I read a short article a few weeks ago about how the current economic and political climate is failing to support our teenagers and twenty-somethings; the main point was that young people aren’t getting a first chance, never mind a second chance. They see nothing for them and nobody on their side, so it’s no wonder they give up.
Having children in this age group, and being involved with projects attracting disaffected teenagers, I see the point but I also disagree. It’s the same argument I always use really – they’re not failing to engage, we’re just failing to notice when and how they do. They engage with the things that make a difference for them, but those things aren’t interesting to us or we see no value in them, so we discount them. If we want to see young people engaging, we have to look in different places.
I’ve seen a room full of 14 and 15 year olds – spiky, cynical, black-clad, pierced and dyed hoodies – excluded and expelled ‘troublemakers’ – step up to make something happen. I’ve seen them mop floors and scrub toilets, staff an event, manage a team, mentor friends in trouble, break up fights, rescue vulnerable youngsters from abusive situations, pool their limited resources to pay for equipment, run committees, organise peaceful protests on things that matter to them. How has this miracle happened? By giving them a space where what they say and how they feel actually matters. Yes, it really is that simple.
Note, though, that although it’s simple it’s not easy. The people in charge have to be OK with not controlling every detail. They have to be OK with swearing, smoking, emotional outbursts, stilts*, messy break-ups, offensive slogan t-shirts, loud music, facial piercings, large groups congregating in corners, noisy horseplay, skateboards, vocal arguments, niche dance crazes and bad hair. Accept that the way to motivate is to grant genuine control. Rather than train the next generation to do everything by our rules and unquestioningly adopt our value judgements.
*Don’t ask. Just … don’t.