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?

 

Supporting Adult Allies of Youth

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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

23 Phrases to Encourage Youth Voice

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After working directly with youth for more than two decades, its easy for me to admit that I’ve said some poor things to youth. Either on purpose or by accident, I have said things that made young people feel hurt, confused, or angry. Anyone who works with youth—teachers, social workers, or program leaders—is going to make those mistakes whether we intend to or not. But its just as important to say the right things.

Since youth voice is any expression of any young people anywhere at any time about anything, its important to recognize there are ways adults can encourage it, rather than stifle it. Here are some things you can say to encourage youth voice.

 

23 Phrases to Encourage Youth Voice

  1. What do you think? Encourage young people to form their own opinions and share them with you. This improves critical thinking skills and reassures them that it’s right to have their own opinion, and that its even okay that it’s different from yours. When adults do young peoples’ thinking for them, children and youth stop taking responsibility for themselves and can’t handle greater responsibility as they grow. 
  2. I know you. Reaffirm for young people that you know them without telling them you know all about them. This reassures them in times of low confidence and encourages them to feel a part of something else, instead of being alone.
  3. I believe you. Let young people know you trust their judgment.
  4. I disagree with youInstead of simply saying no, validate what young people think, believe, or say in an open and honest manner. Don’t make it into a battle of wills or otherwise compete. Instead, open up an honest dialogue and be willing to go where the conversation takes you.
  5. How did you do? Don’t tell young people how they did before you let them tell you. Ask them and listen to what they have to say.
  6. Please and thank you. Young people are people first, and they deserve your manners just because they are people.
  7. I believe in you. Support and encourage children and youths’ self-judgment and abilities by affirming their capabilities and self-esteem.
  8. Can you help me understand? This let’s young people know that you honor their perceptions, even if you disagree with them. Allowing children and youth to explain things from their perspectives empowers their voices.
  9. You worked so hard. Instead of constantly telling young people how smart or special they are, this phrase acknowledges their hard work and effort.
  10. I’m sorry. Show young people that you are a fallible human who makes mistakes, and that you’re big enough to apologize to them.
  11. I’m available to you. Instead of constantly telling young people how busy you are, remind them that you’re available to them to talk to, hang out with, play with, and be around.
  12. What are the consequences? It’s tempting to make decisions for young people, but they learn more when they make their own choices. Remind them to think about the positive and negative consequences of any choice they make.
  13. I trust you. Reaffirm that you believe in the ability, ideas, plans, and suggestions of children and youth by letting them know directly that you trust them.
  14. I’ve got your back. Young people feel safest when they know they have your support, no matter what. When they’re facing especially challenging things, remind them you’re behind them.
  15. I’m so proud of you because… Young people want to know that you see the work, effort, and energy they put into their jobs, activities, and selves. Acknowledge them with specific, concrete feedback that helps them grow.
  16. You did a great job. Without over-doing it, its important to acknowledge a job well-done. Praise often, but don’t overdo it or your words will seem insincere.
  17. How does it feel to get that done? When children and youth get things done, it should be about making themselves happy instead of making adults happy. Self-esteem needs a boost? Reaffirm they can make themselves feel better.
  18. Turn it up! Without hamming it up or trying to hard, let children and youth know they can create the environment you co-occupy with them. Ask them to share their music, shows, or other media and creations in the spaces you are with them.
  19. You are worth it. Be intentional in supporting young peoples’ self-worth without being condescending.
  20. You are good, inside and out. Young people need to be engaged within themselves as well as in the world around them.
  21. How would you do it? Encourage children and youth to think about doing things differently, and then go further by helping them implement their ideas. Their conclusions could help them and you do things even better.
  22. Are you willing to do what it takes? Accept young peoples’ answers to this question without criticism or correction. This will help young people open up to you and answer honestly, rather than simply the way you want them to.
  23. What do YOU think we can do? Activate young peoples’ senses of ability and possibility by actively engaging them as co-conspirators, co-actors, and co-learners. Foster equity between you, and consciously build their sense of ability to make a difference.

 

A lot of people are tempted to make youth voice into a special or exclusive thing that only well-behaving young people who do what adults want them to should be able to share. What would you add to this list to encourage authentic youth voice?