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.

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.

7 Alternatives to Youth Injustice

7alts

Much of my work is situated at the juncture of youth injustice and social change. I believe that young people are inherently discriminated throughout our society simply because of their ages. That doesn’t mean that all young people everywhere have it equally as bad, but it does mean there are some common things everyone, everywhere can do to bring justice to children and youth of all ages.

7 Alternatives to Injustice towards Young People

  1. Watch Your Mouth. Adults routinely say dismissive, demeaning and patronizing things to children and youth. “You are too old for that!” or “You’re not old enough!” “What do you know? You haven’t experienced anything!” “It’s just a stage. You’ll outgrow it,” and “You’ll understand when you’re older” are all examples. Watch your mouth and speak justly to young people. Say things that show concern without being inconsiderate; use respectful language; and assume ability, not ignorance.
  2. Make Room. Everyday decisions are made about young people without young people. Parents, teachers, youth workers, caregivers, police, judges, business owners and store clerks, and others are constantly choosing what is best for children and youth without ever asking them what they think is best for themselves. Make room for young people by sharing decision-making opportunities with them. Give them appropriate ability to affect outcomes without overburdening them with too much responsibility – but ask them to tell you how much is too much, without just assuming, because you know what assuming does…
  3. Build Their Abilities. Anyone who spends time with young children knows that just because a 5-year-old can’t see over the counter doesn’t mean they don’t want to know what’s there. Build their abilities by providing proverbial stepping stools when appropriate, whether in your classroom, at your program or in your workplace. Offer training and educational opportunities that build the capacities of young people to participate. Provide age appropriate reading opportunities and websites that help them navigate complex topics, and spend meaningful time with them helping them learn more.
  4. Stop Punishing, Start Teaching. Children and youth are punished in so many ways by adults throughout their lives that most punishments feel arbitrary and meaningless to them. They are routinely criticized, yelled at, invalidated, insulted, intimidated, or made to feel guilty by adults in all sorts of settings. This undermines young peoples’ self-respect and dismantles their better judgment, rendering their self-decision making abilities worthless. Stop punishing young people and start teaching them instead. Give multiple options and show practical outcomes to actions, and demonstrate positive decision-making constantly and on purpose.
  5. Share Real Control. What spaces, places, times and outcomes do children and youth really control? Do parents and guardians always have the ultimate authority over the behaviors, attitudes and ways that young people presentation themselves? Or can young people learn to control their own bodies, their space and their possessions? Stop kissing little children without their permission. Don’t touch a young person’s head without their permission. Don’t assume your teenager is doing evil things on the Internet. Allow your child to decide what they want to dress like for school. Share real control with young people and learn with them on purpose.
  6. Stop Being Afraid. There is nothing no more sinister, evil or forlorn about young people today than when you were young. In fact, children and youth are a lot like you were – curious, expansive, hopeful and passionate – before you got older. Stop being afraid of them, and of YOU. You were young once, too. Stop making adulthood sound so terrible and terrifying; its a reward to get here, and we should teach young people they should appreciate getting older, too.
  7. Challenge Other Adults. The last part of this formula is the worst, because it demands you not only do something about yourself and your actions, but that you challenge other adults to do the same too. If you’re a parent, don’t settle for your students being treated poorly by teachers. If you’re a supervisor, don’t treat your young workers as less-than simply because of their ages. Challenge other adults by advocating for full and equitable roles for children and youth in your home, at school, throughout your communities, in businesses, and across government agencies. Challenge other adults to stand up for what’s right and to stop youth injustice.

Injustice for young people breeds injustice for adults, both in terms of accepting injustice and perpetuating injustice. We can do better than that, and by doing better than that we will challenge injustice for all times.

Just as importantly, when adults use practical, considerate alternatives throughout the lives of children and youth, we’ll get practical, considerate outcomes that reflect our investments. Because learning new ways to understand, exploring new ways to interact, and building new beliefs in the outcomes young people demonstrate are investments. They’re investments in our present times, and in the future.

Let’s keep that in mind. Learn more about youth/adult partnerships and youth voice today.

10 Ways YOU Can Teach Youth

YMC1

Surveying the state of the nation today, many adults have taken to lambasting young people. Blaming youth for protests and riots, slamming young people for not being employed, and railing against them for dropping out of high school or becoming involved with the legal system seems to be a new norm in the media and among community members. If you actually want to change this, YOU had better teach youth.
Over the last fifty years, adults have gotten further and further away from youth. Instead of seeing them at the store, worshipping together in faith communities, or performing through sports, culture and other activities, a chasm has separated youth from adults. That hallowed institution of adults teaching youth about the workforce, apprenticeships, have waned in the poor economy; even when they were in full effect, they aged up to ensure that young workers couldn’t access them.

Youth loose when adults are not substantively involved in their lives, and substantively means more than razing the barista at the coffee shop; different from citing youth for vandalism; and other than chastising your own children for not following parental direction. Being substantively involved with youth means stepping into their lives as a role model, mentor, ally, or partner. Let me break these down.

  • Be a role model. If you want to teach youth, be a role model to them on purpose. Identify your purpose, name your values, and live with integrity by holding yourself to those. While you’re doing that, show young people how that is done. Show your own kids or other peoples’ children how you stay true to your truth, and live the way you want to see them live. This is the most passive way to teach youth, and it matters.
  • Be a mentor. A mentor to youth does not have to join a program, wear a special t-shirt or wave the flag for a certain cause. Instead, a mentor actively demonstrates their commitment to themselves and others through active interactions with youth, making themselves available on a regular basis to facilitate informal learning in a non-threatening way. Regularly having coffee, having a youth come to your office to simply hang out with you, and showing a young person the ropes can make you a powerful mentor and meaningful role model.
  • Be an allyGoing one step beyond mentoring and role modeling, the ally stands up with young people to be an engaged, supportive adult in the life of youth. They teach young people by standing up for them, challenging them and engaging them together in meaningful ways that teach youth. They are not arbitrary or occasional; instead, allies are active, interactive, empathetic and deliberate. They are also named: You cannot say you are someone’s ally; instead, you can only work towards this role and let the youth you’re allying with know what an ally is. They will tell you you’re an ally when its time.
  • Be a partner. As all good businesspeople know, partnerships aren’t always 50/50 splits of power. Instead, they are mutually beneficial relationships focused on meeting unmet needs. Youth/adult partnerships are intentionally formed relationships focused on meeting real needs in pragmatic ways. They are focused on communication, respect, trust and meaningful interactions. They are the pinnacle of healthy, positive and supportive role modeling, mentorships and allyships between adults and youth because they hold the prospect of equity over equality to successful foster responsible roles for everyone involved.

 

If you are genuinely concerned for the present and struggling to make sense of the future, you had better teach youth. The roles outlined above are ways that you can make a difference right now. Following are ten steps you can take to form these relationships.

 

10 Steps to Teach Youth Right Now

  1. Acknowledge youth. Begin by acknowledging that youth exist. Right now. Start anywhere you can, and expand everywhere you can. That might mean greeting your young employees on purpose, having a real conversation with your own kid, or holding a youth roundtable for your community.
  2. Build your commitment. Be genuinely committed to youth. Go beyond just listening to youth by sitting with them, working with them and learning about them – from them.
  3. Create interest. No matter who you serve, how you serve them, create interest among other adults for youth. Talk with people, share thoughts and ideas, and watch the momentum generate and move ahead, rapidly.
  4. Position youth. Put youth in sustained opportunities to interact with adults in real ways, whether that’s just you personally or others too. Share power, build support and make new pathways to teach youth.
  5. Teach youth outright. A lot of adults think youth are don’t want to learn from them, or resist them. Make opportunities to teach them outright. Show youth there’s nothing wrong with being an adult and sharing your knowledge. Stop thinking they are you – they’re not!
  6. Open spaces for youth. Whether you’re a parent, church attendee, business manager or community worker, open spaces for everyone- adults and young people- to teach one another and be acknowledged for what they’re sharing. Create environments and cultures for full youth-adult partnerships by creating environments and cultures for full youth-adult partnerships.
  7. Go to youth. Talk with youth where they’re at right now and have earnest conversations with them instead of insisting they come to where you are. Stop being threatened by the spaces young people occupy without our control. Practice releasing control and just be with youth.
  8. Develop opportunities for youth. In every city in every community across the United States and around the world, youth need real activities that integrate and ingratiate them with adults. Encourage adults to sustain their commitment to expand youth engagement instead of simply trying and then stopping.
  9. Enforce youth knowledge. Every piece of interactive technology in the lives of youth reinforces their knowledge, whether we’re thinking about Wikipedia, iTunes, the Playstation, or other tools. They give youth experiences where they feel powerful and knowledgeable. Adults need to reinforce this knowledge and build on it outside of technology.
  10. Sustain connections. Its vital to keep youth connections with adults active and alive. Share the benefits of connecting with youth, and encourage other adults to help make the genuine case to youth for why they should be connected with adults.

When adults take these steps, we can teach youth on purpose. Stop being afraid, start being active, and let’s make a difference in the lives of youth and throughout the future of our communities.

 

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?

 

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.

Binary Youth Engagement

binary

Binary thinking is based in the belief that reality is based in either/or truths. We’re convinced in believing that it’s one way or the other, up or down, left or right. This thinking is damaging to young people today in many ways, including Youth Engagement at home, in schools and throughout communities.

Binary thinking leads students to be either forced to go to school or students getting expelled from school. The same goes with peoples’ understanding of youth rights: We’re made to believe that youth either have rights or they don’t.

This binary thinking is not accurate. There is no black and white perspectives in Youth Engagement. Instead, we’re all operating in shades of gray going through variations on the theme of democracy and civic action. That means that instead of believing a kid needs kicked out or needs to be able to leave, there are a lot of variations in between we should understand and be advocating for. I believe that all young people have an obligation, morally and socially, to the democratic society we live in to get educated by other people with varied experiences. Where that happens and how that happens should be the question – not if that happens or who that happens for.

The same thing with Youth Engagement: We shouldn’t be addressing these issues as “youth are engaged” or “youth are disengaged”. Instead, we should acknowledge the shades of engagement all of us feel all of the time throughout their lives, whether in school, at home, or throughout our communities. Instead of pretending that youth are disengaged, we should see what youth are actually engaged in right now, and work to extend their engagement instead of pretending they’re completely disengaged right now.

It seems to me that the whole piece where we keep getting hung up on either/or and this/that thinking is just idle wheel spinning that takes up time and energy that could otherwise be expended more effectively.

Youth-Adult Relationship Spectrum

Youth-Adult Relationship Spectrum

 

I have seen three primary ways adults relate to youth, no matter whether the relationship is parenting, teaching, or policing. The first way is over-permissiveness; the second is responsible; and over-restrictive. Before I explain these, its important to remind you that I’m an adult and these are my opinions; a young person and other adults surely will see things differently.

Over-permissive relationships between children, youth and adults allow young people to do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever and however they want. Disregarding the longer term effects of how young people relate to adults, over-permissiveness can incapacitate young peoples’ ability to successfully relate to the broader society around them. By allowing too much freedom, these relationships give children and youth “just enough rope to hang themselves” by extinguishing their inherent away their sense of purpose and belonging throughout the larger society in which we all belong. Based in a well-meaning notion of equality between young people and adults, these relationships conveniently relieve adults of the burden of responsibility in parts or all throughout the lives of young people. They often happen to encourage freedom.

Over-restrictive relationships between young people and adults override the decision-making capabilities of children and youth and disable their inherent creativity in order to assure adults’ sense of authority, protection, and ultimately, ownership over young people. By discouraging young people from experiencing the freedom and ability they need in their natural learning process as well as throughout their social and familial worlds, these relationships can take away enthusiasm and unfettered joy, only to replace it with rigidity and structure. Over-restrictive relationships enforce inequality between children and youth, and occur by adults enforcing their power with heavy-handed education, tight schedules and severe rules, and harsh punishment. They often happen to encourage safety.

Responsible relationships between children, youth and adults are based on trust, mutual respect, communication, and meaningful interactions. Positioning each person as an evolving member of a broader society, they identify roles, opportunities and outcomes that benefit every person in uniquely appropriate ways while holding the greater good ahead of individualism. These relationships occur when adults consciously decide to foster equity throughout the lives of young people by intentionally acknowledging each others’ according abilities, fostering deliberate opportunities and continually embracing the evolving capacities of children and youth throughout their lives, starting when they are infants. Responsible relationships nurture appropriate attachment and encourage interdependence between young people and adults. They often happen to foster democratic sensibilities.

I have not met one adult who is constantly and consistently one of these ways with all young people all of the time. This isn’t meant to provide a puzzle for people to fit together the individual pieces, either. Instead, by showing a spectrum I meant to show that each of us can be any of these at many points throughout our lives.

Share your thoughts in the comments section!

Engaging Youth Locally

Its important for all of us to balance our talk with our walk. Since I started writing this blog back in 2007, I’ve worked with a lot of different organizations to promote youth engagement. I’ve done it as a consultant, as a nonprofit staff member, as a state government worker, and in a few other capacities too. I think its important to keep my feet on the ground, even if my head is in the clouds!

Today is an example of my practice. Consulting the City of Olympia, I’ve been running a project focused on youth involvement in a new city park located in downtown. Its atypical for a number of reasons, primarily among which are its location and the users there so far. Sited around a popular artesian well, the park is essentially a slab of asphalt packed between two single story buildings. A cool design element in the form of a mosiac has been placed, but City investment in the space has been minimal so far.

Drawing together several youth engagement practitioners a few weeks ago, I gathered a massive list of wants that would encourage these organizations and programs to use the space in an ongoing fashion. That would populate the park with regular, pro-social values that would more accurately reflect Olympia’s values. However, that’s not the whole solution.

I’m facilitating an All Youth Forum in the park today. We’re expecting dozens of young people, and I’m looking forward to a simple, straight-forward conversation. I’ll report on that tomorrow. For now, here’s the flyer I designed for the event today:

Olympia All Youth Forum flyer