Binary thinking is based in the belief that reality is based in either/or truths. We’re convinced in believing that it’s one way or the other, up or down, left or right. This thinking is damaging to young people today in many ways, including Youth Engagement at home, in schools and throughout communities.
Binary thinking leads students to be either forced to go to school or students getting expelled from school. The same goes with peoples’ understanding of youth rights: We’re made to believe that youth either have rights or they don’t.
This binary thinking is not accurate. There is no black and white perspectives in Youth Engagement. Instead, we’re all operating in shades of gray going through variations on the theme of democracy and civic action. That means that instead of believing a kid needs kicked out or needs to be able to leave, there are a lot of variations in between we should understand and be advocating for. I believe that all young people have an obligation, morally and socially, to the democratic society we live in to get educated by other people with varied experiences. Where that happens and how that happens should be the question – not if that happens or who that happens for.
The same thing with Youth Engagement: We shouldn’t be addressing these issues as “youth are engaged” or “youth are disengaged”. Instead, we should acknowledge the shades of engagement all of us feel all of the time throughout their lives, whether in school, at home, or throughout our communities. Instead of pretending that youth are disengaged, we should see what youth are actually engaged in right now, and work to extend their engagement instead of pretending they’re completely disengaged right now.
It seems to me that the whole piece where we keep getting hung up on either/or and this/that thinking is just idle wheel spinning that takes up time and energy that could otherwise be expended more effectively.
I have seen three primary ways adults relate to youth, no matter whether the relationship is parenting, teaching, or policing. The first way is over-permissiveness; the second is responsible; and over-restrictive. Before I explain these, its important to remind you that I’m an adult and these are my opinions; a young person and other adults surely will see things differently.
Over-permissive relationships between children, youth and adults allow young people to do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever and however they want. Disregarding the longer term effects of how young people relate to adults, over-permissiveness can incapacitate young peoples’ ability to successfully relate to the broader society around them. By allowing too much freedom, these relationships give children and youth “just enough rope to hang themselves” by extinguishing their inherent away their sense of purpose and belonging throughout the larger society in which we all belong. Based in a well-meaning notion of equality between young people and adults, these relationships conveniently relieve adults of the burden of responsibility in parts or all throughout the lives of young people. They often happen to encourage freedom.
Over-restrictive relationships between young people and adults override the decision-making capabilities of children and youth and disable their inherent creativity in order to assure adults’ sense of authority, protection, and ultimately, ownership over young people. By discouraging young people from experiencing the freedom and ability they need in their natural learning process as well as throughout their social and familial worlds, these relationships can take away enthusiasm and unfettered joy, only to replace it with rigidity and structure. Over-restrictive relationships enforce inequality between children and youth, and occur by adults enforcing their power with heavy-handed education, tight schedules and severe rules, and harsh punishment. They often happen to encourage safety.
Responsible relationships between children, youth and adults are based on trust, mutual respect, communication, and meaningful interactions. Positioning each person as an evolving member of a broader society, they identify roles, opportunities and outcomes that benefit every person in uniquely appropriate ways while holding the greater good ahead of individualism. These relationships occur when adults consciously decide to foster equity throughout the lives of young people by intentionally acknowledging each others’ according abilities, fostering deliberate opportunities and continually embracing the evolving capacities of children and youth throughout their lives, starting when they are infants. Responsible relationships nurture appropriate attachment and encourage interdependence between young people and adults. They often happen to foster democratic sensibilities.
I have not met one adult who is constantly and consistently one of these ways with all young people all of the time. This isn’t meant to provide a puzzle for people to fit together the individual pieces, either. Instead, by showing a spectrum I meant to show that each of us can be any of these at many points throughout our lives.
A respondent today on a Facebook post asked me to explain this to them:
I ran into an 18 year old on campus who said that his parents pay fully for college, he lives at home with no bills. He asked me how crazy old his mom was because she asks for him to clean his room once a week in return for all the support they give him. How do you explain that, Adam.
I wrote back the following:
That form of dependence is a manipulation fostered by that person’s parents in order to ensure their child remains as childlike as possible. If you’re reporting that person’s response accurately, then they are reflecting the conditioning their parents perpetuated and that adults throughout their life failed to disrupt.
This phenomenon is called infantalization, and its is increasingly common throughout American middle class society. It is meant to incapacitate the ability of children to become self-sufficient adults by providing them with decreasing amounts of autonomy throughout their childhood and their experience of youth.
Parents have an obligation to raise their children with increasing amounts of independence, autonomy and empowerment. Young people should learn independent living skills from the time they are children and be encouraged to employ those skills throughout their home, school and community lives. Not doing that is the failure of parents. It negates the ability of youth to become responsible adults, and in the most dramatic circumstances, wholly incapacitates young adults from becoming successful adults.
Unfortunately, media portrays this outcome as “entitlement” and wholly foists the burden of dependence on the shoulders of young people. Dismissing the responsibility of parents for raising successful children robs mothers and fathers of their duties to society. Worse still, it actually encourages parents to shirk their responsibilities by taking away the blame.
What should be done instead is deliberate parent education that focuses on raising strong, resilient and independent children who can and will become strong, resilient and independent adults who value the interdependence of communities while thriving on their own senses of healthy self-worth and individual capacity to create the lives they want to live. That’s what we should strive for.
Do this explanation answer your question?
What do you think? Was that young person’s complaint a response to their circumstances, or it is better explained away as entitlement? I would love it if you responded on my blog and let me know what you think!
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—isgoing 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?
This was the morning the world received the announcement that Dr. Maya Angelou passed away. A larger-than-life yet down-to-earth poet of the people, Dr. Angelou is being mourned today by presidents and generals, rappers and musicians, and by the people, all of us, many of whom struggle to find our voices.
I first read Dr. Angelou’s classic memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, when I was 23. Throughout my youth, I’d heard her name bandied about on the news, particularly in her role as the Poet Laureate of the United States. I decided to read her to understand the world better; she has repeatedly taught me how to understand myself.
“Until recently each generation found it more expedient to plead guilty to the charge of being young and ignorant, easier to take the punishment meted out by the older generation (which had itself confessed to the same crime short years before). The command to grow up at once was more bearable than the faceless horror of wavering purpose, which was youth.” From I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The reality that its easier to act grown up instead of actually being young has become a central point in my understanding of youth today. Faced with a world of adults cloning adulthood onto children and youth, Dr. Angelou helped me understand the need to grab a hold of “wavering purpose”, which is uncomfortable and unrelenting, and actually sit with it, let it be, and learn to live through it. On the other side? PURPOSE, BELONGING, and luckily, WISDOM. What comes on the other side of false adulthood but more falseness?
It seems meager to say that Dr. Angelou inspired millions; it’s a gross understatement that does her life little justice. Dr. Angelou literally changed the world, not only with words, but with actions. She was a civil rights activist all of her life; a spiritual seeker who stayed active on her pathway toward universal engagement; and a friend to many.
I ended up reading A Song Flung Up to Heaven, along with two of her poetry collections. One of those was called Poetry for Young People, and it held this poem, called “Still I Rise”:
Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
This poem holds the fire in the belly of youth throughout its mighty stanzas. Dr. Angelou masterfully gives life to the strength and glory of youth throughout it, celebrating the hopefulness, justice, and ability that makes up the hearts and minds and bodies of young women and young men. She justifies every person’s burning desires, calling us higher in our own thoughts and feelings, demanding that we hold true to our guts and demand the same of others.
Growing up in a struggling family in a depressed neighborhood, I learned the value of poetry at a young age. One of the very first poems I remember distinctly was actually Dr. Angelou’s classic, On the Pulse of the Morning, which she wrote for her Arkansas brethren Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I watched her read that poem on tv, and it left a permanent mark on my psyche. In the middle of it, she said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
Dr. Angelou challenged us to not live history again, again and again. I know in the deepest part of myself that we are capable of doing that. I learned that from many heroes, including Dr. Angelou. I remember her every single day because of that.
Oh, and the other heroes who I have known? They were likely influenced by her, too.
A lot of organizations and programs tout their credibility with youth involvement, youth engagement, and youth organizing by highlighting all the wonderful things they position youth to lead. By doing this, these organizations are actually doing youth disservice. The many challenges include:
Positioning adults as beneficent rulers who allow youth to do things
Incapacitating young peoples’ innate responsibility for themselves and others
Negating the abilities of communities to work together for the common good
Instead of helping, these activities actually and often harm the people they intend to help.
We need to see things differently. In recent months, I’ve begun to envision a new way of being, knowing, and doing. This way is currently emerging between young people and adults, and it is happening throughout society. This way re-positions children, youth and adults from assuming power relationships dependent on subservience and authority, towards seeing each other in a more holistic light.
The old way of Youth Voice…
Relied on adults having power over youth
Positioned young people as “adults-in-the-making” not to be seen as whole people right now
Depended on youth being subservient and compliant to adults
Required systems of oppression that enforced adults’ power
Demanded youth be compliant with adult desires out of fear of violence
Necessitated systems of authority enforced by structures of abuse
Made programs that put “youth in charge” necessary in order to rebalance power inequalities between youth and adults
Routinely positioned youth against each other and against adults in order to ensure compliance and conformity
Saw children and youth progressing along a predictable, staircase development cycle towards adulthood
The emerging, new relationships between youth and adults look different. The new Youth Voice…
Sees young people as whole people no matter what their ages
Utilizes holistic youth development as the organizing framework for young peoples’ growth, education, and ongoing formation as humans
Treats all young peoples’ growth as non-linear, non-sequential and non-uniform, instead treating every child and youth as an evolving human
Allows equal room for adults and young people to have, express, and critique power and authority
Positions children, youth, and adults in equitable partnerships designed to foster engagement, belonging, and ownership
Grants adults and young people equitable, responsible space for learning, teaching, and leadership in all roles, all of the time
Replaces command-and-control authoritarianism by honoring the collective, democratic perspectives of all people, regardless of age
Acknowledges programs that put “youth in charge” to be ineffectual and unnecessary
Dismantles youth-against-youth and youth-against-adult power struggles through common action and mutual support
Paulo Freire wrote, “Education does not transform the world. Education changes people. People change the world,” and the same can be said of Youth Voice. Youth Voice does not transform the world. Youth Voice transform people. People change the world.
If we are going to change the world, we must change ourselves first. Changing ourselves comes from active, deliberate work. That’s what my proposition for new Youth Voice is – an attempt to engage each of us differently.
Through these active, distinguishable ways of being, knowing, and doing, young people are adults are working together to transform the world we share. Everyone can and should aspire to nothing less.
Many adults could engage youth effectively, but they can’t. Youth workers, teachers, parents, and others could because they see the problem, the cause, and directly observe youth disengagement when it happens. These same people can’t though, because they don’t think they can.
Youth workers often believe they don’t have the authority, because their supervisors didn’t tell them they could. Teachers don’t think they can because of Common Core State Standards or district regulations or school rules. Parents don’t think they can because their kid is different, their kid is out of control, or their kid just doesn’t listen. The thing is though, all of these people could engage youth effectively.
The biggest roadblock to youth engagement isn’t youth themselves, or oppressive systems of social control that keep them disengaged. YOUR THINKING IS THE BIGGEST BARRIER TO YOUTH ENGAGEMENT.
The model above shows that in order to address how we engage youth, we have to think about why we engage youth; what happens when youth engagement happens, and what difference the outcomes from youth engagement make on our thinking.
Your thoughts about youth inform your actions with youth, and your actions affect the results which inform your beliefs about youth, which in turn affect your thoughts about youth. This is called your Mindset. It directly affects youth disengagement and youth engagement, and there is only one person responsible for it: You.
You can change your mindset, and if you want to become a person who can successfully engage young people, that’s what you must do. Here are some stories of people who changed their mindset about youth:
Sue, a case manager for homeless youth in Rochester, New York, addressed her mindset about youth in a workshop I led in 2011. Soon afterwards, she began engaging her youth as partners in their cases. In the following two years, her case efficacy increased by 35%.
Tom found that his classroom was consistently unfocused and disconnected from the social studies topics he was teaching. In my workshop on meaningful student involvement, he learned several practical ways to re-envision the roles of students in schools. According to his account, his students were 100% more engaged afterwards.
I offer quick, powerful processes for identifying old belief structures, creating a mindset focused on youth engagement, and identifying what needs to be done to maintain engagement. My solid follow-up structure supports your team in constantly focusing on the right mindset and actions that produce the results you want.
We should never give up on any young person, or any person as far as that’s concerned. There is nobody – absolutely nobody – in our society who is too far gone to simply relinquish them to the trash can of society. Especially children and youth.
In reality though, many young people are born into indifference, apathy, and intransigence. Depression, inability, and oppression are holding legions of children and youth from realizing the dreams they could have.
They face families, communities,and nations that are wholly indifferent to their realities. Because of this, these children and youth struggle with society’s norms, cultures, customs, and behaviors. They can be gifted or struggling, adult-pleasing or anti-authoritarian. A few times, they lash out. Mostly, they internalize.
I know of this because its lived experience for me. Identifying in turns as an impoverished homeless immigrant child, white-kid-grown-up-in-an-African-American-neighborhood, nearly dropped out, couldn’t-pay-for-college, been-a-youth-worker-all-my-life kinda guy, I have struggled with those senses of alienation all of my life. My story has been told by a half-dozen journalists who think they should expose the scars as well as the stars in my life. Its not their story to tell though, its mine.
The same is true for many youth today. Their stories deserve—must—be told, but not by well-meaning adults. Not by reporters or grantwriters, poets or politicians. Instead, we must make space for damned youth to speak for themselves.
To be specific, I want you to know that I believe we should routinely, systemically, and completely engage the voices of young people who identify as academically failing. Poor, Low Income, and Working Class. Homeless. Minority culture. GBLTQQ. African American, American Indian, and other communities of color. Immigrants. Runaway, foster, and Ageing Out. Incarcerated. Court-involved. Juvenile Delinquents. Addicts and Abusers. And many, many others.
We shouldn’t deny any young person the opportunity to share their voices, and I’m not suggesting that we shut down one youth in order to create another. I am fully in support of expanding every possibility available throughout our society in order to create more space for the voices of youth. Youth Voice includes any expression of any young person anywhere, anytime, about anything. (Luckily) It doesn’t depend on adult approval. I’m suggesting that we, as adults, make space for youth voice, and especially those of the damned youth.
These youth are damned because they’re inconvenient for adults to listen to. They’re damned because they say things we don’t want to hear in ways we don’t want to listen to. They’re damned because adults are the majority culture and youth are the minority culture. They’re damned because they’re youth. More importantly though, they’re not really damned at all.
In sharing my own voice, I learned that I wasn’t damned; moreso, I am vastly privileged. I believe my younger brothers and sisters must learn this too, and so I call for them to have the space I was fortunate enough to experience as a young person, no matter how rarified it was.
Voices of the damned youth require:
More youth voice from the children and youth who we don’t routinely hear from.
More youth involvement from the historically disengaged.
That is the reason why sink heights in schools and parks are adultist. And adultism is the reason why sink heights have anything in common with the phrase “It’s better for kids to be seen and not heard.” And adultism is what sink heights and old adages have in common with curfews and compulsory schooling and so many other parts of our adult-biased society.
Is there anyone who doesn’t show bias towards adults? In my way of thinking these days, the answer is “Sure.” There are plenty of young people who aren’t biased towards adults. Some are though. As for adults, I’ve come to accept that we ALL are, even the best-intentioned among us. We have a disposition towards other adults, and that is what makes us adultist. I’m not interested in whether that’s “nature or nurture”, only in helping people acknowledge that it simply is what it is…
When we’re talking about relationships between adults and youth, I think we have to stop using terms like “oppression” so easily. That doesn’t mean it’s not real; but rather, it’s acknowledging the term isn’t accessible. It simply shuts people down. Oh goodness do I know how that term shuts people down.
In trying to popularize this conversation, I want an accessible language that people can discuss without it being loaded with insinuation and implications.
When we discuss adultism as meaning bias towards adults, then more adults can understand the nature of their own behavior. It can also help people understand that adultism is a simple fact, not a judgment against their very core moral fiber.
All adults are biased towards other adults. Does it have to be that way? Probably – nature is beastly in some ways. Can we acknowledge this bias and work for justice in this situation? Absolutely.
All Adults Are Adultist. If we just THINK about youth, we are being adultist. Without seeing our own adultism, we are being adultist. We stop challenging adultism when we don’t take action to address our OWN adultism. Learn more at http://freechild.org/