Central To Our Youth Work Should Be YOUTH

Youth Participation
Don’t have youth just sit there while you make all the decisions

Adults generally (and yes, I am making a generalization here) tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to dealing with youth.

Those that feel that youth don’t really know what’s best for them yet because they are still young and those that feel that when a youth hits 12 or 13 and those hormones kick in, they’re best left to their own devices to figure things out and make their mistakes “because that’s what teenagers do”.

One view negates the responsibility of young people to learn, make informed decisions and follow the road, no matter where the consequences (negative or positive) may take them.

The other view abdicates the responsibility of adults in the lives of youth (parents, teachers, youth workers, youth ministers, etc). The responsibility to teach, give information and provide a safe environment for making informed decisions and supporting young people along the road with the consequences (negative or positive) that they may find themselves in.

Neither serves young people to their best advantage or helps them reach their truly highest potential.

I’ll be honest with you. Five years ago, I fell heavily into one of those two camps. Anyone who knows the maniacal control freak perfectionist (I prefer ‘high achiever’ these days) that resides within me and may occasionally surface, knows that it was not the latter.

At some point I was conditioned to believe that young people didn’t know what was best for them and that adults are excellent decision makers. As an adult, I now know that to be less true than ever! Young people have the lion’s share of enthusiasm and great ideas – all they need are supportive adults to help them channel their passion in ways that help them achieve their goals.

But there is a third camp emerging within youth work practice. A group of youth workers that aren’t afraid to release some of the control over the young people in their programs. A way of working with youth that creates engaged, informed, compassionate and fair young people.

Youth Participation is becoming a buzz word among youth work practitioners. Basically, it’s based on Article 12 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which says that young people have the right to be heard by decision makers.

Anyone who has ever had a relationship, boss, friend or barista will know that there’s a big difference between being heard and being listened to. The key is making sure that when you’re giving young people a chance to have their say that it isn’t tokenistic.

Roger Hart created a Ladder of Participation when working with young people.  The bottom three rungs are considered ‘non-participation’ and at the top of that non-participation list is ‘tokenism’. You might be engaging in tokenism in your youth work if you have one or two young people who are your ‘go to kids’ for all decisions that are made in your organization.

Or maybe you’re just using youth for ‘decoration’ on the stage during your church’s “Youth Service”, in which the young people have no say over the music, the sermon, the dress code, etc.

It takes time to unteach social norms. It takes time for adults to stop dismissing young people simply because they’re young. Youth Participation is becoming more important to all forms of youth work and youth ministry in order to fully meet the real needs, not just the perceived needs by adults around them, of young people today.

Question: Where are you and your organization on Hart’s Ladder of Participation? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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