After working directly with youth for more than two decades, its easy for me to admit that I’ve said some poor things to youth. Either on purpose or by accident, I have said things that made young people feel hurt, confused, or angry. Anyone who works with youth—teachers, social workers, or program leaders—is going to make those mistakes whether we intend to or not. But its just as important to say the right things.
Since youth voice is any expression of any young people anywhere at any time about anything, its important to recognize there are ways adults can encourage it, rather than stifle it. Here are some things you can say to encourage youth voice.
23 Phrases to Encourage Youth Voice
- What do you think? Encourage young people to form their own opinions and share them with you. This improves critical thinking skills and reassures them that it’s right to have their own opinion, and that its even okay that it’s different from yours. When adults do young peoples’ thinking for them, children and youth stop taking responsibility for themselves and can’t handle greater responsibility as they grow.
- I know you. Reaffirm for young people that you know them without telling them you know all about them. This reassures them in times of low confidence and encourages them to feel a part of something else, instead of being alone.
- I believe you. Let young people know you trust their judgment.
- I disagree with you. Instead of simply saying no, validate what young people think, believe, or say in an open and honest manner. Don’t make it into a battle of wills or otherwise compete. Instead, open up an honest dialogue and be willing to go where the conversation takes you.
- How did you do? Don’t tell young people how they did before you let them tell you. Ask them and listen to what they have to say.
- Please and thank you. Young people are people first, and they deserve your manners just because they are people.
- I believe in you. Support and encourage children and youths’ self-judgment and abilities by affirming their capabilities and self-esteem.
- Can you help me understand? This let’s young people know that you honor their perceptions, even if you disagree with them. Allowing children and youth to explain things from their perspectives empowers their voices.
- You worked so hard. Instead of constantly telling young people how smart or special they are, this phrase acknowledges their hard work and effort.
- I’m sorry. Show young people that you are a fallible human who makes mistakes, and that you’re big enough to apologize to them.
- I’m available to you. Instead of constantly telling young people how busy you are, remind them that you’re available to them to talk to, hang out with, play with, and be around.
- What are the consequences? It’s tempting to make decisions for young people, but they learn more when they make their own choices. Remind them to think about the positive and negative consequences of any choice they make.
- I trust you. Reaffirm that you believe in the ability, ideas, plans, and suggestions of children and youth by letting them know directly that you trust them.
- I’ve got your back. Young people feel safest when they know they have your support, no matter what. When they’re facing especially challenging things, remind them you’re behind them.
- I’m so proud of you because… Young people want to know that you see the work, effort, and energy they put into their jobs, activities, and selves. Acknowledge them with specific, concrete feedback that helps them grow.
- You did a great job. Without over-doing it, its important to acknowledge a job well-done. Praise often, but don’t overdo it or your words will seem insincere.
- How does it feel to get that done? When children and youth get things done, it should be about making themselves happy instead of making adults happy. Self-esteem needs a boost? Reaffirm they can make themselves feel better.
- Turn it up! Without hamming it up or trying to hard, let children and youth know they can create the environment you co-occupy with them. Ask them to share their music, shows, or other media and creations in the spaces you are with them.
- You are worth it. Be intentional in supporting young peoples’ self-worth without being condescending.
- You are good, inside and out. Young people need to be engaged within themselves as well as in the world around them.
- How would you do it? Encourage children and youth to think about doing things differently, and then go further by helping them implement their ideas. Their conclusions could help them and you do things even better.
- Are you willing to do what it takes? Accept young peoples’ answers to this question without criticism or correction. This will help young people open up to you and answer honestly, rather than simply the way you want them to.
- What do YOU think we can do? Activate young peoples’ senses of ability and possibility by actively engaging them as co-conspirators, co-actors, and co-learners. Foster equity between you, and consciously build their sense of ability to make a difference.
A lot of people are tempted to make youth voice into a special or exclusive thing that only well-behaving young people who do what adults want them to should be able to share. What would you add to this list to encourage authentic youth voice?