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Wake up to the expertise of older youth

By Rebecca Saito

In preparation for a workshop I did recently on mentoring teenagers, I googled "mentoring older youth" to learn about current research and practice. Virtually all of the links that came up made the assumption that older youth were troubled youth, or high-risk youth, e.g., "juvenile delinquents," pregnant and parenting teens, youth in foster care or with parents in prison. What is that about?!

It's ageism, plain and simple. There is such a pervasive belief that teenagers are not to be trusted, are "screwed up," are something to be avoided or "dealt with" rather than that they are creative, ever-changing, exciting, cool people with strengths and expertise. You see this not only in the research that is conducted but also in the news, movies and TV, conversations with friends, family and neighbors, as well as where we spend our public dollars (youth intervention versus youth development).

Gisela Konopka and other youth development proponents enable us to see experimentation, creative license, struggles with varying values, ideas, and perspectives as necessary for healthy development.

So next time you see a young person doing something that makes you uncomfortable, remember that trying on new identities, unusual hair styles or clothes, bumping up against current values and cultural norms is expected, normal and healthy for young people. It's how we figure out who we are, what we stand for, what matters to us, what we're good at and what we need to get better at. Ask yourself whether the behavior is merely troubling to you, or indicative of a troubled person. If the former, dig deeper into your own value assumptions; if the latter, and you are fortunate enough to have a relationship with this person, state what you see and feel and ask how you might help.

Come on people, fellow researchers, practitioners and policy-makers: Let's invest in the healthy development of young people and let's make room at the decision-making table for people of all ages. Young people have such great insights, connections, knowledge, and expertise. Teenagers can be great researchers, media experts, youth development and engagement experts, marketers of youth programs and opportunities, friends and mentors. For those who work in youth development, there should be no end to the ways in which young people's expertise can be utilized in doing our work. How can you create opportunities for youth leadership?

-- Rebecca Saito, former senior research associate

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  1. Thanks for post Beki!
    Last week I had the opportunity to hear Reed Larson speak to this very issue. Like you, he opened his talk by illustrating how negatively and inaccurately society views adolescents, and countered that adolescence is a period of tremendous growth and development of new capacities (e.g., self-regulation, teamwork, planning, agency). While we ooh and ahh at the genius of toddlers, for example, we tend to discount how complex and challenging adolescent developmental processes are. Reed went on to describe youth programs as “natural laboratories” for young people to develop these potentials and work on these challenges. They are one place where young people have a chance to explore, experiment and get support for the very leadership skills and opportunities you describe.
    p.s. Can I recruit you now to mentor my kids when they get older?

  2. As I begin mentoring another youth (I am starting today with a year long commitment as a Bolder Options mentor), your thoughts provide an inspired reminder to learn from the insights, wisdom and creativity offered by my mentee and to keep my adult judgments in check. Thank you! I relish this new opportunity to be engaging directly in youth development, to extend beyond my work researching and teaching youth development!

  3. Participants really enjoyed the workshop - especially that you brought a young person along to co-present!

  4. Your blog reminded me of the article you and Don LeTourneau used in your class "Introduction to Youth Work." That was back in the 1990's. You assigned the Ruthanne Kurth-Schai's article entitled " The Roles of Youth in Society." Remember that? I think you know this, but that article changed my life and the way I think and feel about young people.
    Among the many valuable issues she talks about in the article, one that resonates for me is the statement "Although they represent contrasting interpretations of the roles of youth in society, contemporary images of childhood are united in their failure to acknowledge the potential of young people to contribute to the social order." Young people are ready to go now!

  5. Kate--
    You know your work with Reed Larson is stuff I admire greatly--it's so full of practical wisdom. Seeing adolescence and adolescents through the lens of normative developmental processes and growth is really so much of what our field is about--and so much of what is misunderstood.
    I do agree that youth programs and youth workers are a critical "natural laboratory" where these opportunities for growth and development can and do occur.
    I also think that these opportunities for growth can and do occur outside youth programs so of course I would love to be Auntie Beki to your children as they become teens. In fact, As April references, in the workshop about mentoring older teens, I brought my best friends 19 year old son, who has had a mentor since he was about 9, with me to help teach the class. As it turned it was a huge growth experience for him to be recognized for his expertise and to be asked to help teach! These are the kinds of informal opportunities or ladders of leadership that we all need to look for in our work and in our life. best, beki

  6. Ah Margo-
    How cool that you have made that commitment to be a mentor and be in relationship with a young person through Bolder Options, a great mentoring program! I'm sure you'll learn so much from your mentee that will be useful in your teaching and research. I know I could not do what I do without having learned from the young people that have given me their time and attention! best, beki

  7. Amen sister CeCe! Shifting the way we look at young people is so subtle yet so fundamental to youth development.
    I was talking to a young woman at a Minnesota Public Radio youth violence prevention gathering the other night and she was asking me how I could have worked in the youth development field for 30 years without burning out by seeing all the problems teenagers have. And I thought, "Burning out cuz of the young people? Never! They energize me, I learn so much from them, they're so inspiring!" So I tried explain that I do youth development with them, that we utilize their strengths and passions rather than focus on their problems. She looked at me like I was from another planet. Which of course I feel like sometimes, but that's another blog topic altogether. best, bek

  8. Beki, you are an inspiration...thank you for an inspiring and energizing post and follow-up discussion. Keep up the good work and continue to highlight, communicate, and embrace the assets of older youth.

  9. Back at ya Josey! best, bek

  10. Becky,
    You are a breath of fresh air! Thanks for sharing your ideas. As a parent of young children, I now get to answer the questions from my daughter like, "Why does he dress like that mommy?" My good youth development background helps to inform her that it's all style, which gives her free rein to admire someone with pink hair!
    Sam Grant

  11. It is so cool Sam that you are teaching and modeling tolerance and understanding rather than judgement! She's lucky to have you as her mom. best, beki

  12. Yes, Sam thanks for that story. When I see my 13 year granddaughter come in with spiked blue hair and a very colorful outfit, I know she is becoming her own person. I love her for taking the risk to do so.
    Jeri Ezaki

  13. Jeri and Sam,
    When I was 13 the cool thing was to wear jeans that were as tattered, frayed, and patched as you could get them, oh and suede moccasins, and long stringy hair. I know my parents cringed whenever they saw me walk out the door. Each generation does seem to find their own style and way of "being" and "becoming." best, beki

  14. Jennifer Griffin-WiesnerNovember 4, 2011 at 9:20 AM

    Great stuff as usual, Bek. I'm so glad you are one of my mentors.

  15. Beki, your post comes to me at a perfect time.
    I've been researching a lot about what a quality program looks like for teens so I may further develop the programs we offer at our center.
    In developing programs, I have found myself many times drifting into assumptions about the risks that teenagers pose to our center, our structures, our staff and other youth.
    I am thankful to have voices like yours in my life who have allowed me to recognize those moments, and bring myself back to a foundation of compassion, real relationships, and trust for building healthy, challenging, and fun programs.
    I'm also going to read this article- Thank you Cece & Beki!

  16. Wow Angel. You continue to be, in my mind, an incredible example of the reflective practitioner and scholar. Your thoughtful linkage to Kurth-Schai's article (which I had completely forgotten about until Cece's reference to it) enabled me to read it again after 20 years. This article was published in 1988 and yet she could be writing about our current realities...
    "...contemporary expectations concerning the nature of childhood discourage young people from contributing to society...Children fail to develop a strong sense of self-worth and social commitment while adults fail to benefit from the new perceptions, creative insight, idealism, energy, and enthusiasm children are capable of providing...The time is here to reconceptualize the roles of youth in society...and to take steps to involve young people in the processes of social design and civic action...As opportunities are provided for children to participate actively in guiding the development of human society, hope for the future of humanity and hope for the future of children themselves are mutually enhanced." (pp. 127-128, Kurth-Schai, R., The Educational Forum, Vol. 52, No.2, Winter 1988)
    Thank you Cece and Angel for nudges to keep learning, and re-learning. best, beki

  17. When it comes to a troubled teen, there is a lot that comes to mind. You ask yourself "What happened to make them this way?" Or wonder what went wrong. It's good to know that there are institutions out there with the teens best interests at heart.