Why Youth Empowerment?

Sometimes, there are things to understand and know that aren’t necessarily agreed with by society. There are beliefs, ideas and activities that don’t make sense to a lot of people. As an advocate, I’m not compelled to do what others think I should; instead, I follow my heart and mind and take inner guidance on where I’m at and where I’m going.

Taking Away Youth Power

Reflecting on more than 20 years of working with children and youth across the United States, I realize that I have seen a generation of youth who constantly strive, constantly achieve and constantly exceed society’s wildest expectations of them. However, young people are doing this with the barest minimum support from society-at-large. We barely fund the schools they attend; we scrape up just enough money for low-income young people; we routinely profiteer off locking up youth who offend the law in order for private companies to make money off them; and just as soon as we can, society throughs young people into war, college or the workplace in hopes that they’ll make it all on their own.

Social Responsibility

I’m of the firm belief that our society should take responsibility for the decisions we make. All of the experiences of children and youth today are not the fault of their families or the fault of young people themselves. Instead, they are the outcomes of our society as a whole. Childhood homelessness? Society. Childhood hunger? Society. Failing students? Society. Abused young people? Society. Youth offenders, dropouts, child prostitutes, child slaves, child labor, all of this? Society.
 
However, its not just the actions of young people that society is responsible for; its also the feelings and beliefs of young people. As a society, we drive children and youth to think and feel the ways they do. That means that when young people feel distrust, apathy, despair, depression, hopelessness, hurt, anger, frustration and any feelings that make adults uncomfortable, its not just their job to “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” and make themselves feel better. Society must take responsibility for what we’ve done.
 

Transforming Power

I want to change this crummy situation. I want to see things be radically different for children and youth today than ever before. After more than 20 years working in education, social services and government to promote the health, welfare and empowerment of young people, it is my responsibility to demand more. While there are many, many ways to get that done, I believe one of the most responsible and genuine ways to transform our society is by enfranchising every child everywhere with the right to vote in every election all of the time.
 
Given the right and responsibility of the vote, children and youth can begin to hold society responsible for the attitudes, actions, beliefs and outcomes that it has routinely dumped on young people for thousands of years. One of the constructs in our society has been to see young people merely as adults-in-the-making, rather than seeing them as full humans right now. As voters, adults will not be able to deny the capabilities of young people; they won’t be able to deny the validity of young people; and they won’t be able to deny the power of young people AS young people, which is what they’ve always done.
 
All youth, everywhere, all of the time should have the right and responsibility to be empowered today.

Related Articles

 

 

Adultism is... 1) Bias towards adults; 2) Addiction to adults; and 3) Discrimination against youth

An Interview on Adultism

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!

 

You’re Responsible for Your Freedom

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.

Question One: “Is someone free if they need someone else to free them?”

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.

Question Two: “Some of the language of ‘connecting young people with…’ says to me that young people are in need of someone to connect them, being in a deficit situation.”

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.

Question Three: “Tell me more tangibly about how we are inextricably bound…”

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.

Question Four: “…No person has to wait for anyone to make them free?”

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.

Question Five: “Much of your work around adultism is to support policies and systems being more equitable for young people…policies and systems that currently prevent youth from being free. If I am an adult, and within these policies and systems am free, how am I any more free when I change the policies to allow youth to be free?”

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.

Question Six: “If a policy that oppresses young people exists, and young people need adults to change that policy AND it is changed. Are those youth really free from that oppression?”

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.

Question Seven: “Or are they only free when they have freed themselves…changed the policy themselves, absent of any adult action?”

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.

Question Eight: “How does this theory translate to race?

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.

Becoming Aware of Youth Culture

Culture is anything and everything that makes up the parts of a person’s entire way of living.

Culture is organized into groups, including a person’s geographic location, political identification, sexual orientation, familial makeup, friends, religion, jobs, and AGE. Age is a cultural group because of the traits shared among different age groups throughout society.

Ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia are all rooted in these cultural realities. Adultism is too.

Adultism is bias towards adults.

In order to successfully, meaningfully and wholly engage children and youth anywhere, anytime for any reason, adults have to confront our bias towards adults, and the consequence of that: discrimination against young people.

The question of becoming aware of the culture of young people is at the very core of my work for a lot of reasons.

For all that we continue expanding Euro-awareness of the value of indigenous culture; for the cultural expansion towards equitable roles between women and men; for the upsurging awareness of the equal rights of GBLTQQ folks; we’re missing a key element in these conversations, and that’s the cultural shoehorn known as children and youth.

Young people have a distinct and unique culture for many reasons, not the least of which being the routine and systematic segregation of them from society by adults. The culture of young people is almost wholly and constantly neglected, denied and dismissed by adults. They are actually and actively repressed, consequently fostering adultism and the adultcentric nature of schools and homes and businesses and government and, and, and…

That’s why cultural awareness is at the middle of what I do. From my perception, we’re talking about human rights, and the distinct right young people should have to be themselves.

We can and must do better.

Better Volunteering

Adam Fletcher speaking at a youth involvement conference in 2014.

I think all organizations that engage volunteers have an obligation to engage them in critical self-examination, especially about the service they are seeking to embark in.

I have promoted structural change for years is because it can be less threatening to encourage volunteers to look at change the policies, programs, and activities within a community, rather than to look at themselves. However, even that structural work, done absent critical reflection, is devoid of the type of solidarity I suggest organizations seek to foster within and between volunteers and service recipients.

I first felt the impact of noblesse oblige in my own community growing up as a teenager in a low-income neighborhood in the Midwest. It was one particular summer when groups of volunteers repeatedly showed up at our community center to do projects, excluding me and my friends from helping out when we asked to, that I realized they were serving themselves more than us: by painting, leading games, cooking food, and doing work in our lives they were trying to feel better about themselves.

From that place, and then three years of AmeriCorps and 13 years of a nonprofit career that I devised a model to illustrate motivations for service in 2001. Since then, I have worked with thousands of people to help them identify if they are motivated by pity, sympathy, empathy, or solidarity in order to serve others.

It was that model that showed me that we must encourage volunteers to actively seek to change their perceptions about service and volunteerism (and thus, their attitudes and their lives). Doing anything less actually puts many organizations in the position of perpetuating a type of hypocrisy that damns their best intentions. I think we can do better than that- and that we have to, for the sake of our society.

For me, that means a course of activity that might begin with a volunteer contacting an organization and saying, “I want to volunteer.” Immediately, the organization provides the volunteer with a brochure or a web address that asks five critical questions about volunteering for them, to the effect of,

  • “Why do you want to volunteer?”
  • “Who do you think benefits by you volunteering with our organization?”
  • “What difference do you think volunteerism makes in your life,”
  • …And so forth, sussing out the motivations for volunteerism.After that the organization would train each individual volunteer according to their motivation: The person who comes from a place of pity or sympathy would embark on a course of activities that would help them identify how they can relate to and engage with service recipients in a more empathetic way; the person who comes from empathy would be driven towards solidarity.

In this way we can take volunteerism out of the rut it is in, and move a lot of effort to a brand new place!

Stopping Discrimination Against Children

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!

What is child discrimination to you?

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.

When was the last time you saw it happen? What was happening

Discrimination against children happens every single time children and adults interact. This includes almost every parent/child, teacher/student, clerk/customer and caretaker/charge relationship. Discrimination against children happens in schools, at home, in businesses, in afterschool programs, in government agencies, in courts, at the playground, on the athletics field, in neighborhoods and throughout all of our society, all of the time.
  • Discrimination against children happens in the words adults use: Jargon, insistence on manners, and saying things like “You’re in my house and you’ll follow my rules” or “You’ll understand when you’re older” or “Children are better seen and not heard.”
  • Discrimination against children happens in the actions adults take: Building schools and houses at adult heights instead of childrens’, making curriculum and tests to meet dream-up adult wants rather than genuine child needs, and corporeal punishment.
  • Discrimination against children happens in the thoughts adults have: “I’m her parent and I know best”, “I’ll do what I want done here and convince her that its right later on”, and “They’ll just have to do this now whether they like it or not” are some of the thoughts adults have.

I explore all this in-depth in my book, Ending Discrimination Against Young People.

Have you even been discriminated in your life? If so how?

Whether or not we acknowledge it, every single person has been discriminated against in their lifetime. Discrimination is any judgment against anybody, including those made because of our ages, genders, skin colors, socio-economic statuses, cultural backgrounds, religions and more.
I’ve been discriminated against for many reasons, including my age when I was young, and my age now that I’m older.

What are you doing to stop discrimination?

I write books and pamphlets, facilitate workshops and give speeches to help educate people about discrimination against children and youth. My books include Ending Discrimination Against Young People as mentioned a moment ago; A Short Introduction to Youth Rights; and more than a dozen others.

What are ways people can stop it everyday?

As I’ve explained here, discrimination against children is a huge thing that affects everyone. The very best thing that anyone of any age can do to stop it is to listen to themselves, watch themselves and stop themselves from discriminating against children. EVERY ONE OF US discriminates against children, including children. We should listen to our thoughts and words, and hear ourselves discriminating against children. We should watch our actions and see how we discriminate against children. If we choose the company of adults before children, we’re discriminating against children.
After we’ve seen and heard our discrimination against children, we have to ask whether we’re okay with it. If we are okay with it, we don’t have to stop it. But if we’re really not okay with it, we should confront our own discrimination against children whenever, however we can. Then, and only then, should we encourage others to do the same thing.

Adults Letting Go and Taking Charge

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.

When Adults Release Authority to Young People by Adam Fletcher

The Gradual Release of Authority

When Adults Release Authority to Young People by Adam Fletcher

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.

More responsibility

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.

Our authority

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.

Gradually releasing authority

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.

Why Young People Need Authority

  • Powerful learning. Having gradually increasing, facilitated opportunities to share authority can ensure the most power learning for the most disengaged student, as well as the most engaged;
  • Real applications. Authority cannot be granted in a vacuum. If you’re actually gradually releasing authority to young people, they are engaging in real applications unlike any other in their lives;
  • Deep engagement. No matter what activity you want children and youth to become engaged in, if they experience authority through it they will become more engaged than if its otherwise;
  • Lifetimes of purpose. Preparing for a lifetime of being engaged humans should happen throughout their youngest years, and not merely in the last year of high school or a special summer program. This can propel young people towards truly solving the world’s problems and transforming all our lives; what higher goal should their be for learning?

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.

5 Points About the Gradual Release of Authority

  • Share the purpose: Children and youth need to understand why they are being engaged, as well as what they are participating in. Facilitate their understanding of the purpose and processes they are being authorized through.
  • Help them understand the idea of authority: Teach young people about authority on purpose for the sake of gradually increasing their capacity through knowledge-sharing and skill-building.
  • Remember context: That knowledge and those skills depend on the circumstances—who, what, when, where, why and how—we’re trying to engage young people. In order to ensure their relevance, the capacity building opportunities children and youth are presented with should correlate with those circumstances.
  • Foster self-leadership: Do not resist their leadership: If young people show you they are ready to move forward, do not neglect their guidance. If they show resistance, acknowledge that and work with it, too.
  • Position for success: Experiencing contextual learning through authorization is outside the regular ways of being for almost all young people. Give them titles, positions and opportunities to recognize the significance of the authority they are being granted and in order to own their work further.

Remembering those points can be essential during the course of releasing authority to young people.

Know this

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.

If you’re too challenged…

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.

Authenticity in Youth Voice and Youth Engagement

Wauthentic youth voice and youth engagementhen 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 for Authenticity

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.

5 Areas to Expand

In order to build programs where young people experience authentic youth voice, programs should seek to expand the following capacities in young people:

  • Thinking: Analytical and knowledge-building skills; evaluative and critical thinking skills; and creative thinking skills;
  • Communicating: Effective oral and written communication skills; critical and reflective reading skills; an informed openness to new information technologies;
  • Strategizing: Problem solving and pattern intelligence skills, numerical skills; synthesis skills; and the ability to express the results of analysis and evaluation;
  • Learning: The ability to pose meaningful questions that advance understanding and knowledge; the ability to conduct research and organize material effectively; information literacy and other skills associated with learning how to learn;
  • Action: The exercise of independent judgment and ethical decision-making; the ability to meet goals, manage time, and complete a project successfully; self-confidence and self-understanding; the ability to cooperate with others and work in teams; a sensitivity to individuals and tolerance of cultural differences.

Barriers to Authenticity

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?

Unpacking #Youthification

PhrenologyThere’s a conversation afoot about “youthification,” which means acting younger.

Apparently, moms do it, businesses should do it, neighborhoods are doing it, and entire cities want to do it more.

After reviewing several articles about this term, I have identified several assumptions in the conversations about “youthification”:

  • All Youth Are the Same: This conversation about youthification generally revolves around the idea that youth act certain ways, do particular things, believe unique beliefs and feel specific emotions.
  • “Youth” Is A Product: So far, youthification is largely a topic of interest to marketers, whether in the form of urban planners who want to grow cities or businesspeople who want to sell products and services.
  • Youth Will Stand Still: Ironically, youthification seems to be fixated on pinning down static representations of young people in order to attract older people to what younger people like, want or do. Its ironic because youth cannot be seen as a static station; similarly, its consistently shown in adult development studies that fixing perspectives is a behavior of adults; ergo, we’re applying adult beliefs to youth in order to get adults to aspire to be youth.

 

The most interesting piece I’ve found related to youthification comes from an author who connected it with neotony, which is the physiological act of staying younger longer. Applying this concept to youthification may be akin to phrenology though, and I don’t advocate anyone taking that analysis seriously.

And from there comes my conclusion: “Youthification” is a manufactured reality that’s designed to help sell things to gullible people by preying on adults’ fear, denial and naivety, much the same as phrenology was a century ago.

The idea of “youthification” is part of the adultist notion of the monolithic youth, which is driven by adults’ belief that, “Because I can observe all youth doing one thing, all youth must be one way.”

This denies the consideration other factors that shape the identities of youth, ie socio-economic backgrounds, race, gender, etc., as well as individual personalities, private beliefs, and non-adult approved ways of being in the world.

Youth don’t need the approval of adults to exist in their own ways, and adults don’t need to act like youth, either.

Similarly, adults don’t need to act like youth, live like youth, be like youth, and youth don’t need to act like adults, either.

Consumerist to the core, I believe the intent of this marketing ploy is to reinforce “in” behaviors and “out” behaviors throughout our society by reinforcing particular ways of being that can be marketed to, and ignoring or denying ways of being that cannot be marketed towards, packaged, bought or sold.

Here are my conclusions about “youthification” so far:

  • “Youthification” is Manufactured: The term “youthification” is being promoted to sell people things.
  • “Youthification” is Derogatory: The concept of “youthification” is largely demeaning and belittling to youth, since it dumbs down their identities and makes them into statis, ascertainable, replicable robots.
  • “Youthification” is Irrelevant: Any serious discussion about trends in sociology will avoid or dismiss the concept entirely, and its to be taken with a grain of salt.

What are your thoughts about “youthification”?