Fall 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 3 // Forum // 3FRM2
Double Standard for Youth Involvement
True youth-adult partnerships exist when the contributions of young people are seen as having value in the present, and not as practice for adulthood. Such a partnership acknowledges that decision-making roles can be shared by young people and adults. Often, subscribing to and practicing such a philosophy will mean significant shifts must be made in our beliefs and assumptions about youth in general.
Today's young people are more aware than ever of the social, economic, and environmental problems affecting the way they live. Although there has been a recent call for greater involvement by young people in helping to address those problems, few adults seem to have accepted youth as having the desire or ability to make significant contributions to their resolution. I believe the Cooperative Extension System, through its program development process, can and should become a model organization empowering youth as equal partners in community decision making. But, more often than not, the degree of involvement by young people in decision making is subject to what I call a double standard for youth involvement.
Extension has set itself apart from other organizations that involve citizens in volunteer roles by getting them involved early in the decision-making phases of program development. While Extension involves citizens in making decisions about what to do, many other organizations only involve volunteers in carrying out the work to be done, long after many of the decisions have already been made.
But, I'm afraid Extension doesn't treat adults and youth the same way with regard to involvement throughout the program development process. While adults seem to be involved in decision making from the start, youth aren't often involved until implementation of the program. We need to involve youth throughout all of the program development process. Such involvement not only improves the accuracy of programming decisions, but provides youth with meaningful experiences that foster positive growth.
Abigail Van Buren once said: "If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders."1 While the words are simple, the underlying philosophy establishes an excellent foundation for greater involvement of youth in decision making. Unfortunately, history suggests that the amount of responsibility placed on the shoulders of youth has decreased rather than increased.
Brokenieg, Brendtro, and Van Bockern, in their new book, Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future, say:
The evolution of North American culture has placed young people in a powerless situation, in which they have no meaningful role in society. Persons without a sense of autonomy come to see themselves as pawns in a world where others control their destiny.2
Feeling no power to make an impact on one's environment leads to learned irresponsibility. Learned irresponsibility, in turn, has been suggested to manifest itself through helplessness, defiant rebellion against authority, negative peer subcultures, and the narcissism of an affluent generation lacking a sense of social responsibility.3
Learned irresponsibility results from a lack of experience in accepting consequences for decisions and actions. As opposed to the contemporary view that children must be taught to be obedient and follow instructions of elders, traditional Native American culture suggests that personal autonomy and responsibility are best taught by sharing values and models for action but providing "opportunities to learn and to make choices without coercion."4 Although the opportunity to make choices is a significant learning opportunity in its own right, we must also allow youth to accept the consequences of their decisions and actions. Allowing for successes and failures reinforces the notion of accepting responsibility for decisions and actions.
Phrases like "preparing youth as future citizens" and other patronizing language are often used to justify youth involvement. However, such language implies that young people aren't currently citizens and can't contribute now. This way of thinking suggests "real" contributions are deferred until adulthood and limited participation is valuable practice for adulthood. Adults who subscribe to this philosophy of involvement, although altrustic in nature, don't recognize the full range of potential contributions by youth.
Such thinking also has an impact on the nature of involvement adults allow. When youth are asked to participate in community service, the roles assigned to them are often trivial in nature or those that adults find distasteful, such as roadside cleanups and other labor intensive tasks. As a young 4-H agent, I resented calls from local officials and civic club officers who knew I had a corps of "cheap labor" that could carry out even the most ambitious of plans. When the requests for help were presented to the youth, they were often turned down. The problem was the youth weren't involved in making the decisions and developing the plans.
The W. T. Grant Commission in its publication The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success for America's Youth and Families states:
There is virtually no limit to what young people-with appropriate education, training, and encouragement can do, no social need they cannot meet. We reiterate: young people are essential resources and society needs their active involvement as citizens.5
This sentiment is echoed by Langton, author of a guide for young people on community involvement, when he states:
What America needs as we grow toward the 21st century, is a positive understanding of the capacity of young people to be a part of the solutions rather than (continually being viewed as) the source of the problem.6
True youth-adult partnerships exist when the contributions of young people are seen as having value in the present, and not as practice for adulthood. Such a partnership acknowledges that decision-making roles can be shared by young people and adults. Often, subscribing to and practicing such a philosophy will mean significant shifts must be made in our beliefs and assumptions about youth in general. It may also require significant changes in the policies and structure of the organizations with which we work.7
Here are a set of positive steps for Extension to take to involve youth in program development:
- Involve youth in the program development process from the
beginning. Don't let adults make all of the decisions, and then ask
young people to help. Respect young people as equal partners in decision
making as well as in carrying out and evaluating programs. Make special
efforts to ensure the significance of tasks assigned to youth.
- Incorporate youth into all relevant, ongoing, and special
Extension advisory committees and task forces, but avoid tokenism.
Naming two youth to a committee of several dozen adults does little to
facilitate adult-youth partnerships.
- Share models, values, and ideas with youth, but allow them to
make some of their own decisions. Provide them with opportunities and
allow them to fail as well as succeed, thus teaching them to accept both
positive and negative consequences of decisions.
- Promote the notion that active participation in community is central to our role as citizens and the involvement of everyone is essential.
1. A . F. Lenehan, ed., Leadership...with a Human Touch, CLXXII (August 6, 1991), p. 15.
2. L. K. Brendtro, M. Brokenieg, and S. Van Bockern, Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future (Bloomington, Indiana: National Educational Service, 1990), p. 41.
3. Ibid., p. 20.
4. Ibid., p. 41.
5. William T. Grant Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship, The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success for America's Youth and Families (Washington, D.C.: Youth and America's Future, 1988).
6. S. Langton, Teen Power: A User's Guide for Youth Community Involvement (Ipswich, Massachusetts: Stuart Langton and Associates, 1989).
7. W. A. Lofquist, The Technology of Prevention (Tucson, Arizona: Associates for Youth Development, Inc., 1989).