In desperate times, people who wanted to serve young people had to name the reasons why children and youth needed their help. It began more than 100 years ago, and continues today: Why should we help these kids? Grant applications, news stories, political campaigns and desperate parents anxiously label, diagnose and otherwise fragment young people.
Fixating on Separating
It seems like we’re fixated on fragmented youth. Nonprofits, education and public health have secured billions of dollars over painting children and youth as alternately missing, lacking, avoiding or incapable of being whole, healthy happy people right now.
Instead, these sectors throw young people under the bus everyday in grant applications, media interviews and in briefings to politicians and other decision-makers.
- Police often believe anyone under 21 can be criminal;
- Teachers think they’re potential dropouts
- Public health officials variate from calling them suicidal to smokers to vessels for STDs, and;
- Nonprofits often paint young people as bored, apathetic and neglected.
Gone are the days when “youth are the future.” Instead, these are the days when youth are hopeless without adult interventions. The ways we’re using these labels makes fragmented youth sound like an eternal reality facing almost every young person, everywhere, all the time.
By portraying children and youth as fragmented, these organizations secure money to serve young people. They earn the largesse of foundations, government agencies and private donors who are anxious about the future, nervous about the present and uncertain about their own kids.
Appealing to the lowest common denominator has an effect on young people. Growing up in special programs for low achievers in school; unsafe car drivers; drug prevention; and other portraits painted by their schools, youth workers and others, children and youth learn to see themselves how adults see them.
My Fragmented Youth
When I was growing up, I learned to identify myself as a fragmented youth. Over time, I accumulated these identities:
- The child of a Vietnam veteran with generational PTSD
- A border-crosser between Canada and the States
- An occasionally homeless kid who was very familiar with motels
- A former country kid
- A city kid
- A white kid in a Black neighborhood
- A Canadian in the U.S.
- A low achiever in school
- Someone “who could do whatever they wanted if they just applied themselves”
- A slacker
- A low achiever
- An overachiever
- A brother
There were other identities, too. They came from others’ mouths, including my parents, the parents of my friends, teachers, youth workers, pastors, friends, and others I got involved with in different ways. These titles formed my identity, became the messages I told myself and reinforced assumptions I had. Sometimes they startled me, and other times I expected them.
What are the identities you accumulated as a child or youth?
What’s the alternative to fragmenting youth? At a recent national conference, I suggested we can begin by moving toward HOLISTIC YOUTH DEVELOPMENT. In my conception, this approach sees the whole child and the whole youth as being the most important way to position young people. It means no more portraying children as incapable because of their age or youth as needy because of their dreams.
Instead, it means teaching whole young people, everywhere and all of the time. Some of the things we can do include:
- Enhancing young peoples’ skills of self-engagement
- Developing their life skills early on
- Enabling their functional resourcing abilities
- Fostering substantive decision-making opportunities
- Increasing the capacity of their economic power, and;
- Constantly emphasizing family engagement
These steps can allow us to change the world through youth engagement by allowing whole youth development to drive out perceptions. What do you think are the ways to move away from treating young people as fragmented youth?