young people?

Physical contact between our own bodies and the bodies of other people is probably the fundamental facet of human development. Nobody comes into being without this kind of physical connection to another human being. Therefore, every human life begins with the baby touching their mother. So touch, propinquity, and physical contact with another human being represent the foundation for all form of human life. In fact, all life involves a social relationship with another member of one's own species—termed "a conspecific" in evolutionary biology and comparative psychology. Now, if an individual is isolated and not able to touch another individual, we know that this is a situation creating maladaptive human development.

Mother and Child Separation

In your own work, did touch ever become an important indicator or signifier, or did it ever become an issue that you had to focus on in your research on youth development?

The work that my wife Jackie Lerner and I did with the New York Longitudinal Study may be relevant here. Together, we took over a longitudinal study (a study that is conducted over a period of many years) of 133 children born between 1956 and 1962. This was a study that originated from the work of the psychiatrists Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess. We had a data set without any gaps from the first weeks of life all the way to young adulthood. We were able to see differences in the interaction between mother and child, and because these were children of the 1950s and early 1960s, mothers were doing most of the caregiving. About 60 percent of the mothers back then worked outside of the home and had high levels of academic attainment. What we saw was that issues of mother-child separation in the early weeks of life, due to the fact that so many mothers worked outside of the home, meant that the mothers varied in amounts of separation, touch, and provision of contact, as well as comfort—to use the words of the scientist Harry Harlow. This variation had important effects for both the children and, in some cases, the mother.
“Loneliness, then, can change the whole epigenetic pattern of people.”

Touch Is Important for Adults

Would you nevertheless also say that touch and hugging are important for adults as well, for their feelings of happiness and so forth?

In the study of epigenetics (a branch of research in biochemistry focusing on environmental factors changing the temporary activity of human genes), for instance, the research conducted by Steve Cole (a professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences at the University of California and Los Angeles, UCLA) showed that when people feel lonely, changes may occur in their genes. Feelings of loneliness create high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Loneliness, then, can change the whole epigenetic pattern of people. So the absence of intimacy is a huge problem in human development and can be a potential problem even across an entire life span.
“Feeling another hand touching me, I knew that I wouldn’t die.”

Life Saving Touch

What is your personal story of touch that has stayed with you until today? Is there anything you remember very fondly and that you want to share?

Before I met my wife, I was dating another woman. We went up to visit my family in the Catskill Mountains area of New York State. This young woman and I headed to the Delaware River to take a walk around there. I decided to wade into the river, and some of the rocks were slippery. As I waded through the river, I slipped on one of the rocks. And next to that rock was a deep hole that I went down into feet first. I tried to get out of it and, as a last effort, I managed to raise my right hand. A second later, I felt someone grasp me, pull me up and get my head above the water. It was my friend! She had run several yards further down the river but hadn’t seen me come up again. Just feeling another hand touching me, I knew that I wouldn’t die. That was obviously a very significant and profound experience for me.
Richard M. Lerner

Richard M. Lerner

Professor of Child Study and Human Development

Richard M. Lerner is a professor at Tufts University holding the Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science; he is also the Director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development. Lerner has written more than 700 scholarly publications, including more than 80 authored or edited books, and was founding editor of the Journal of Research on Adolescence and of Applied Developmental Science.