U.S. Mexicans’ Pathways to Character

The Pathways to Character initiative is inherently interested in our scientific understanding of growth following adversity. Can adversity lead to character growth? What factors influence whether and how individuals do or do not experience character changes following adversity? To address these research questions, it is important to have accurate assessments of individuals’ character strengths both before and after their exposures to adversity. Without pretest measures in place, research findings are subject to numerous alternative explanations. This pre- and post- adversity scientific design is challenging and resource intensive. We looked to existing studies to address this challenge.

The La Familia study at Arizona State University is a longitudinal study of 749 families originally recruited in 2004, when they all had 5th graders enrolled in public, charter, and private schools. These Mexican Americanfamilies are diverse on the number of generations they have been living in the U.S. (ranging from one generation to four or more generations), but all identify as having Mexican heritage. The overwhelming majority of these families remain involved in La Familia today, and have participated in a total of six study assessments. Thanks to these families, developmental psychologists have learned a lot about normative youth and family development in this understudied group.

Across time, participants in La Familia have been assessed relative to numerous character strengths, including their degree of connectedness with family, relatives, and friends; their degree of spirituality; and their engagement in prosocial behaviors, such as kindness, helping, sharing, cooperating, and volunteering. Our prior research suggests that Mexican American families and communities are engaging in socialization practices that promote these character strengths in their children, and that these benefits continue into emerging adulthood.

Also across time, participants in La Familia have been assessed relative to numerous aspects of adversity, including both traumatic events (e.g., assaults, bad accidents, or other seriously threatening situations) and chronic stressors, like poverty, or residence in dangerous neighborhoods. In both cases, we assessed adversities that could happen to anyone (e.g., poverty), and adversities that are specifically associated with membership in an immigrant-, ethnic-, or racial minority group in the U.S., like the trauma of family separation and deportation, or the stress of experiencing ethnic-racial discrimination

As part of the Pathways to Character initiative, we are now collecting data from these families a 7th time, when the participants that started out as 5th graders are in their mid-twenties. With adversity data ranging from late childhood to emerging adulthood and character strength data ranging from late childhood to adulthood, we can achieve a pre- and post- adversity scientific design for a large portion of the original La Familia sample. Having pretest measures in place and following this community for so many years presents a tremendous opportunity to study character change. We will be able to model longitudinal changes in character strengths, including relatedness, spirituality, and pro-social behaviors, among Mexican American families and individuals who did and did not experience exposure to adversity. We will also examine key individual characteristics that might be able to explain different patterns of character changes among those exposed to adversity — like growth or decline. To address prior critical methodological and conceptual limitations, we include (a) individuals who have experienced no adversities, traumatic events, and chronic adversities; (b) a direct assessment of character strengths, both before and after adversity exposure; and (c) the exploration of mechanisms that may support growth processes. The work will advance an understanding of character strength development in a rapidly growing U.S. population and begin to shed more rigorous scientific light on popular assumptions about growing from adversity.