Much of my work is situated at the juncture of youth injustice and social change. I believe that young people are inherently discriminated throughout our society simply because of their ages. That doesn’t mean that all young people everywhere have it equally as bad, but it does mean there are some common things everyone, everywhere can do to bring justice to children and youth of all ages.
7 Alternatives to Injustice towards Young People
- Watch Your Mouth. Adults routinely say dismissive, demeaning and patronizing things to children and youth. “You are too old for that!” or “You’re not old enough!” “What do you know? You haven’t experienced anything!” “It’s just a stage. You’ll outgrow it,” and “You’ll understand when you’re older” are all examples. Watch your mouth and speak justly to young people. Say things that show concern without being inconsiderate; use respectful language; and assume ability, not ignorance.
- Make Room. Everyday decisions are made about young people without young people. Parents, teachers, youth workers, caregivers, police, judges, business owners and store clerks, and others are constantly choosing what is best for children and youth without ever asking them what they think is best for themselves. Make room for young people by sharing decision-making opportunities with them. Give them appropriate ability to affect outcomes without overburdening them with too much responsibility – but ask them to tell you how much is too much, without just assuming, because you know what assuming does…
- Build Their Abilities. Anyone who spends time with young children knows that just because a 5-year-old can’t see over the counter doesn’t mean they don’t want to know what’s there. Build their abilities by providing proverbial stepping stools when appropriate, whether in your classroom, at your program or in your workplace. Offer training and educational opportunities that build the capacities of young people to participate. Provide age appropriate reading opportunities and websites that help them navigate complex topics, and spend meaningful time with them helping them learn more.
- Stop Punishing, Start Teaching. Children and youth are punished in so many ways by adults throughout their lives that most punishments feel arbitrary and meaningless to them. They are routinely criticized, yelled at, invalidated, insulted, intimidated, or made to feel guilty by adults in all sorts of settings. This undermines young peoples’ self-respect and dismantles their better judgment, rendering their self-decision making abilities worthless. Stop punishing young people and start teaching them instead. Give multiple options and show practical outcomes to actions, and demonstrate positive decision-making constantly and on purpose.
- Share Real Control. What spaces, places, times and outcomes do children and youth really control? Do parents and guardians always have the ultimate authority over the behaviors, attitudes and ways that young people presentation themselves? Or can young people learn to control their own bodies, their space and their possessions? Stop kissing little children without their permission. Don’t touch a young person’s head without their permission. Don’t assume your teenager is doing evil things on the Internet. Allow your child to decide what they want to dress like for school. Share real control with young people and learn with them on purpose.
- Stop Being Afraid. There is nothing no more sinister, evil or forlorn about young people today than when you were young. In fact, children and youth are a lot like you were – curious, expansive, hopeful and passionate – before you got older. Stop being afraid of them, and of YOU. You were young once, too. Stop making adulthood sound so terrible and terrifying; its a reward to get here, and we should teach young people they should appreciate getting older, too.
- Challenge Other Adults. The last part of this formula is the worst, because it demands you not only do something about yourself and your actions, but that you challenge other adults to do the same too. If you’re a parent, don’t settle for your students being treated poorly by teachers. If you’re a supervisor, don’t treat your young workers as less-than simply because of their ages. Challenge other adults by advocating for full and equitable roles for children and youth in your home, at school, throughout your communities, in businesses, and across government agencies. Challenge other adults to stand up for what’s right and to stop youth injustice.
Injustice for young people breeds injustice for adults, both in terms of accepting injustice and perpetuating injustice. We can do better than that, and by doing better than that we will challenge injustice for all times.
Just as importantly, when adults use practical, considerate alternatives throughout the lives of children and youth, we’ll get practical, considerate outcomes that reflect our investments. Because learning new ways to understand, exploring new ways to interact, and building new beliefs in the outcomes young people demonstrate are investments. They’re investments in our present times, and in the future.