I may be dating myself a bit, but the generation of parents before me firmly believed that “children should be seen and not heard”. Youth engagement in decision making was beyond comprehension for most adults of that generation. In general, you had to be 18 years of age, and often 21 years of age, before your opinions were accepted and recognized.
While adults may have considered this ‘good behavior management’, it did little to help young people learn life skills and leadership attributes. Many learning opportunities were lost in the developmental years as youth were shut out of the decision-making process within the family, as well as the classroom or youth group setting.
Youth participating in decision making is an asset.
Today, we recognize that youth have more to offer than once thought and there are benefits that come from youth being engaged in decision making processes. It is at the core of youth engagement, which is now considered a best practice in Youth Intervention.
The two key attributes of youth engagement are:
- Young people are empowered and involved in the process of making decisions that have a direct impact on them and (sometimes) others. You may have heard a common phase, “No decisions about us without us.”
- There is a genuine youth/adult partnership when all parties concerned have the ability to be part of the decision making
Research demonstrates that involving youth in making program decisions help produce positive outcomes. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense. Young people are no different than adults; we all want to have input into decisions that affect us.
But most importantly, as youth and adults work together and listen to each other it leads to healthy youth/adult partnerships. Most youth serving professionals agree with research data: It is the ability to build a meaningful relationship with a young person that is the best predictor of success.
Who benefits from youth/adult partnership?
- Youth: A sense of ‘ownership’ comes when you have been part of the decision making process. With a sense of ownership, youth will engage more in the program and when they are engaged they develop trust. When trust is developed with adults, youth are willing to learn from them.
- Adults: Having youth involved in the decision making process addresses the biggest challenge for Youth Intervention programs, which is to engage the youth in a meaningful way.
- The Program: The positive youth outcomes that occur when a program is based on healthy youth/adult partnerships can help a program gain greater community and philanthropic support.
What can I do to understand this better?
- Read an academic report(s) about the outcomes of youth engagement.
- Attend a training that focuses on establishing and strengthening youth/adult relationships.
As in any profession, there are trends that will come and go. But the research on youth engagement is strong and makes sense. Most likely youth engagement will not go ‘out of fashion’. This is because at the heart of helping our at-risk youth is our ability to engage them and earn their trust.
What better way to build that trust than to have youth involved in the decision making process. It shows they are listened to and respected. It is what we all want and need in our lives.
Paul Meunier is the Executive Director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA)