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.

The Gradual Release of Authority

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.

 


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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”?

How to Recruit Youth Today

TPOYEadvert

Youth have many choices to make today.

Let’s say that you’re 18 years old. You left school before graduating, and your friend’s mom is letting you stay in their garage.

You have many choices, and they’re stacked like this:

  • Apply for jobs
  • Break into a car to steal something
  • See if your old girlfriend wants to have sex

What’s going through your mind right now?

Curiosity floods your brain. Even if you’re not sure you can get a job, you know its something you should do, compared to stealing something or having sex. You know what the right thing to do is, but you’re not sure why this job application would be different from any others.

If you truly wanted immediate satisfaction, you’d find an easy car to break into, right? Or you’d give that girlfriend a call. You wouldn’t even take a glance at the job form.

But that’s not how we are built when we are young people.

Years ago, I consulted with an organization that taught youth adult living skills for students who dropped out of high school. They would take high risk (high hope) youth around local colleges and show them three types of programs: One offered job training and job placement; another offered a GED, job training and placement; and another that helped them earn a diploma, get into college, through college and placed in a career. And then they were asked if they were interested in the college program.

You bet they were. You would be, and so would I—we’d all be curious about what allowed people to get into and through college if we never knew it.

Youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison

Simply opening a youth program doesn’t make youth attend it. We’re clear on that, right?

That’s because youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison.

Let’s look at choosing youth programs in a vacuum.

Say a teenager decides to smoke weed in her free time. She’s been taught about the dangers of drugs, has a stable home with two parents and has a bright future ahead of her.

She’s not asking why at this point in time, because she has a of joint in her hand given to her by her best friend who is sitting right across from her, so she’s making a decision in a vacuum.

The same vacuum concept applies to your youth program, too.

Let’s say you’re passionate about using theater to empower youth. You launched an afterschool drama program for teens in your neighborhood that lasts two hours every night, and youth aren’t showing up.

Sure, they looked at the flyers you posted around the neighborhood and sent home to parents. If they talk to you, you’re incredibly exciting.

When you pour over your grant application and promotional materials, everything screams for youth to come through the door, and yet they aren’t. They are working in a vacuum.

However, when youth look at your program flyer, they see the date and time and think of all the other things they could do, even if we don’t acknowledge those things. Youth who sit on the couch watching TV are choosing that, as are youth who spend hours surfing the Internet with no purpose.

Would you have more youth showing up if they could playing video games? Theoretically speaking, yes. So why not add video game time? Or better yet, offer video games and offer pizza every day? Would you have more youth show up then?

You see what’s happening here, don’t you? As the frivolous things increase, your desire for the program goes down. That’s because you’re no longer working in a vacuum – you’re working on comparison.

You’re comparing your original program focused on theater with every other activity that was added onto it. And you compared your interest in theater to your interest in video games and pizza.

Right now, if you’re still determined, you’ll not only focus on theater, but you might even choose a specific style of theater you’re passionate about, like street performing or children’s theater.

But there’s a reason for that, and its called—and it’s called comparison.

Two distinct choosing phases

When young people choose anything, they’re almost always going through two distinct phases. The first phase is when they consider choices in a vacuum. Youth have been told to go to a program by their mom or teacher, but they have no clue why they should attend.

With all these options staring at them, young people simply pick the most immediate thing that fulfills their needs.

Using the ever-popular Maslow’s Hierarchy as a framework, it’s easy to understand why, after they have their survival and safety needs met young people aren’t automatically selecting to spend their time in your program.

You could start promoting your program on the basis of belonging. You could start telling them what it will do for their esteem. You might even appeal to their desire to make their hopes come true through your program.

But when you start illustrating those benefits clearly, young people are no longer working in a vacuum. Instead, they are comparing the benefits of what your program offers with what they’re doing with their time right now. They are comparing your organization to their friends, families and neighborhoods. They are even comparing the benefits of your program against each other by choosing which is more important to them according to Maslow’s Hierarchy.

If you make the case, at some point they will compare playing video games, eating pizza or smoking weed to your program—along with everything else at hand. Then it dawns on them that the most unusual thing they can choose, your program, is also the most beneficial—but now it doesn’t seem so unusual.

The best thing to do—attend your program—is now the most obvious thing to do, and they will choose it, but only in comparison.

So, how should you promote your program?

If your program operates where few others do, you can stop trying to be everything to every youth all of the time. Instead, focus on one thing and do that thing excellently.

If you’re competing for the attention, energy and time of young people then you’ll have to play by their rules. Listen to them, validate what they’re saying, authorize them to do something, take action and reflect on it with them.

However, if you have a lot of time where you’d offer your program regularly and you’re looking for something else to do to serve youth, then you can have several versions of your program or other programs to offer. Young people can then move from comparing your program to other programs in the neighborhood toward comparing your program to other programs you offer.

For example, if you run a theater program, young people can choose from your agency’s theater program, which is short and fun, and your fiscal education program, which is longer and more intellectual.

Even in a very competitive neighborhood where your program is competing with other youth programs, gang membership, ample youth jobs and sitting around the house, you want to create a situation where they have stopped considering everything else and are now choosing from your organization’s range of programs.

If you’re offering a program where there’s nothing else like it in your community, then there’s still a reason for creating a comparison structure.

Youth will look around and choose whether to get involved based on how you appeal to their needs according to Maslow’s Hierarchy — even if they’re comparing apples to oranges.

For example, if you were to recruit for a program on outdoor education and a program on service learning, they aren’t particularly similar. Yet, the benefits of one program influences how youth look at the benefits of the other program.

And even if a young person selects one program your organization offers this time, next time they may move to your program, depending on your ability to benefit them.

Create that comparison

Whether you’re recruiting youth for a photography course, youth employment program, interpretive dance workshop, or GED classes, the one factor to remember is that young people either choose in a vacuum or in a comparison structure.

You want to get them to compare. Once you’ve gotten them to pay attention to your program, you should then have a series of benefit comparisons on your own flyer and website.

Create that comparison. Even if you don’t have a range of programs yet, get started moving in that direction today.

When you do, you can still list (or decrease) the list of benefits to appeal to youth. Remember that they want to make choices, and they do not want to be told what to do.

It’s at that point that youth comparing benefits becomes a strategy, by discouraging them having a knee-jerk reaction.

And it’s at that point that you getting youth through the door en masse. That will make you—and the youth you work with—a lot happier.

Are All Adults Adultist?

I believe all adults are adultist.
Adultism is bias towards adults – any kind of bias. If an adult wants to hang out with their friends at a bar on Saturday night, they’re being adultist. If an adult lives in a house with children and buys dining room table chairs and a table made for adults, they’re being adultist. If an adult wants to play basketball with other adults exclusively, or keeps a child from drinking alcohol, or stops a 15-year-old from driving a car on their own, they are being adultist. Of course, all this discriminates against young people, too, so… I guess it doesn’t matter how you define it. All adults are adultist.
 

Should adults stop being adultist tomorrow? Is all adultism bad or wrong? Does this mean this is a kafkatrap like Jesse proposed? No, no, and no. However, it does mean that if we’re going to address adultism in any serious way, we have to get honest about what it is and stop demonizing adults because of it. Adultism is any bias towards adults, and all adults are adultist. Start from there?The problem with “extracting power from adults and into youth” isn’t a solution though Elijah, for the reason you emphasize at the end. Youth aren’t the solution, in and of themselves. No one group is the solution. The saying, “Nobody is free until everybody is free” applies here. Adultism is actually an oppression that affects adults negatively as well as youth and children. EVERYONE is affected by it; ergo, everyone needs to be freed from its shackles.

What Can Be Done

I’ve learned that these shackles won’t be released solely through legal challenges or organizational development or curriculum writing or local action. Instead, we have to raise the consciousness of every single child, youth and adult we interact with through education. Share a book. Write an article. Teach a class. Give a lecture. Facilitate a workshop. Host a forum. Organize a sit-in. But in some way, raise individuals’ consciousness so they become passionate and aware of the challenges they face because of adultism. In time, all the structural restraints will melt away – but only because the hearts and minds of people have transformed, making the structure of adultism irrelevant and worthless.

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Bastardizing Youth Voice

When considering youth as allies to educators, adults may be tempted to act as translators for youth voice. Concerned that youth are not capable of speaking “adult-ese”, well-meaning program staff, nonprofit administrators, researchers, government staff, youth advocates and teachers reword the ideas of youth, interpret them, or otherwise differentiate between what youth actually said and what adults believe they meant. Adults do this because we do not believe that the raw data represented by youth voice has actual value in the space of government policymaking, program teaching, organizational leadership, or community improvement. We do that because we do not trust youth at face value; without extracting what we think youth are actually saying, without reframing it into concepts, ideas, or beliefs we share, we think youth voice is foreign, alien, or immature and juvenile.

 

The challenge here is not that youth do not have valuable things to add to the conversation, but that adults do not have the ability to solicit the perspectives, experiences, knowledge and wisdom of youth without filtering, analyzing, or otherwise destabilizing their expressions. We have to accept that responsibility and build our capacity to to do this important work. We have to stop bastardizing youth voice.

 

I do not use that word lightly. To bastardize youth voice, adults corrupt how youth share their voices, however it is expressed. Sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally, adults debase youth by adding new elements, their own ideas, moving their own agendas and forcing their own beliefs through the actions, ideas, experiences, and wisdom of students. Bastardizing youth voice this way is not necessary, appropriate, or relevant to creating youth/adult partnerships.

 

All adults throughout the education system need to learn that all young people of all ages have the capacity and the ability to speak for themselves, albeit to different extents. Often this capacity may be undermined by the disbelief of otherwise good-hearted adults who honestly believe they know what youth think. Youth/adult partnerships creates appropriate platforms for youth experience, ideas and knowledge of the world without filtering those words through adult lenses. Youth can learn about the world they live in, the topics they should learn, the methods being tested on them, the roles of adults and students, and much more.

 

Questions to Ask

  • How do you interpret youth voice right now?
  • Does the idea of adults bastardizing youth voice offend you? Why or why not?
  • Where can you practice simply listening to youth voice today, without interpreting or bastardizing it?

 

I Will See YOU in São Paulo!

On Monday I am flying to São Paulo, Brazil, to talk about my philosophy and practice through CommonAction, including SoundOut and The Freechild Project. It all began a few years ago, when Lilian Kelian contacted me. Working with a program called Jovens Urbanos (Urban Youth), Lilian asked if they could translate some of my publications and use them in the cities they work, São Paulo , Pouso Alegre, and Serra. Happily agreeing, I looked forward to seeing the finished product.

This summer, Lilian contact me again to invite me to come to Brazil and help spread the word about the publications and the ideas behind them. I am leaving Monday to spend next week in São Paulo!

Hosted by CENPEC, my trip is being sponsored by Fundação Itaú Social, a large foundation in Brazil. Among other things, I am facilitating a workshop and speaking at a conference. The conference, Seminário Internacional: Educação + Participação = Educação Integral, will be broadcast live online on Friday, November 14.

Here’s the poster for my workshop on Wednesday, November 12. I’m going to post things occasionally throughout the week. I am very excited for this opportunity, and I’m really looking forward to meeting people, sharing ideas and learning a lot while I’m there! What an opportunity! Woohoo!

 

Adam Fletcher in São Paulo

 

Supporting Adult Allies of Youth

umbrella1

The other week I heard from Jose*, an innercity high school teacher. He wrote this:

For seven years I taught in a pleasant rural school where students were receptive to me and how I teach. I engage students, and work very hard to get them working authentically on projects that matter, empowering them in my classroom and in the school community. For the last five years I have worked in an urban middle school. No matter how how hard I work to make the curriculum interesting and relevant, no matter how kind and fair I am to my students in an effort to build goodwill and positive working relationships/partnerships, they do not listen and are not receptive.

 

They have their own agenda and it does not involve respecting adults or the school — I can not speak without being interrupted. We have backtalk, rude behavior, students starting arguments with students constantly — they are only interested in their own social agenda. As a result we end up having security remove students from the classroom on a daily basis. Most days I have to toss at least one student out within the first five minutes — they do not even give teachers a chance. I am ready to leave the profession because of the stress.

I thought hard about Jose’s writing, because a lot of it sounded familiar. Then, after meditating on it for a while, I remembered another teacher who I’d heard struggling in a similar way. I analyzed their situation and assessed their circumstance. I answered in earnest, and when I finally heard back it was because they were disappointed with my conclusions. So rather than respond directly to Jose, I’m going to ask him to help himself.

Staying committed to supporting young people can be challenging. Often spending too many hours and earning too few rewards, its important for people who support young people to be honest about how its going. If you’re a parent, youth worker, educator, counselor, or anyone else who strives to be an adult ally, you need to learn to work through the struggle. We all need to learn to work through the struggle, if we’re going to stay committed.

13 Essential Questions for Adult Allies

We each need to know how to work through the struggle of supporting young people every day. The following questions are intended to help adult allies to young people ask themselves whether they need to consider something different. They’re aren’t finished, and if you have any suggestions please leave them in the comments section. Also, let me know if they’re useful for you.

So, if you’re a struggling teacher, counselor, parent, youth worker, or other adult ally to young people, take a moment and answer the following questions:

  • Have you ever decided to have a good day with the young people you’re around, only to have it last for just a few hours? Most of us in who support young people make all kinds of promises to ourselves. We cannot keep them. Then we come to understand that engaging young people requires being honest, and we start to tell the truth to ourselves and young people.
  • Do you ever wish children and youth would just grow up sometimes, and stop being so childish? Adult allies to young people do not project their demands on youth; instead, we accept them as they are, for who they are. We see potential, but do not demand certain outcomes. Instead, we work with who we are.
  • Have you ever switched from supporting one type of young people to another in the hope that this would keep you from burning out? Adult allies to young people support young people in many ways. We spend time with them everyday. Or we donate money. Or we advocate for them. Or we volunteer for boards. You name it, we do it. Anything we do we see through the lenses of supporting young people, because that is who we are.
  • Have you had to quit a job supporting young people during the past year in order to stay or become mentally healthy? This is a pretty sure sign you’re not sustainable in your role as an adult ally to young people.
  • Do you need to be around young people to feel “alive”? At one time or another, most adult allies to youth have wondered why we were not like most people, who really can be around anyone and be healthy and alive.
  • Do you envy people who do not work with young people? Be honest! Eventually, you have to find something else to do if you’re an educator or youth worker, because it will only get worse for you, not better. Eventually, you will not like young people at all, and will quit in anger or dire necessity. Your only hope may be to quit now before radical emotions take over.
  • Have you had problems connected with being an adult ally to young people during the past year? Most well-meaning adults will say it is the people they work with or the program they deliver that frustrates them. Many times, we can not see that trying to support young people is making our lives worse. At that point, we stop solving problems and start becoming the problem.
  • Is it easier for you to support young people in your job or larger community than it is to support the children and youth in your own home or program? Most of us started our jobs thinking it was grand. If young people aren’t cooperative though, or if the program isn’t just right, we get frustrated and have to leave or quit.
  • Do you ever try to get “extra” time with young people because you didn’t get enough at work, home, church or otherwise? Many adult allies trick ourselves into thinking that we can’t do enough at work, and when we’re done getting paid we have to keep going. However, we come to realize that it is not self-sustainable to keep going, and that at the end of our day, we have to stop, for our own good and the good of the young people we work with. Same with parents.
  • Do you tell yourself you can get a job doing anything, or be any kind of parent you want to, but you keep supporting young people as an adult ally even when you don’t want to? Many of us know that we have boundaries, but we don’t acknowledge them or work within them. Instead, we soldier through hoping to make a difference. We are not though.
  • Have you missed days of work or taken a sick day at home because you didn’t want to support the young people you’re around every day? When we don’t allow ourselves time off, many adult allies “call in sick” despite the truth that we need time to recuperate our hearts and minds more than our bodies.
  • Have you ever felt that your life would be better if you did not support young people? Many adult allies start off well-intentioned, hoping to make a difference in the lives of someone younger than ourselves. Once we do the work though, whether parenting or counseling or teaching or coaching or whatever, we discover that we have limits. Then we feel trapped. Eventually it takes a toll on us, and we have to admit that we shouldn’t be doing the work we’re doing anymore. If we’re a parent, we know we have to get support, either from a spouse or friend or extended family.

If we are authentic adult allies to young people, we all struggle with our roles supporting them. You are likely to be more aware of the effects of adults on youth throughout society, and more empathetic with youth in general. I say this because I’ve worked with thousands of teachers, parents, counselors, and other adult allies to youth, and they all say so and show me as much. Many of them found out their truths the hard ways though: Burn out, getting fired, or physical injuries resulting from sloppy self-care.

But again, only you can decide whether you think you should keep being an active, engaged ally to young people. Try to keep an open mind on the subject. If the answer is YES, I offer a lot of materials to help support you, and the world does too. Just contact me.

I will not promise to solve your life’s problems. But together, we can see you how you can continue to support young people without sacrificing yourself.

*I changed the name of the teacher who shared this story at his request

Adult Power

Adults have power. A left over vestige of some time gone by marked by limited mortality, adults are rewarded this power simply because we reach adulthood. In this post, I explore what that power is, how it happens and what it means. Special thanks to Lisa Cooley who has been pushing my brain on this lately.

There are distinct differences in the treatment of young people and adults. That treatment is handed out by every adult, all of the time, and is often re-affirmed by young people as part of their social conditioning. That treatment is meant to ensure the power of adults. The differences in how young people are treated are made worse if you, in addition to not being seen as adults, youth are not identified by adults as white, hetrosexual and middle class.

 

Getting On Adults’ Good Side

One of the distinct ways that young people manage to secure preferential treatment by adults is by acting LIKE adults; that is, by assuming gestures, vocabulary, clothes, attitudes, and postures seen by adults as being adult-like. In many circumstances, this is actually labelled “acceptable behavior.”

Acting too much like an adult is frowned upon though. Among some people who advocate for youth rights, there is a belief that any age-determined boundary is arbitrary and should not exist, including drinking, driving and voting rights. 

When I was doing research on the etymology of the word “adultism” back in 2007, the oldest usage I discovered was related to the behavior of young people. Adultism was explained as as, “A boy of 12 and a girl of 13 who had the spirit and personality of adults… They were placed in institutions because of stealing and prostitution. These forms of precocity lead the individual into difficulties and should be recognized early in the development of the individual.”

Young people lose favor with adults when they stop acting like adults or in ways that adults approve of.

 

Legal Boundaries & Social Consequences

Courts have determined that there is a boundary to cross for youth when they go from acting as adolescents to acting as adults; however, that line, also, is blurry, since courts across the country try young offenders as adults starting at the age of 10 and going up from there. In the US, the military will accept 16 year old recruits in some circumstances. Driving, voting and drinking are among other shifting age boundaries to adulthood when adults have determined it is not okay for someone younger to “act like an adult”.

Since adults determine how adults are expected to behave, they also enforce those expectations. Some enforcement is social; other punishment is economic; some is cultural; and other enforcement and punishment is legal. Anything that deviates from the acceptable behavior is in err, or malicious, or unacceptable, and there is always a punishment is doled out duly, legally or illegally, obvious or subtle.

The social consequences of deviating from adult expectations range from subtle discrimination to distinct alienation to overt ostracization. Youth can be shunned in a variety of ways, and excluded in a number of others. This includes taxation without representation, scientific stigmatization, and compulsory schooling that relies on age segregated environments. The over ostracization of youth leads to youth homelessness and overall street dependency.

 

Force & Coercion

How do adults ensure their power? There are no ends to the force we use, which is true for parenting and teaching and neighboring and governing and policing and counseling and selling and buying and any other activity adults do with young people. Force is another word for coercion, and to some extent every adult is coercive over young people, not matter how well-intended they are.

As parents, we dole out and withhold love, affection and attention according to how well our child adheres to our desires and expectations. This is forcefulness, under the guise of loving care. Even enlightened parents do this habitually, as if its hardwired into our intuition. We live in a society reliant on very subtle and very overt gestures of coercion. Schools are masters of this to some degree, as they use both mechanisms of subtle and overt control to force students into compliance.

The question isn’t whether or not we force anyone to learn anything, because we all do. Instead, there is a question of the degree to which we’re forcing the Other to do what we want them to. There is a question of the desired and actual outcomes of the force, or why we coerced them. All of this adds up to the rightness or wrongness of using force, rather than simply saying “You forced someone to do what you wanted them to.” We all do that; why and how is what counts.

 

What You Can Do

By not saying anything about this ingrained discrimination against young people, all adults actually condone the behavior of other adults. More so, we are complicit because we send unspoken messages, like that we think youth, too, should have the attitude of adults as well, and that those youth who don’t should expect to be treated accordingly.

These oppressive clarion calls are constantly given throughout our society. We make them through convenient lists of guidelines and rules posted on walls; dress codes and curfews; and many other overt exhibitions of preference. All of these tools are geared towards acceptability, conformity and the maintenance of adultocracy.

Ask yourself why we still award people for reaching age 18 by foisting tons of power on them over another segment of the population. Oh, and identifying the role of adultocracy throughout our society? I wrote a book about it called Ending Discrimination Against Young People, and you can order it here.