Obituary: Peter Benson, global leader in helping kids succeed

President of the Search Institute helped change the way communities worldwide look at their children.

Peter Benson, an international leader in teaching parents and communities how to help children succeed, died Sunday after a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 65.

Benson, president of the Search Institute of Minneapolis, was among the pioneers of a child development movement that focused on building the "assets'' of children instead of focusing on weaknesses.

Benson wrote more than 15 books, including "What Kids Need to Succeed,'' a bible among many educators and child advocates. It has sold more than 800,000 copies.

Benson had a major impact on the lives of children worldwide. His formula for helping to raise healthy, positive children is being used in more than 600 communities in 60 countries.

"We're getting calls from Australia, South Africa and around the world,'' said Gene Roehlkepartain, vice president of the institute. "Peter brought what science was learning, and translated it into information that parents and other adults could use to improve the lives of children.''

Since 1985, Benson led the Search Institute, a national nonprofit research group focused on promoting the well-being of children. The institute identified 40 "assets'' that help children thrive, such as adult role models, a bond with their school, and engaging in community service work.

In 1993, St. Louis Park became the national pilot project for promoting these assets citywide. The city conducted a survey of its youths, then created a partnership of businesses, schools, faith communities and medical providers to intentionally build those assets among children they served.

It trained 200 civic leaders to spread the word, and to work within their organizations to make youth a priority, said Karen Atkinson, coordinator of the "Children First'' initiative.

"Instead of looking at kids as problems, we look at the positive things they can use to build their lives,'' Atkinson said.

It not only put a real focus on the city's youths, but also turned into an "economic development tool'' by making St. Louis Park an attractive place for families, she said.

This model spread from St. Louis Park across the nation and the globe.

Mike Resnick, a professor of adolescent health at the University of Minnesota, said he was at a conference in London last week when two Lebanese women approached him.

"They had taken the asset survey and used it for Palestinian youth living in Lebanese refugee camps,'' he said.

The approach has influenced state and national public policy in education, juvenile justice, public health, drug abuse prevention and more, Search Institute staffers said. Benson also was involved in more than 30 national research projects and in several White House conferences on youth development.

"What Peter and his colleagues have done -- more than any other scholar -- is give communities the language and perspective to move adults from awareness [of children's needs] to action,'' said Resnick.

Benson is survived by his wife, Tunie Munson-Benson, of Minnetonka; two children, Liv and Kai of the Twin Cities; a sister, Ann Benson, also of the Twin Cities; and a brother, Robert, of Wichita, Kan. Funeral services are pending.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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