Taking Away Youth Power
Between technological, social and cultural transformations happening right now across the U.S., there are new trends becoming apparent everywhere, schools included. This paper puts the massive changes happening throughout the education system into context to help readers understand what’s happening, and why its happening.
Lots have said it, many see it, but few have called it out: for a century, our education system has revolved around ego. As we become an evermore interdependent and transparent society, this is inherently at odds with the future. This article explores the former EGOsystem of education and identifies an emerging ECOsystem taking its place. It also shows what the future might look like.
When I first started working in education 15 years ago, I discovered quickly that educators in schools are most often the ones who school worked well for. After barely graduating from high school and taking eight years to get my BA, it was glaringly obvious to me that I was surrounded by former star students and others whose learning styles, socio-economic statuses and cultural backgrounds were being perpetuated by the system. This formula generally holds true for politicians who make educational policies as well as social service staff who support student success outside of schools.
These students often go on to work in schools as teachers and administrators; in districts as administrators; and in state education agencies as program directors, assessment officials and curriculum experts. They are successful in their careers, embraced by their institutions, and generally, reveling in the ways things are. If they are aware of how things are going for students who are most often failed by schools, they see these learners from a position of noblesse oblige, looking down on them from on high.
The system that created these workers has engendered particular school cultures that ensured succeeding generations of familiarity. Despite technology and social changes of many sorts, in many schools, learners who time travel from a century ago can find similar patterns of teaching, classroom management and testing. This is because the education system revolves around the ego, which is a person’s sense of self-importance or self-esteem.
Educators have relied on fulfilling their sense of self-importance and building their self-esteem through their work for more than 100 years. Through my studies, I have seen four phases in America’s education system.
Initially relying on a high control environments, schools were initially places where teachers controlled students. The Control Phase looked like this:
With time, schools became high command environments that relied less on forcefulness and abrasion and more on leveraging authority for outcomes. During the Command Phase, schools looked like this:
When social change insisted, schools modified their approach to include connection between students, among educators, within the curriculum and throughout the education system. During the Connection Phase, schools looked like this:
Today, we’re in the midst of moving from EGOsystems towards ECOsystems of education. This movement is happening through collaboration fostered by technology, social change and other evolution that holds great possibilities.
The emerging ECOsystem of education is harder to see than previous phases. From my work in schools and throughout communities over the last 15 years, I have seen some aspects of it becoming apparent. Following is an exploration of some patterns that are becoming apparent.
Right now, there’s a new picture of schools that is coming into focus. Across the horizon of testing, standardization and the school-to-prison pipeline are learning, teaching and leadership opportunities for all people everywhere in which love prevails and pessimism stops. With beautiful balance between critical thinking, cultural uplifting and participatory infrastructure, learning mirrors life in a balanced, holistic way that honors difference, embraces hopefulness and builds through equitable partnerships among everyone involved, regardless of their ages.
When considering the ECOsystem of education, its important to remember what constitutes an ecology. An ECOsystem consists of the interdependent and interacting components of a learner’s environment. There are living elements like teachers and other students throughout, and non-living elements like the building, computers and textbooks. Air and light cycles through an ECOsystem, as well as talking, music and paper ripping. Material elements also cycle through an ecosystem via cafeterias, heating plants, and other pathways.
As the ECOsystem of education continues to emerge, we will need new guideposts to know where we’re at. In the 300+ schools I have consulted over the last decade, the following three trends represent the new realities in education. These can serve as guideposts to ensure students, educators, administrators and others are on the right track to ensure the healthy, whole, successful and sustainable transition underway.
While more students opt to learn from home, more schools rely on BYOD and tablets-as-textbooks, and classrooms integrate more with communities, schools will have fewer and fewer options for retaining students in desk chairs. Instead, they will be forced to embrace disruptive learning technologies of all sorts, including experiential education, service learning and integrate CTE that positions elementary and middle school students in applicable, pragmatic problem-centered learning to address real world challenges.
With more adults actively infusing throughout the school day as both co-learners and co-leaders with students who are transforming communities, the role of student will be actively redefined. No longer the plaything of classroom tyrants, students will be recognized for their essential role in the American democracy as the foundation and implementation of lifelong civic identity and engagement. Students of all ages will freely co-learn, co-teach and co-lead communities in quintessential learning communities that are infused with vigor, vim and vitality.
By actively taking control of the things they want to learn, students are actively moving from being the passive recipients of teaching towards becoming active partners in learning and leadership. Each individual student will develop and implement their own course of learning from their youngest years in schools. Learning about their roles as active learning partners, they will also assume more responsibility throughout their communities for teaching their elders. In turn, today’s teachers will continue towards become learning coaches and facilitators to the willing. Students will gain full authority through true interdependence, and communities will become fully integrated throughout their local education systems.
The effect of dispersed learning and teaching are already rippling throughout the education system. Technology is actively pushing students out of the forced irrelevance of age- and interest segregated classrooms and towards their broader communities, while schools have to reach deeper towards their local communities in order to cover budgets. This is drawing students towards meeting real community needs through authentic leadership and away from falsely important student governments. In turn, this is forcing schools to reconsider engaging those students in educational leadership. In the ECOsystem of schools, education uses all members of the community in order to drive, transform and sustain learning. Students become researchers, planners, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates throughout communities, which in turn recognize their legitimacy as contributing members of society.
This rekindles community investment in education, which further enriches the educational environment. Racial inequities are eagerly addressed by communities, and the school-to-prison pipeline is dismantled. Every student creates their own learning plan with strategic systems of learning supporting their implementation. Restorative justice engenders new cultures of respect, trust and ability throughout schools, while nutrition, school buildings, athletics and other activities become safe supports for learning and teaching. All of this happens through new leading.
As schools move forward through the phases, a natural ECOsystem of learning will emerge. There is a growing awareness of this transformation. Some people see a complete destruction of traditional, EGO-driven schools, while others see an ongoing evolution towards ECOsystems of learning, teaching and leadership. If we deliberately identify the systems supporting education, we can make this shift intentionally.
As the entirety of the system moves forward, there will be resistance and denial. People who’ve upheld the first and second phases will resist the inevitably of this transformation, while others who’ve embraced the third and fourth phases might actually deny the need for the system to move forward. Those who resist and deny are actually representing the EGOsystem of education that has become entrenched by the powers that benefit most from the EGOsystem. However, truncated by the inevitable transformation fostered by ongoing social change, its inevitable for the EGOsystem to die.
In order to move it forward, its important for educators, students and others to make an honest assessment of where their own personal expectations lay; where their schools’ realities are; and what the gap is between those two areas. Schools will never do more than we are willing to do in them. If a person is young, then its imperative to establish genuine expectations for their own experience. This comes through reflection and critical thinking. If a person is older, its vital to engage in critical self-analysis as well as self-engagement in a project for school improvement. For anyone, its important to get active. Research what exists right now. Work with others to plan for alternatives. Teach people about options, no matter what age you are or they are. Evaluate and critically examine what exists, what could exist and what the gap is between those two spaces. Get involved in decision-making wherever there’s an opportunity, including on committees, in forums and in other spaces. Finally, everyone must advocate for the future of schools and the emerging ECOsystem of education. This has to be brought forth on purpose, and the only way to do that is to encourage individuals, organizations and communities to move towards the ECOsystem on purpose. Advocate for that.
Learning is a beautiful, nature and evolutionary approach towards expanding our human potential. The ECOsystem of education moves us towards powerful possibilities for all students everywhere all the time. You should come with.
Recently, a youth activist in the UK wrote to me with some excellent questions about adultism. I loved responding to him, and I think we have some excellent conversations ahead of us. I want to give you a peek into what was exchanged. Let me know what you think?
Question 1: Why does youth-based ageism matter to you, both personally and from a broader societal perspective?
Growing up, I experienced homelessness, generational PTSD, generational alcoholism, and situational poverty. After beginning youth work as a teenager, I discovered a realm of youth advocacy focused on youth rights. Beginning with the analysis that youth aren’t granted rights and freedoms enjoyed by adults simply because of their age, in my early 20s I examined my own professional practice and discovered that I’d perpetuated this discrimination against youth in my youth work. My own professional journey took a critical turn at that point, and I’ve never looked back.
Since then, I’ve studied the phenomenon of adultism in-depth, writing dozens of articles and a book about it called Facing Adultism. I’ve also led workshops with hundreds of youth and adults across North America and in Brazil over the last 15 years. Among my findings, I’ve discovered some radical trends that are disturbing. Rather consistently and regardless of setting, adults appear to be consistently predisposed to the actions, ideas, words and opinions of other adults. I call this bias towards adults adultism. Adultism seemingly happens everywhere, including many places that exist simply to serve children and youth, including schools, after school programs, youth centers, summer camps, and in childcare facilities, as well as businesses that serve young populations, including stores, healthcare, and restaurants. On a very basic level, the problem of adultism in democratic societies is that it inherently undermines and ultimately dismantles democracy. We basically spend 18 to 25 years of a person’s life telling them to be passive recipients of hierarchical, authoritarian decision-making, and then one arbitrary day we bestow them with the mantle of Voter and pray they have faith in democracy. That disjunction doesn’t sit well with most people, and easily explains why so many people are disaffected by voting today.
In a more complex way, I believe adultism is the conditioning that permits all other discriminations to co-exist throughout our societies. From infancy we’re taught in subtle and overt ways that adults are dominate in our worlds. At the same time we appropriately rely on them for food, clothing, shelter and security, we’re conditioned to accept their control over our appearance, attitudes, education and behaviors. Through this control, adultism opens the doorways for oppression through sexism, racism, hetrosexism, classism, and many other biases and discriminations, allowing each of us to both become oppressors and the oppressed. This has massive effects throughout our societies that are grossly underexamined.
Question 2: Is youth-based ageism entrenched in politics/culture/society? What are the consequences of it?
Bias towards adults is thoroughly entrenched throughout the entirety of society, including politics and culture, and education, healthcare, law enforcement, familial relations, community structures, government, economics, religion and spirituality, the arts, and even crime. This bias towards adults, and the discrimination against youth which is consequential, disallows all young people of every age from fully realizing their own capacities, personalities, abilities and interconnectedness. This continues until the time when society stops disallowing them to do so. This means that any contributions that children and youth could make to a better world for all people; any economic contributions they could make; any education they could become truly passionate about; any subject which they could master; all of this and so much more is thwarted because of adultism. The youngest people in our society could make the greatest contributions, if only they weren’t continually denigrated by adults simply because of their age. Mozart was five when he composed his first minuet – not bad for a kid. Imagine what any of us could do without the shackles of adultism.
Question 3: What would you argue is the main factor that prevents pro-youth organisations, such as the UK Youth Parliament and perhaps US equivalents, from being more effective than they are?
I would suggest that adultism is the main factor that prevents youth-serving orgs from being more effective, and that adultism uses money as a lever to control the structures, attitudes and cultures of those organizations. There are strong financial incentives that exist in order to enforce adultism. These fiscal constraints are the most powerful force that ensures the sustained habituation and enculturation of adultism in all of its forms throughout our society, especially within youth-serving organizations. Whether these organizations are working in hyper-local settings on the familial, neighborhood and community levels, or in national or international forums, all of them are generally constrained by the authority and ability granted to them by money. The simple fact is that there are absolutely no funds anywhere that actively support the elimination of adultism, or any steps preceding that. Because of that, each of these organizations choose the routes they need to follow in order to most effectively meet their funders’ expectations.
For instance, the UK Youth Parliament chooses politics as its avenue to serve youth. In these politics they follow the pathways which grant them the most ability to affect change on behalf of their constituents. That means that if a bill is going to be fought effectively, it might require a little adultism here and a little adultism there, which is acceptable in order to fight that bill. Similarly, a well-meaning teacher in a public school might know in her heart that student voice should be infused throughout her classroom, with students making and enforcing rules, cowriting and critiquing curriculum, administering and evaluating assessments, and so-forth. However, she also knows her headmaster placed a book in her hands, gave her a URL for student testing, and she must do what she’s told to keep her job. A little adultism here and a little adultism there, and she has a job again next year.
Question 4 and 5: What’s the solution for schools? And what are solutions beyond the school remit?
Schools must stop existing simply to promote academic achievement, and instead adopt the understanding that their singular purpose is to engage students in learning, teaching and leadership throughout their own lives and their communities. Academics is one avenue to student engagement, but only one. There are dozens of ways to engage learners, and schools should be held to the highest account for engagement, simply because that does not happen anywhere else in society. That’s because student engagement is the sustained connection a student feels towards something, and schools should be responsible solely for fostering that feeling. Who is in charge of whether or not a student becomes engaged in something? The student, and the student alone. Who can help facilitate whether a student becomes engaged in learning, teaching and leadership throughout their own lives and their communities? Educators. Student engagement would be the ultimate goal for schools because nowhere else could do it quite the ways they do.
Beyond schools, there are countless avenues towards a more successful society for all people, regardless or because of age. Starting with full suffrage for all people regardless of their age, I believe it extends towards complete citizenship for all people with equitable roles, responsibilities and rights accorded to people because of their ages. Teaching, reinforcing and uplifting the notion of interdependence is vital, too, as it can help both young people and adults understand complex social understandings in a concrete, tangible way. In his last book published, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “When we get up in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap created by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.” I believe that same sentiment must be translated on the age issue. I don’t think we have a case of youth versus adults here, Tom. Instead, this is an issue that’s endemic in Western culture and its tearing us apart. We can work past this, given the right mindsets and resources.
Again, this was just the start of a long conversation. Let me know what you think and whether you’d like to read more!
For the last few days, I’ve been in a dialogue about the nature of freedom. I’ve been asked several questions, and I’ve answered them openly. I’m reducing the conversation down to the key questions, and I want to share those answers with you here.
I’m afraid the answer to this is a bit esoteric. For thousands of years, people have been trying to teach that freedom has to begin inside us. Governments can grant all the freedoms they want, and tyrants can take them all away, but neither matters to the person who is truly free. Gandhi, MLK and Mandela all said so.
I believe that when people of any age have opportunities to access the knowledge, skills and ability to create change in the world, they internalize the truth about freedom. That truth is that freedom is an inside job, and not otherwise.
That said, there are countless ways our world can be more free, less oppressive and authentically engaging. Connecting young people with opportunities to challenge sexism, racism, white privilege, classism and adultism is essential to not only their freedom, but the freedoms of everyone, everywhere, all the time. That’s because as we recognize the reality we’re wholly interdependent, we become wholly independent – but not the opposite. Our understanding has to work in tandem like that; as does our freedom: The more I help another person realize their freedom, the freer I become.
My freedom is inextricably bound up with yours, and yet, your freedom is wholly independent of mine. No person is free until all people are free, and yet, no person has to wait for anyone to make them free.
When I wrote “connecting young people with social change”, I was not perceiving a deficit; its actually quite the opposite. As an adult social change agent I have led The Freechild Project for 15 years, with that very objective. Rather than seeing one thing as a negative and the other thing as a positive, with that specific statement I seek to acknowledge that society is in need of change, and young people have some of the resources needed to foster that change. In this way, youth are the asset, and society is in deficit by neglecting, denying, or otherwise silencing their abilities, knowledge, and skills.
Dr. King did that better than I ever could in his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Tangibly speaking, he wrote, “We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women…. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.”
In this same way, children, youth and adults are bound together in numerous practical ways every single day. Young people are primary purpose and focus of many of our society’s occupations, including parenthood, teaching, social services, commercialism, and entertainment. Many adults depend on young people for their entertainment and education, as students bring new knowledge into the household, as youth master technology, and as children expose new realities in their play and work everyday. Similarly and not shamefully, children and youth are dependent on adults for many things, too.
Again, I’ll let history speak for me. Nelson Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Bitterness, hatred, cynicism, contempt, spite, and other feelings are exactly that: feelings. Many people, of all ages, are held captive to their feelings and thoughts. Mandela (and others like Freire, Horton, and even Buddha and Jesus) taught us that we can overcome our own feelings and thoughts to become more free. That is something that anyone can do, despite their conditions. Mandela recognized that after 27 years in prison; maybe we can do that no matter what conditions we live in.
If you are an adult within these systems who is earnestly and authentically working to transform those systems, you inherently must understand that your freedom is bound up with the freedom of children and youth. If you don’t understand that, not only are you not “free”, but you are actually captive to adultism yourself. Internalized adultism disallows us from actually treating children and youth as equitable partners anywhere in our society. Instead, it oppresses adults, perpetuating feelings and thoughts of pity and sympathy towards young people, rather than empathy and solidarity.
Malcolm X explained this best when he said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” In a similar way, I would echo that if we’re not careful, the systems that we serve young people through will have us hating young people, and partnering with other adults who hate young people, too.
When we confront our own internalized adultism, work through the oppression we faced as young people, acknowledge the oppression we’ve caused young people as adults, make amends for what we can and genuinely approach children and youth as full human beings who are completely capable of transforming the world around them through equitable youth/adult partnerships… then we will begin to see, experience, taste and touch freedom. But until then, we’re merely tricking ourselves in the worst kinds of ways.
Part of the tension of our society is that nobody is ever truly free of any oppression until they understand for themselves that they are free. You can overthrow all the shackles of adultism, all of the confines of government, all the norms of society, and people will still be oppressed. That means that governments, schools, nonprofits, laws, rules, regulations and other forms of control aren’t the root of oppression. At the root of oppression is our personal, individual willingness to be oppressed. When we stop being willing to be oppressed, we can no longer be oppressed. That isn’t a “jedi mind trick” or anything like that; its a practical guide to freedom. As long as we wait or work to free ourselves from other things outside of ourselves, we are reinforcing the internal controls that obligate us to be held captive to those external things.
The practical application of that means encouraging young people to explore how they learn best and what they want to learn most AT THE SAME TIME they are working to transform the education system.
Again, youth can challenge all the laws of any land and still never experience freedom. That has nothing to do with their age.
Condemning young people to having to work on their own without pragmatic partnerships with adults is a confinement that’s as oppressive as any policy they’re attempting to change. That’s because in every single part of our society, with only .00001% deviation, adults saw the need for the policy; adults created the policy; adults imposed the policy; adults enforced the policy; and adults handed out punishments to youth who violated the policy. Suddenly, youth are somehow supposed to magically come along and change the policy, wholly without the assistance of adults, and expect that to last?
After years of working with groups in all kinds of configurations attempting different forms of this work, I can tell you that my experience has definitively shown me that if and when that formula works, it isn’t long sustained. Without cultural and attitudinal transformation, wholly youth-led systems change simply doesn’t work.
THAT SAID, this reaches to the point I’m trying to make: If we don’t teach young people to find freedom within themselves, are we simply deceiving them, and ourselves? Methinks the answer is yes, yes we are. We have to go deeper in order to reach further.
Because it takes huge effort, determined practice and focused thinking, nothing I’ve written here is simple. To reduce the work of freeing yourself from your own bondage by calling it “simple” reveals bias against this, the hardest of work.
Several people have answered your question more eloquently than me, so I’m going to let them:
Paulo Freire wrote, “The greatest humanistic task of the oppressed: To liberate themselves.”
Buddha said, “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”
Frederick Douglass wrote, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”
Albert Einstein wrote, The Dalai Llama said, “Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and it’s beauty.”
My own flawed, imperfect answer is that indeed, when we’re ready to throw off the shackles of our oppressors, we must begin within and work outside ourselves, simultaneously. That’s why it’s true that nobody is free until everybody is free, and that as long as any of us are oppressed, all of us are oppressed.
We’re all in this together, no matter where we start or what we’re doing.
Adam’s Note: Rereading this, I’m happy that my thoughts are congealing more than ever. But I’m still flawed, and there are holes in what I’ve written here. Can you please share your thoughts with me about what you’ve read here? I’d love to get your opinion. Just hit “reply” to this email and we can talk through it. Thanks.
Recently, a young person from Finland wrote to me for an interview. They wanted to discuss discrimination against children.
Following are the questions they asked and my responses. Let me know what you think in the comments section!
Discrimination against children happens anytime adults are biased towards adults. That means that whenever our words, our actions, our thoughts, and our ideas favor adults before children, children are being discriminated against.
I explore all this in-depth in my book, Ending Discrimination Against Young People.
Recently, I wrote an entry on this blog called “The Gradual Release of Authority” in response to a series of conversations I’ve been having across the country. This issue continually comes up with adults who are grappling with moving young people from being passive recipients of adult-driven programming, whether in schools, nonprofits, government agencies or other places, towards becoming active partners throughout the world they are part of. Well, apparently writing that article wasn’t enough for me, and I had to create a video, too.
So here’s my latest video called “Adults Letting Go and Taking Charge.” Hope you like it; let me know what you think in the comments section on YouTube.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When a parent spends a whole childhood telling their kids they need to be one way, and the kids grow up in a community that only acts one way, and schools don’t prepare anyone for anything other than that one way, when they go onto become that one way, that cannot be called a choice and the practice cannot be called decision-making.
That young person has never known autonomy in any significant way.
Autonomy is the right to make your own decisions and freedom from external control.
A growing number of people are concerned about authentic youth voice and authentic youth engagement.
Youth voice, which is any expression of any young person about anything they choose, is different from youth engagement, which is the sustained connection a young person feels within or outside of themselves.
Authentic youth voice when youth express themselves in ways and with views that are true to themselves. When youth voice is authentic, youth can experience engagement on the basis of what they value.
Authentic youth voice requires youth autonomy. Youth autonomy happens when young people create their own rules and has authority over themselves as well as the power to do something with that authority. In authentic youth voice, young people understand the power they have, what authority they’ve been given, and the interpersonal connections they have to the people around them, whether in their families, communities, schools or the whole world.
In order to build programs where young people experience authentic youth voice, programs should seek to expand the following capacities in young people:
There are real barriers to authenticity in youth voice and youth engagement.
Adultism, ephebiphobia, and systems of paternalism are all deeply entrenched in the adultcentric cultures and structures throughout our society. Adultism encourages disingenuous youth voice. Ephebiphobia prevents youth engagement. Systems of paternalism suffocate authenticity among youth. Adultcentrism is the hammer that makes sure youth voice and youth engagement don’t matter.
Vast segments of our society actively do not want youth to have a voice.
Many adults actively ensure youth voice is subjugated, nullified and stifled whenever possible. When youth voice does become apparent, they either vilify it or infantalize it.
What do you think about authentic youth voice? Authentic youth engagement? How do they happen? What do they look like?
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.
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.