Adult-Driven Youth Voice

Youth Voice is any expression of any young person anywhere, all the time, about anything. It doesn’t depend on adult approval, it doesn’t need specific spaces or energies, and is always present wherever young people are. The question generally is whether adults want to hear what’s being said.

If a young person is talking in front of a group sharing their beliefs or experience, ideas or knowledge, they’re sharing youth voice. The same can be true of leadership, community service, and teambuilding activities. However, young people who cut themselves are sharing youth voice, just like youth graffiti artists, students who text answers during tests, and gang members. The question isn’t whether they’re sharing youth voice, because they always are – the question is whether adults want to hear what’s being said.

This leads to the phenomenon of adult-driven youth voice.

Characteristics of Adult-Driven Youth Voice
Adult-Driven Youth Voice is when adults motivate, inspire, inform, encapsulate, and generally make youth voice become convenient for adults. Adult-Driven Youth Voice is Convenient Youth Voice. Here are five characteristics of adult-driven youth voice.

  • WHO: Youth who adults want to hear from are selected to share their voices. All young people are members of all the communities they occupy, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. However, adult-driven youth voice selects specific young people who may not jostle adults’ opinions or ideas to share youth voice. 
  • WHAT: Young people say what adults want. They usually echoing or parroting adult beliefs, ideas, knowledge, and/or experience. If they share their own, adults largely agree with what young people have said.
  • WHEN: The calendar is determined by adults for youth. Young people are listened to when adults have the interest or ability to hear them, and not necessarily when children or youth want to be heard.
  • WHERE: Youth voice happens in places adults want it to be shared. Whether on a graffiti wall in a forgotten alley downtown, in a boxing gym for teenagers, in debate class, or at a city-run forum for youth to share their opinions about something, youth voice happens where adults approve of.
  • WHY: Adults solicit youth voice about specific issues. Young people have a variety of perspectives about all kinds of subjects. However, adult-driven youth voice allows only perspectives on issues that are important to adults or that adults pick for young people. If young people move outside adult-driven boundaries, they are either re-directed or expected to stop sharing their voices.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the above characteristics. However, this article isn’t meant to share those judgments; instead, I want to encourage you to think for yourself about what matters and why it matters. After you’ve done that, visit The Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit to find tools, examples, and other resources to help you with youth voice.

Special thanks to my spectacular friend and longtime comrade Heather Manchester. Her critical thinking and willingness to kick my butt inspired this post (and many others!) and I stand indebted to her genius, patience, and energy she shares with me.

3 Secrets of Adults Who Help Youth

As teachers, youth workers, parents, counselors, and other adults who work with young people every single day, we have our secrets. They’re not true for every adult, and being able to admit them takes courage, especially when we admit them to other adults we work with.

In my new book, Ending Discrimination Against Young PeopleI explore the need to create safe spaces for honest conversations among adults who work with young people, and parents who are progressive. I am not one to tell others’ secrets; however, here I want to distill some of what I’ve heard and share it with you. These are secrets that many adults who work with young people have told me about the young people they work with.
3 Secrets of Adults Who Help Youth
  1. Adults don’t trust young people. Generally, the reason why adults work with young people in any supportive way is that they simply don’t trust them. They don’t believe children and youth can get the supports, experiences, ideas, knowledge, or outcomes adults think they should without the active participation of adults throughout their lives. This is true in the best classrooms and the lovingest homes, as well as the friendliest offices and healthiest workplaces. Ask an adult if this is true, and they’re likely to adamantly deny it. You can tell adults don’t trust youth when they…
    • Make decisions for young people without young people
    • Give young people consequences that wouldn’t be there without those adults’ interventions
    • Use phrases like, “I’m the adult here,” and insist on young peoples’ compliance
  2. Adults almost always think they know best. An evolutionary mechanism of many creatures, including humans, is called the fight or flight response. The idea is that animals react to threats with a feeling in our nerves that helps us determine whether to fight or flee. I believe adults are almost constantly aware of what they perceive is the compromised ability of young people to respond accordingly to perceived threats. Because of this, there is an evolutionary response within adults that causes us to believe that we need to know the best for ourselves and young people whenever we share company. This is apparent when…
    • Adults limit young peoples’ options “for their own good”
    • Young people are infantalized (treated like infants) no matter what age they are
    • Children and youth constantly defer to adults
  3. Adults are scared of youth. Any adult who says anything about the future in a negative context is plainly afraid of youth. This is true because they lack the faith, trust, or perspective to see that young people are inheriting a world that is gonna survive. It’s not going to fall apart, stop spinning, or implode at any second. Instead, it’s going to keep on turning, and things are going to work out. This becomes obvious when…
    • Adults talk about “kids today” in a negative sense, or talk about their childhood and youth as if there was nothing wrong, bad, or challenging when they were that age
    • Young people talk, act, dress, or behave like adults in order to make adults more comfortable with them
    • Adults make generalizations about today’s generation
I began this article by talking about adults who work in “helping professions” and parents. The reason why I single these folks out is that first, I am one of both. Secondly, as adults we get into these professions and learn to rationalize our work through many guises, which are the bulletpoints I shared above. But those are the symptoms; the words in bold are the realities. 
Let me know what you think in the comments below!