How Do YOU See Youth?

The movement for children’s participation seems to be strengthening around the world. Between the forceof the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the massive technological transformations occurring, governments, nonprofits, schools, and other institutions are being forced to reconsider their assumptions about young people. In public health, education, and the environment, children’s participation is moving from the periphery to the center of attention.

However, it’s the type of attention children and youth receive that determines the quality, efficacy, and sustainability of children’s participation. The type of attention adults give young people is determined by their perspective of young people.

Perspectives of children and youth are determined by many factors. Culture is the largest; education, religion, governmental laws, and economics reinforce these perspectives. My decade-long action research effort, driven through The Freechild Project I founded in 2001, has shown me exactly what these perceptions are.

Perspectives of Young People

The first perspective adults have of young people is apathy. Apathy happens when adults consciously or unconsciously choose to be indifferent toward young people. Adults choose not to see children and youth. Mutually enacted upon by both youth and adults.

After apathy is a completely top-down perspective by adults towards young people called pity. Viewing young people with pity actively places adults in a position of complete superiority over children and youth. It positions young people as being completely incapable of providing anything for themselves. By positioning adults in absolute authority, pity extinguishes young peoples’ self-esteem and incapacitates their developing senses of agency and purpose. When adults see young people with people, they dehumanize children and youth.

Perceiving youth with sympathy can be alluring to adults. It allows adults to give to children and youth what they apparently cannot acquire for themselves, and to do that from a position of compassion. This includes material, teaching, emotional support, or otherwise. However, sympathy disengages young people from actively cultivating what they need for themselves. It singularly positions adults to give to children and youth without acknowledging they are receiving anything from them in return.

Perceptions of young people take a completely positive turn when empathy is the lens we look through. Reciprocity is the key to establishing empathy with young people. Empathy allows adults to see young people in a more equitable way by identifying that they are receiving something as well as giving it. Adults acknowledge young people as partners, and vice versa. Each becomes invested in the others’ perception. If an empathetic relationship were drawn in 3D, it would show a conveyor belt between young people and adults to represent their reciprocal relationship.

The last perception of solidarity is reflected in completely honest, completely equitable relationships between young people and adults. This perception fully recognizes the benefits and challenges in relationships between adults and young people, and operates from a place of possibilities rather than problems. It may be the most challenging perception to maintain because of it’s completely alien existence throughout our society.

There are many important considerations to recognize about adult perceptions of young people. One consideration is that adults do not maintain one perception of all children and youth all the time. While there are predominate perceptions, there are also exceptions to the rule. Another is that acknowledging these perceptions is not about “good” and “bad” – they simply are. Adults simply cannot operate in complete empathy towards young people all the time; likewise, children and youth cannot be expected to care for every single adult they ever meet.

Using these perceptions of young people as a starting point, the challenge for adults becomes whether they can consciously, critically, and creatively reflect on their attitudes, behaviors, and ultimately, their perceptions. While adults do this it’s their obligation to keep an eye towards further developing their practice in order to be more reflective of our perspectives of young people. Perspectives determine participation, and all people want to successfully participate.


  • How do you treat people differently because of their age?
  • How does your behavior towards young people differ at home, work, and throughout your community?
  • What do you think the outcomes of different perceptions of young people are?
  • Do children and youth have different perceptions of adults? Why or why not, and if so, how?
NOTE: This was originally published on Clare Hanbury’s blog as “Perception Determines Participation“. 

CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic and more across the US and Canada. For more information, contact Adam by emailing or calling (360) 489-9680.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

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