Becoming Aware of Youth Culture

Culture is anything and everything that makes up the parts of a person’s entire way of living.

Culture is organized into groups, including a person’s geographic location, political identification, sexual orientation, familial makeup, friends, religion, jobs, and AGE. Age is a cultural group because of the traits shared among different age groups throughout society.

Ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia are all rooted in these cultural realities. Adultism is too.

Adultism is bias towards adults.

In order to successfully, meaningfully and wholly engage children and youth anywhere, anytime for any reason, adults have to confront our bias towards adults, and the consequence of that: discrimination against young people.

The question of becoming aware of the culture of young people is at the very core of my work for a lot of reasons.

For all that we continue expanding Euro-awareness of the value of indigenous culture; for the cultural expansion towards equitable roles between women and men; for the upsurging awareness of the equal rights of GBLTQQ folks; we’re missing a key element in these conversations, and that’s the cultural shoehorn known as children and youth.

Young people have a distinct and unique culture for many reasons, not the least of which being the routine and systematic segregation of them from society by adults. The culture of young people is almost wholly and constantly neglected, denied and dismissed by adults. They are actually and actively repressed, consequently fostering adultism and the adultcentric nature of schools and homes and businesses and government and, and, and…

That’s why cultural awareness is at the middle of what I do. From my perception, we’re talking about human rights, and the distinct right young people should have to be themselves.

We can and must do better.

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?

7 Alternatives to Youth Injustice

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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.

What is an Adult Ally to Young People?

An “adult ally” is “a person who is a member of the dominant or majority age group who work to end oppression in his or her personal and professional life through support of, and as an advocate for, young people.”*
“Allies are adults who advocate and support young people. They assist young people in their lives, support them when they struggle, and let them know how important they are and that change is possible.”

Adult allies have been remarkably effective in promoting positive change in society. Over the past 40 years adult allies have worked in organizations and communities around the world to make adult culture more aware of bias and discrimination against young people, and challenging of the privileges automatically given to adults.

20 Ways to Be An Adult Ally to Young People

An adult ally strives to…
  1. be a friend to young people and adults
  2. be a listener
  3. be open-minded
  4. have his or her own opinions about age
  5. be willing to talk
  6. commit him or herself to personal growth in spite of the discomfort it may sometimes cause
  7. recognize his or her personal boundaries about age
  8. recognize when to refer young people or other adults to additional resources
  9. confront his or her own prejudices about age
  10. join others with a common purpose
  11. believe that all persons regardless of age, sex, race, gender, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation should be treated with dignity and respect
  12. engage in the process of developing a culture free of age-based oppression
  13. recognize his or her mistakes, but not use them as an excuse for inaction
  14. be responsible for empowering his or her role in a community, particularly as it relates to responding to adultism and adultcentrism
  15. recognize the legal powers and privileges that adults have and which young people are denied
  16. believes that youth can “be youth” and be partners and meaningful participants
  17. is clear about his or her intentions as an adult ally
  18. fosters environments where young people feel comfortable and respected
  19. does not assume that youth only know about “youth issues”
  20. supports young people’s development as meaningful partners and leaders

As important as it is to define what an adult ally is in a positive sense, it is also helpful to understand the boundaries of an adult ally’s role.

An adult ally is NOT…
  • someone with ready-made answers
  • necessarily a counselor, nor are they necessarily trained to deal with crisis situations
  • expected to proceed with an interaction if levels of comfort or personal safety have been violated

Sources

Sources in this post include Washington, J. and Evans, N. J. (1991). “Becoming an Ally,” in N. J Evans and V. A. Wall (eds) Beyond tolerance: Gays, lesbians and bisexuals on campus. Alexandria, VA: American College Personnel Association and (2002) Get the Word Out! Boston: Youth On Board. Some other sources I’ve used for this include this PDF and this PDF, this PDF and this PDF. Learn more here, here and here.

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