In Washington, DC this week I had an excellent conversation with a child development worker named Ashley Keenan who works with the Parent Support Network of Rhode Island. Her work focuses on engaging children’s voices and creating opportunities for them to become meaningfully involved in Systems of Care, specifically for kids under 8.

What spectacular work! Listening to her stories I was inspired, causing me to remember the excitement I felt when my daughter was very, very young (she is 5 now). I love the prospect of engaging really young children and changing the roles adults have always assigned them. Especially because we have an increasing amoung of research focused on this that clearly illustrates the benefits of age-appropriate decision-making on children’s growth and evolution. Its so exciting!

As I became I parent and have experienced the awesomeness of my daughter’s growth over these last years I have come to believe there is no age more relevant for fostering lifelong commitment to Youth Voice than the youngest years. These people—infants, toddles, pre-schoolers and kindergarteners—will become the parents, teachers, youth workers, childcare providers, police, politicians, social workers, policy-makers, secretaries, ambassadors, and every single other position in our society. More importantly, though, is to recognize that no matter what age a child is, they are a full, real, and complete human being right now.

It seems weird but necessary to remind you that every single person in our world has been a child. How that childhood is experienced and expressed varies according to cultural, economical, ethnic, educational, and other backgrounds that inform young people as they grow up. But regardless of our backgrounds, all of us need to have opportunities to use our voices when we’re this young. All of us.

I see it in the actions of the mom sitting in front of me on the airplane as she plays with her baby boy. He’s a happy, giggling guy and she’s asking him questions, acknowledging his language as valid even though nobody beyond him and her understand it. I hear it from my daughter when she comes home from school so happy because her teacher asked her to pick which book the class got to read aloud today. This voice might be a simple question about which clothes or food, but repeated throughout the day in a variety of forms these questions become a force for significant learning within a young person’s life. I see these choices and hear these voices in dozens of small acts everyday that I’m with young people, the youngest of people, and I am honestly excited every time, and it gives me hope.

3 Steps to Engage Children’s Voices

Here are three simple steps all people everywhere, no matter what our role, our location, or our goals, can take to engage children’s voices right now:
  1. Expand Your Understanding. Before you read any further, understand that all children have valid perspectives, ideas, beliefs, and opinions right now, no matter what their age. The youngest among us has a voice, and adults can, should, and must learn how to deliberately, consciously, and consistently engage with their voices. That’s our work.
  2. Get On Their Level. Stop talking baby talk and being overly simplistic with children. Instead, get on their level in an authentic way that actively shows you genuinely want to engage with them. No matter whether their voices have ever been purposefully engaged before, if you get on their level in a true way, all children will respond to you in turn.
  3. Recognize Their Differences. All young people have different voices, different needs, and different realities. There may be patterns that emerge when they share children’s voice, but that doesn’t mean that you should generalize. Instead, recognize their differences by responding accordingly, appropriately, and conscientiously. Every single time.

Those are the actions, the gestures, the interactions and opportunities we need to educate people about. While some of them come naturally, intrinsically, to moms and dads and grandparents and loving, kind, caring adults throughout the lives of children, many of these skills and abilities are learned and need to be nurtured throughout adulthood. We need to work to ensure all young people have safe and supportive and empowering lives while they’re young. We need to make sure the adults who surround them have capable as well.

Only then can we actually engage very young children, and then we’ll be able to develop and sustain a lifetime continuum of youth engagement.