Is there a time for youth engagement? Recently I was leading a workshop when a parent asked me that question. I answered by explaining that engagement happens from the youngest years and onward. Here are some of my thoughts.
Youth engagement happens during infancy. Parents who deliberately respond to their infants’ needs in holistic ways lay the foundation for lifelong engagement. Respecting young babies can mean encouraging their “personhood” – that is, being as attentive, courteous, and deliberate about them as you are with older people. Experts suggest close physical time between parents and children creates the strong personal attachment that can lead to strong community bonds. A father who nurtures his baby, rather than avoiding or “handing off” responsibilities, supports strong engagement. Developing a strong sense of community is important at this phase as well. When small children are surrounded by caring adults they learn that their responsibility is to care.
When an infant “goo-goos” at you, listen to them. They will learn that when they speak, their voice has impact. Listening to a child’s voice is the first step of the Cycle of Youth Engagement. It is also important to give young infants your undivided attention for at least short periods of your day. This shows young children that their presence and activity is important enough for you to stop your day and be with them.
Youth engagement happens during childhood. Investing in children can mean building their skills and giving the time, resources, and space needed in order to share responsibility with them. However, it also means developing the skills and investments adults need to succeed, as well. Communicating with toddlers and children means talking with them, not at them. That’s a skill that adults usually have to learn, starting with unlearning their previous behaviors. Acknowledging children’s voices can be important for self-worth. It can also help form a community expectation. As adults, engaging children requires us to change our behavior while we strive to mold the behavior of children. However, this is an essential developmental phase where children inform their sense of identity, purpose, and belonging within their larger village. Part of this expectation is to turn a popular idiom on its head: Instead of, “It takes a village to raise a child,” think about what it means to say, “It takes a child to raise a village.” That’s what Youth engagement is about.
When children go through hard times, they usually figure out how to “deal with it.” This ability, called resilience, is a powerful skill. However, children need to learn how to use it positively. Design Youth engagement activities to teach children how to rely on community as a collective benefit that can help them. That will build up the positive power of young people to change not just their own lives, but the communities around them.
What do you think about engaging babies and children?
- Engaging Youth from Within
- How to Start Engaging Children and Youth
- Rules for Parent Engagement in Schools