Establishing Trust with Youth

Trust is a tricky concept for me to spell out, particularly in its relationship to Youth Voice. Across our society we do not generally value trust between young people and adults. Instead, we live in a culture that routinely distrusts children and youth. Our punitive laws are focused on punishment, exclusion and isolation, rather than establishing connectivity or fostering prevention.

For instance, truancy laws across the country routinely see the young person out-of-school as being guilty of the crime of absence; rather than working with that young person to ensure they are in a safe, supportive and engaging learning environment that compels them to want to be there, police routinely force students to attend by taking them to their school when they are caught truant.
This type of distrust smacks of discrimination, and is perpetutated in all corners of our society, from stores with signs prohibiting more than two people under 18 without a parent to arbitrary voting age laws that completely disregard the education society forces young people to participate in. So the question of how to establish trust between young people and adults can smack of hypocrisy to youth, particularly after they have spent 12, 14, or 16 years of their lives feeling controlled, manipulated, mistrusted, and so forth. Neitzsche once said that, “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
This week I shared my Meaningful Student Involvement booklets with a long-time friend of mine I was recently reconnected with who is now working in schools. One of her immediate responses was this question of how to establish trust, particularly with disengaged students. My own experience as a youth and working with youth tells me that distrust is one of the primary causes of disengagement for young people in any setting. As committed adult allies to young people, how can we establish the trust connections we need with young people in order to create the types of youth-adult partnerships our society so desperately needs?
My friends at Youth On Board in Boston come to mind. Their pioneering work over the last 15 years has taught me a lot, particularly over the last five years I’ve been working with them in varying capacities. The way their work with young people and adults moves flows so easily that its tempting to either see it as magic or as simply natural, as it appears with so many of the best practitioners in this area, parents or youth workers or consultants or whoever. However, I’d suggest that a majority of the time it is neither; instead, its a concious and deliberate attempt to rectify some imbalance of relationship, no matter how its perceived.
In the case of Youth On Board, they are deliberate about engaging young people in safe conversations that allow those youth to engage, explore, identify and promote their perspectives. They conciously create proactive spaces with youth and adults to allow the vital exchange of ideas, attitudes, knowledge and actions that can demonstrate to youth that some adults are worthy of their trust; and demonstrates to adults that youth are trustable, and ultimately trusting. And that’s what this boils down to for me.
Rather than seeing young people as inherently distrustful of adults, we need to allow them the space they need in order to demonstrate that trust. But first, particularly with historically disengaged young people, we need to create those spaces. They are not wide-spread nor are they particularly easy to create. However, children and youth want to trust adults. They want to believe what adults have to say. They want to understand that there are safe, supportive, nurturing and engaging places and people who are going to be there for them. As responsible adults we have an obligation to create and foster the relationships that reflect those values. Indira Gandhi once said that, “You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.” The simple gesture of opening our hands is one place to start; we can’t make young people open theirs. Instead we can create a climate and culture within our programs and organizations that actively demonstrates our support, encouragement, and ultimately, our trust in children and youth. That is the first step.
This post doesn’t really explore the A to Z of establishing trust with young people. However, as always I believe its important to acknowledge that there are important considerations, assumptions and implications we must keep in mind. This is a start toward that end.

One comment

  1. Absurdly false "reefer madness" propaganda is a major factor in undermining trust and alienating the very young people most in need of constructive engagement with honest adults.

    As William C. Shelton puts it:

    So why should we consider legalizing it? Well, because when young people experience marijuana, they imagine that the falsehoods they were told about it apply to crack, methamphetamine, oxycontin, and heroin as well. That’s the real way that marijuana is a “gateway drug.”

    The same can be said for sexual repression and many other "well intentioned" instances by parents and teachers of shading the truth with the ostensible purpose of protecting youth.

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