Accidentally Undermining Young People

As adults who care about young people, we’ve heard it all over the place: Children and youth are resilient. Lucky for them, because most of us are undermining young people accidentally. 
It’s hard for us to acknowledge this though. We think that all our well-meaning gestures and activities, plans and proceeds are benefiting them, no matter what we’re doing. Handing out gold stars is supposed to build self-esteem; starting youth councils is supposed to increase Youth Voice; we mean to help decision-making by letting our kids pick what is for dinner tonight. Sometimes these are genuinely supportive and occasionally, richly rewarding for everyone involved. 
However, many times our best intentions are diminished by unexamined assumptions and irrelevant activities. There are countless ways this reveals itself in our work, from grantwriting that positions youth as “high-risk clients” when they’re actually under-challenged geniuses to report cards telling parents their kids are behaving poorly, when in reality they have ADHD. Its revealed in our communication styles, including the unspoken norms and awkward phrases that reveal adultism deep in our psyches. We undermine young people in so many ways.
There are many ways we can challenge our undermining ways. Here are some critical questions that might prod you.
  • In your home, school, organization, or program, are young people safe to be vulnerable or do they only exhibit comfortable behaviors and attitudes? 
  • How do your opinions reveal age, class, and gender stereotypes? 
  • Where do young people feel safe to be themselves- earnestly, honestly, and openly themselves- in your community? Do youth leave your community when they have a chance? 
  • Why do organizations launch programs that are less than half-baked? What are the consequences of those activities?
If you want to learn more about how adults undermine and support young people, you might be interested in downloading my most recent article. It also explains the continuum shown above.
More information on Adult Support for Children and Youth
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Published by Adam

For almost two decades, Adam F. C. Fletcher has led international outreach focused on engaging people successfully. Working with thousands of youth-serving nonprofits, K-12 schools, government agencies, international NGOs and other organizations around the world, his work spans the fields of education, public health, economic development and social services, and includes professional development, public speaking, publishing, social media and more. He founded the Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement, SoundOut and CommonAction, as well as writing more than 50 publications and 500 articles. He has also established 150-plus community empowerment projects.

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