Listening to Parental Anxiety

Sitting in a room full of middle school parents, I could hear the anxiety in their voices as they answered the facilitator’s questions. She asked, “What’s wrong with your kids today?” “What do you think your kids are messing up about?” and “Why do you think kids today are so far off-course?”

Given the opportunity to vent freely, many of these mothers and fathers let loose with their parental anxieties.

Attending this workshop sponsored by a local school district, I learned a lot, but probably not on what they intended. Focused on how to help young people today, I was curious what approach the facilitator would take to working with parents, how effective it would be, and whether my conclusions about these types of approaches were as applicable as they were 20 years ago when I first attended workshops like this.

So much uncertainty and sadness surrounded me. I heard the frustrations and wrestling of everyday folks struggling through modern cultural norms, giving into old shared beliefs, and sacrificing their knowledge at the feet of one of my community’s recognized experts. This room was packed for two hours as this expert facilitated a back-and-forth dialogue. What I heard during this conversation was the stoking of fears, the affirmations of limitations, and the wholesale short-selling of young people today.

Rather than asking parents to acknowledge their own shortcomings or build their conveniently displaced wisdom, this expert upheld negative media portrayals, biased research conclusions and typically absolutist deductions about young people today. It was as if their abilities, inabilities, capacities and possibilities were out the window, and instead of “Youth are the future” these parents were taught that youth is wasted on the young, and that adults need to be the directors of all interactions, all beliefs and all activities of the young.

This is just my first download from the event; next I’ll analyze this and write about how to counter parental anxiety.

 

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Starting Youth Work as a Youth

Learning from our experiences is a key to growing, as educators, parents, young people and social workers, and as humans. More than 20 years ago, I wrote an academic reflection on my decade-long experience as a line-level youth worker starting when I was 14. I’m not sure what to do with that document now, but I want to recap some of those experiences to share with you.

My story isn’t unique, as I’ve meant dozens of more longstanding, more effective and more authentic practitioners than myself. I’ve had the privilege of reflecting on a lifetime of service though, always seeking to leave a better world behind me than what I inherited as a kid. So here’s the story of my early attempts to do just that.

As I’ve told thousands of people around the world, my career began when I was 14 years old. Before that, I’d thrown newspapers and sold vacuum cleaners, but after that everything started coming together.

Action

Idu Maduli, called Ernest Nedds by some people, was Omaha’s premier African American theater director who ran a program called You’re the Star. Approaching me to teach with him when I was in the 8th grade, Idu told me I’d learn to teacher drama by watching him. For the next few summers, I did just that. We went around North Omaha to a few public housing projects and other neighborhoods bringing low-income kids to the stage, Idu leading them in traditional African tales while I taught stage basics and watched him in awe. After three summers together, I decided I wanted to be just like Idu. I’ve resigned to the fact that I’ll never be as tall as him, but this next summer I’m growing out my hair in hopes of having fantastic dreadlocks…

My high school years in Omaha weren’t easy. Instead, I struggled with a sense of being an intruder into the African American neighborhood where I lived; being a low-achieving student among the brilliantly dedicated white kids who attended the magnet programs in my urban high school; having a green card in a city beating the drums of patriotic Americanism; and having only lived in the neighborhood for a few years, being an outsider in a minority community in a racist city that routinely scowled at poor people.

However, my high school years were packed. Somehow, through the grace of the social workers, community advocates, watchful neighbors and my parents, I found activity after activity. While my neighborhood friends became consumer in gangs and guns and drugs, I volunteered at the elementary school as Santa for four years in a row. When my school friends were grinding into the books, I was unloading the food bank delivery truck into the food pantry where my family got subsistence. Other kids’ dads were absent or working while mine was simply struggling through his PTSD from Vietnam, taking my brother and his friends on night hikes through the Missouri River bogs and swamps of East Omaha, then starting a Scout troop where I earned my Eagle Scout award. Along the way, I worked at three summer camps running nature programs, including at Camp Kitaki (pictured), Camp Wagon Wheel and Camp Wakona.

Throughout my teen years, I also volunteered at my mom’s youth programs when she was a VISTA in our neighborhood. I joined the city’s Methodist Church youth council, then developed a youth council for my neighborhood when I was 17 years old. As a frustrated sophomore in 1991, I tried starting an environmental activism group at my high school, especially since then year before, when I attended a year-long youth leadership program through the Urban League of Nebraska, and went to a youth entrepreneurship program led by the NAACP. I knew that activism was the way to fight the environmental racism destroying my community. The churches in our neighborhood drew me in, and I attended the local Methodist church, was mentored by a Unity Church minister, and I listened frequently to the Church of God in Christ Sunday mornings around the corner from the place I went.

As much as anything, it might have been the Nebraskans for Peace rallies where my dad read his poetry about Vietnam; the community council meetings and PTA my mom went to; the government food subsidies program where we got cheese and peanut butter and more to fill my belly; or the gratitude of Mrs. Hickerson when I shoveled her walk and mowed her lawn and she thanked me with the stories from her long life. I’m not completely sure how my neighborhood got me out, set my on my path so strongly, or kept me walking ahead in such a determined way, but it did.

Outcomes

All of this kept me from spray painting around the neighborhood more. Or stealing. Or running from the group of young men wearing singular colors who tended to throw and swing and shoot when they saw me.

Some of this made me the wiser, teaching me lessons about education, about social justice and white supremacy, and about community building that a lot of people from my station never bother or have the opportunities to learn. Loading the food pantry made sure that I understood the humility of helping others; being homeless still reminds me of the vulnerability of being young and poor. Feeling the fear of violence breathing down my neck kept me on my toes, and I learned to relish paychecks of any size, which made me adept for nonprofit work. My dad’s PTSD was his burden shared, and while my siblings and I suffered, it made us stronger, too.

I also learned basic skills, like communication and conflict resolution, group management and motivating others. My advanced logic ability was sharpened as I wanted to accomplish major tasks like youth empowerment, interracial relations and community building with minor fiscal support or technical assistance. With and without adult guidance, I strove to close to the sun sometimes, and my wings melted. But every now and then I’d become warmer and more successful than I could imagine.

So many of these lessons cost so much, and while they might have sucked at the time, they’ve challenged me to become a better person, a better youth worker, a better consultant, a better dad, and a better human in general. I made lifelong friendships with Jimmy and Jeff; discovered restorative connections with my brothers in the hood like Kal, Shawn, Tracy and Joe; and keep fond memories of the kindness shown to me by Bethany, Mary, Athena and Jeff.

Today I know there’s more still to mine from all that, but that’s a bit about how I started youth work as a youth.

 

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The Basics of Adultism

Adultism is the bias towards adults that causes discrimination against youth. First coined in the late 1800s, the term describes the ways adults treat children and youth, and is obvious through language, culture, architecture, education, healthcare, families, and more. Adultism includes attitudes, beliefs, and discrimination in favor of adults throughout our society.

Treating Kids Different

Adultism is about respect, trust, authority and power. It is apparent beginning when children are very young. Because of the ways our society generally behaves, babies are assumed to be incomplete and their opinions are seen as largely inconsequential. Adults determine the feeding, caregiving, clothing, bedding and lighting of babies because we don’t understand whether babies are sharing their opinions about these things, among others. This belief continues until young children can share their opinions in language adults can understand. This establishes the basis of adultism that affects young people through the age of 18 and beyond.

At the point kids can share their opinions, adults constantly parse out what is a valid concern and what is invalid. Rather than referring to evidence or facts, adults mostly use personal judgment and beliefs to decide what foods, entertainment, activities, learning and opinions we should listen to. This is adultist. It is obvious in our language with phrases like “Children should be seen and not heard,” and is apparent our built environment, too: The height of a fountain, door handle and chair reflects an adult’s needs, not childrens’ needs. Adultism is reinforced through arbitrary rule-making focused on ages, too, rather than science or best practices.

When children become teenagers, their own beliefs become stronger, their wisdom starts accumulating, and their value to society starts to become determined. Adultism ensures that young leaders emerge to represent their peers, as well as confines rule-breaking youth to “stay in their lane” through punishment, classroom tracking, and curfews. In some places, youth are sent to jail for offenses only they can commit, like breaking curfews, being truant to school, drinking alcohol and other infractions. In other situations, youth are encouraged to put on a tie and “act like adults” in order to gain privilege and access that will benefit their futures. Each of these demonstrates bias towards adults, since our society reveres age and stands against the knowledge young people possess. Movie ratings, drivers licensing, banking rules and compulsory education reflect this, too: We simply don’t trust the ability of youth to determine what’s best for themselves, so adults make judgments for them. That’s not just parents, either; teachers, youth workers, counselors and police make judgments for youth all the time.

All this shows how adultism is apparent in the attitudes, culture and structures throughout our society.

Making Changes

There are active movements across the United States and around the world today to face adultism head-on, and to fight and defeat adultism when it’s necessary. These movements are engaging youth as partners with adults in government agencies, building youth/adult partnerships in community organizations, challenging schools to build Meaningful Student Involvement, and transforming families everywhere.

In Seattle, Washington, I partnered with the King County Superior Court to design a program for more than 40 families created to keep youth out of jail. The Parent/Youth Engagement Seminar was designed to build the skills and knowledge parents and youth needed through 12 hours of interactive workshops. Participants learn what youth voice is, how it works, and the positive outcomes that can happen when parents and youth work together to make families more successful. This seminar directly challenges adultism by confronting parents’ bias towards their own opinion, as well as by teaching parents and youth about partnering together for success, instead of using coercion and force to enforce compliance.

Building support for empowered student voice around the world, back in 2002 I started supporting K-12 schools, districts and state education agencies after building SoundOut.org. Since then, I’ve partnered with more than 300 different schools and agencies to write policies, develop programs, facilitate professional development and speak at conferences about Meaningful Student Involvement. This work has resulted in roles for students on school boards, students training teachers, and new education policies focused on student voice and student engagement. This challenges adultism among educators and policymakers by showing the positive potential of all students in every classroom, rather than simply tokenizing through constrained student/adult relationships.

There is so much work happening to challenge adultism!

5 Steps to Stop Adultism

I have developed these 5 steps to stop adultism based on my experience and research. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

  1. Name Your Bias. Every single person has bias towards adults. No matter how enlightened you are, how educated you might be, or how important you think you are to young people, you are adultist, and you’ve experienced adultism. Name your biases and be honest with yourself.
  2. Listen to Youth Voice. Listen directly to youth; read their writing; listen to them sing; look at their art. Don’t respond, don’t fix, don’t do for them; just listen to youth voice.
  3. Get Educated. Read my book, Facing Adultism. It’s a deep exploration of how adultism happens, who it affects, where it’s worst, who it affects most, and why it matters so much. Also, explore other writing about adultism and join the Facing Adultism group on Facebook.
  4. Find New Ways to Be. Declare your allyship with youth and stick to it. Be kinder and more compassionate with young people, and advocate for youth to be present when they aren’t in the room. Find new ways to be at home, at work and throughout the community.
  5. Make Change. When you’ve started changing your life, look at the health and well-being of your community. How does adultism affect youth around you right now? Which youth are most affected? Which adults are most biased towards other youth, and non-inclusive of youth?

What would you add to this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

When you’ve begun to address adultism, you might see how it’s tied together with paternalism, sexism, racism, classism and other injustices throughout our society. You might also discover different ways you have made the challenge of adultism worse, and how you’ve affected positive changes towards adultism in the past! Each of us are capable of doing remarkable things–what are you going to do?

 

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Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at http://amzn.to/2noYclH
Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

Showboating Youth

The youth movement isn’t the same as basketball or business, and there is no room for showboating.

It is a diverse movement filled with multiple perspectives and broad actions focused on many, many issues. Showboating happens when someone exaggerates their own skills, talents, or abilities. In

the youth movement, individual young people may be tempted to self-promote and make it sound as if they are the only youth voice, or their organization or program is the only youth program of value.

Instead of focusing on themselves, the Freechild Institute works to engage all voices and teaches youth and adults to honor the contributions and abilities of all youth everywhere all the time in order to avoid showboating.

 

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Youth On Pedestals

Adults can be easy to amaze.

Seduced by mainstream media and politicians that routinely dismiss the positive power of youth, adults often feel like they’ve discovered gold when youth stand up for themselves and work together to create change.

In some instances, they lean on these youth constantly and raise them to the point of infallibility. I call this pedestaling youth. It includes romanticizing, which is making someone always right and out of way of questioning.

The Freechild Institute supports organizations as they establish and sustain room for disagreement and mistakes between youth and adults, and among youth on their own. We work to model consensus and collaboration.

We are in these continuous learning process that engages all participants–adults and youth–as equitable partners without artificially or superficially elevating one voice above all others.

There’s no room for pedestals.

 

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Youth as Heroes

In a room with too few representatives, a particularly loud voice standing above all others can sound brave and unique, especially when they represent an under-acknowledged majority. This is especially true in the youth movement today.

Just because a young person puts on a suit and discusses social change in a way that makes adults listen to them doesn’t make them heroic or a superhero. It makes them dressed right and well-versed.

In the same way, there are organizations and programs in the youth movement that are made heroic too. They are made out to represent youth particularly well or be the “right” whenever they talk. Among the 56 million youth in the United States right now though, adults do not lionize programs that make them uncomfortable or ideas that are too far from their acceptance.

The ones that are uplifted are generally satisfactory to adults who make decisions about funding, data usage in society, and social change leadership. Organizational heroism is also a danger to the youth movement.

The Freechild Institute works with partners to make room for young people who don’t please or appeal to them so easily, and emphasizes teaching young people about the society that affects them so much.

When everyone does this, only then can we stop setting us up to fail by positioning youth as heroes.

 

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Lowballing Youth

There is more out there than just what you see. Youth are being lowballed everywhere, all of the time.

Many organizations and individuals today are calling for youth to be informants to adult decision-making in schools. They say they want youth voice to be heard. They want a seat at the table for youth.

There’s a lot more at stake for youth than simply being able to talk or be represented somewhere. In reality, youth comprise up to 94% of any given school building’s population, and 26% of the entire population of the planet.

Youth should be fully integrated into the operations of every single organization in our society, if only for their energy and to educate them about democracy. That means schools, nonprofits, government agencies, community groups, faith-based organizations and others have to make room.

Every layer of government should infuse youth as well, positioning in them in powerful roles that effect not only individual youth, but all youth; not as recipients, but as active partners who design, implement, critically assess, and make substantive decisions about the education system as a whole.

I say this with a love that is critical and necessary: Many people and programs in the youth voice movement simply don’t get it.

Reduced to reacting, they rally youth around the apparent problems throughout society without recognizing the deeper issues.

Reaching much further than simply acting like the flavor-of-the-day, the Freechild Institute works with partners to position youth as constant, deliberate, and fully engaged partners throughout all of education, all of the time.

Its time to stop lowballing youth.

 

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Youth as Sockpuppets

A lot of adults use youth as sockpuppets, feeding them verbiage and giving them the issues adults expect them to address.

Intentional or not, this use of youth is designed to deceive the people who are listening to make them think what’s being said is authentic youth voice.

In a lot of places, sockpuppetry is often coupled with manipulation: If youth do what adults say, they’ll be rewarded; if they don’t follow expectations, they’ll be punished in some form. Youth often don’t know they’re being used to prop up an adult’s perspective.

Sometimes adults use youth to provide an alternate or opposite perspective to their own. This is called strawman sockpuppetry. Having no real authority to enact anything throughout society without adult approval, adults may deliberately position youth to say outlandish or contrary things, only to show their perspective as more valid, valuable, and important.

For the last 17 years, I’ve worked with the Freechild Institute to partner with organizations to deliberately position both traditional and nontraditional youth voice to be heard in safe and supportive environments, ensuring that youth speak for themselves and are treated as equitable partners with adults throughout society.

Contact me today if you’re interested in learning more.

 

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It All Begins With Youth Voice

It all begins with youth voice.

Whether heard or repressed, empowered or silenced, young people of all ages have valid ideas, knowledge, opinions and actions about every aspect of their lives, all the time. When youth voice is not engaged at home, young people may lash out or retract inwards.

It is vital to understand that what many people view as “negative” youth behaviors are actually the consequences of challenging life experiences.

Youth voice is obvious in all five domains of self-regulation, including the cognitive, social, biological, emotional and prosocial. The literal voices of youth can become less prevalent while unexpected behavior becomes more effective at portraying their inner landscapes: self-harm, skipping school, eating disorders, substance abuse, disobeying parents, violence, stealing, vandalism, and other ways of expressing youth voice can take precedent over good performance in schools, cooperation with siblings or an overall positive affect in their lives.

These actions are unfortunately and frequently misinterpreted by adults.

While most parents, guardians and extended family members intend to do no harm to our children and those entrusted to us, we sometimes fail our best intentions. Incapable of creating safe, stable, supportive and permanent environments for youth to succeed, young people will strive to get their needs met even when it is not apparent to adults that is what they’re doing.

This can result in youth homelessness; truancy and breaking curfews; substance abuse, and; other ways of youth expressing themselves that adults frequently don’t want to hear and don’t know how to listen to. When we do listen, we often don’t know what to do.

Ignoring and silencing youth voice can have harsher results, too, including juvenile incarceration, substance addiction, physical and mental harm, and severe mental health implications.

Engaging youth voice intentionally can begin to rectify this imbalance.

Parents, social workers, educators, mental health counselors and others need to learn what youth voice really is; how youth voice is shared throughout the lives of young people today; what works and what doesn’t work; and more.

All of this begins to detail a clear pathway, and it begins with youth voice.

 


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Interpreting Youth Voice

Some adults suggest its “simple” to listen to youth. They merely open their ears, turn on their hearts and watch their body language as young people speak. These same adults often take liberty in interpreting youth, telling other adults and even young people themselves what youth voice means, what it does and why it matters.

This is a double standard though. It’s never the job of adults to tell youth how to speak, what they mean, why to share and when is appropriate and when its inappropriate. Instead, I think its our job to make space for youth to speak in the most unbridled, uninhibited ways they want in order to make their feelings, thoughts, ideas, knowledge and wisdom known.

Our society is in such a desperate state that we can’t wait for adults to make sense of others’ words anymore. We have to hear young people speak with reckless abandon now, and instead of whittling down meanings, figuring out perspectives and deciding others emotions and knowledge, we should hear all young people everywhere as earnestly, honestly and authentically as possible.

Basically, I want every teacher, youth worker, parent, nonprofit executive, social worker, school leader and anyone who pretends, portends or otherwise interacts with youth to push themselves to stop trying to make sense of youth voice. Instead, simply let youth voice be and learn to hear what’s being said.

  • Listen to emotions, even when they make you uncomfortable.
  • Hear knowledge, even when it conflicts or contradicts what you think you know.
  • Watch your own responses, even (especially) when you think you’re right.
  • Trust youth. Every. Single. Time.
  • Believe in youth voice, especially when its different from your own.

When we adults learn to control ourselves and our negative behavior towards youth voice, we can make genuine progress in transforming the roles of young people throughout society. When those change, the world changes. We should aim for nothing less.

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