The third step in my Cycle of Engagement is to give the person who you’re trying to engage authority. Whether you’re a teacher, social worker, politician or parent, you have authority you can grant another person. Anyone who has any position of responsibility for other people can grant authority to those people.
We live in times when people want and need more responsibility for their own lives, no matter what age they are, what place they are in or what objective they are trying to accomplish. People who are trying to sell cars and make money need more responsibility for the cars they are selling. Players on a little league baseball team need more responsibility for the games they are trying to win. Violinists who are playing in a symphony need more responsibility for their performance.
People of all ages, abilities and purposes need more responsibility because we have consistently experienced less and less for so long. So many systems, supports and cultures have been established that relinquish us of our responsibility that we need to be retaught and reconditioned to accept responsibility for ourselves, our communities and the world we all share.
When people consistently well on something, they are generally demonstrating a high level of responsibility. In order to have more responsibility, people need to have more authority for themselves, their activities, their processes and their outcomes. When people experience more authority, they assume more responsibility. When people experience more responsibility, they become more engaged.
Adults are like squirrels.
After surviving childhoods and teenage years deprived of substantive responsibilities, we suddenly are thrust into the world of adulthood and all its duties.
Some young adults crack quickly, running back to their childhoods or parents or other safety nets in order to avoid adult responsibilities. Others have nothing to fall back on, becoming homeless or struggling into adulthood with negative checking account balances, consistently poor love relationships and meaningless jobs. Still others suffer mental health challenges. Other young adults launch into higher education or good jobs, cultivating their capacities to self-manage and facilitate their own learning. They start their careers, build their portfolios and retirement savings, investing wisely in themselves and their futures. Their self-esteem grows significantly during this period. Oftentimes, young adults are a combination of both, succeeding in some areas while being challenged in others. In time, young adults are seen as adults, regardless of their appearances of success.
All adults are given responsibilities over themselves simply for becoming an particular age, not because they have the desire, capability or ability to have those responsibilities. They are just granted liberties because of our laws, social norms, religious customs and cultural traits. Adults become teachers, childcare providers, parents, police, and counselors. We are store clerks, shop managers, table servers and librarians. We receive the ability to vote for elected officials, run for political office, sit on public boards and join juries of our peers.
Along the way, we gain the abilities to buy and drink liquor at will; save money in banks; travel; get married or divorced; establish, maintain and obliterate credit accounts; go to college; be out until any hour we’d like; attend anything we choose or skip anything we choose. All of these responsibilities, abilities and capabilities rest into our hearts and minds, permeating our psyches with senses of purpose, obligation and opportunity.
Many adults begin to horde these things. We tuck them away in the corners of our minds, holding onto them as sacred and paramount, attaching them to our senses of purpose and belonging and enshrining them in our democratic, moral and inherent duties to the planet and those around us.
Adults are like squirrels.
Gradually releasing authority
In order to engage children and youth in any setting for any purpose, adults must authorize them to become engaged. It is not enough to simply assign them tasks, give them projects or grant them room to speak. Adults must authorize young people. That is because we are like squirrels.
After all these years of our lives of hoarding authority—in the form of responsibilities, abilities and capabilities—we have to make conscious, deliberate and intentional efforts to distribute this power.
Why Young People Need Authority
- Powerful learning. Having gradually increasing, facilitated opportunities to share authority can ensure the most power learning for the most disengaged student, as well as the most engaged;
- Real applications. Authority cannot be granted in a vacuum. If you’re actually gradually releasing authority to young people, they are engaging in real applications unlike any other in their lives;
- Deep engagement. No matter what activity you want children and youth to become engaged in, if they experience authority through it they will become more engaged than if its otherwise;
- Lifetimes of purpose. Preparing for a lifetime of being engaged humans should happen throughout their youngest years, and not merely in the last year of high school or a special summer program. This can propel young people towards truly solving the world’s problems and transforming all our lives; what higher goal should their be for learning?
Because of—not despite—their young years, children and youth should experience more authority than they experience today in our society. These are learning opportunities, capacity building activities that everyone benefits from. Young people do not have to be made ready for them, either—they simply need to be engaged in them, immediately. Along with many other people over the years, I have made this argument repeatedly through my writing, speeches and educational activities for more than a decade now.
Engaging children and youth in responsible ways does requires that we gradually release authority. We cannot and should not thrust the full brunt of adult responsibilities onto young people all at once in any situation. This is for many reasons, including the fact that simply handing over authority without appropriate learning opportunities is a recipe for failure. And therein lies one of the truths about children and youth: As adults, it is our responsibility to ensure they learn.
Note that learning about authority is not the same as earning authority. No young person should ever have to earn authority for themselves, particularly no adult ever does.
5 Points About the Gradual Release of Authority
- Share the purpose: Children and youth need to understand why they are being engaged, as well as what they are participating in. Facilitate their understanding of the purpose and processes they are being authorized through.
- Help them understand the idea of authority: Teach young people about authority on purpose for the sake of gradually increasing their capacity through knowledge-sharing and skill-building.
- Remember context: That knowledge and those skills depend on the circumstances—who, what, when, where, why and how—we’re trying to engage young people. In order to ensure their relevance, the capacity building opportunities children and youth are presented with should correlate with those circumstances.
- Foster self-leadership: Do not resist their leadership: If young people show you they are ready to move forward, do not neglect their guidance. If they show resistance, acknowledge that and work with it, too.
- Position for success: Experiencing contextual learning through authorization is outside the regular ways of being for almost all young people. Give them titles, positions and opportunities to recognize the significance of the authority they are being granted and in order to own their work further.
Remembering those points can be essential during the course of releasing authority to young people.
There are moments—and sometimes days, weeks or months—of terror in the hearts of many adults when we begin to gradually release authority to children and youth. After years and decades of accumulating responsibilities and the authority that come with them, it can feel agonizing, threatening and very challenging to do this work. Rather than being circumspect though, it is important to maintain an open mind toward the people we’re teaching and the activities we’re engaged in ourselves.
In those times of internal resistance, the most important thing adults can remember is that sharing our authority does not diminish it; it increases it. That happens because when our young people become more capable of accomplishing more on their own, we gain more ability to do more things for them in a less direct, more supportive way.
If moving from being an authoritarian leader towards becoming a collaborative partner feels unusual, that’s because in our society it is unusual. That doesn’t mean its not right though.
If you’re too challenged…
When adults feel too challenged to move forward with the gradual release of authority to young people, then there is a problem. Despite our temptation to blame the kids and protest the possibilities, the problem isn’t with young people, either. The problem is with us as adults.
While there is validity to the limitations of children and youth, there is never a circumstance when young people shouldn’t experience more authority in their lives. That doesn’t mean you have to hand over the keys to the car and let young people teach themselves to drive on their own. Nobody is advocating for Lord of the Flies here. But it does mean that adults have to take responsibility one more time by gradually releasing authority to young people. However, this time it means taking responsibility for your lifetime of squirreling away authority, including responsibilities, abilities and capabilities.
You can do that by gradually releasing authority to children and youth. You’ll be a better human because you did.
Have questions, thoughts or ideas about this? Write in the comments section below and let’s talk about it.