Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Youth On A Pedestal

There's a special place where young people are placed in stark contrast to their roles in our daily lives. Typically, young people are segregated from adults, compelled to follow rules and laws they didn't make, and shown what to do with themselves through advertising, education, family life, and community norms. Nowhere along the way are they treated as full humans, capable of contributing to the larger world around them for their benefit and the benefit of others.

Until they get to that special place of being Youth On A Pedestal.

From there, young people are allowed to step above and beyond their peers. They can glimpse out across the lands and see the places where adults see. Their access grows and they become able to see where their age group peers stand, as well as some adults. With an increased amount of education and opportunity, these young people can grow still more powerful, acting as little adults who are controllers of their fates and masters of their domains.

In this strange upside down kingdom, these children and youth can boss around and manipulate adults to get what they want. They drive conversation, control situations, and seemingly move mountains compared to their peers. With experiences as top performing students, athletes, musicians, scholars, performers, and more, they seem mighty.

Looking up at them isn't a particularly pleasant experience for all their peers. Sure, some friends hold up the pedestal, putting their backs and hands to the column to ensure their friends' security. Others step back and stare up in awe, wondering how that kid got that power, while others still throw rocks from the distance and try to knock that youth off their pedestal.

The challenge for Youth Voice programs today is not to foster these particular pedestals for youth. This is called "romanticizing" Youth Voice. It positions young people as speakers at adult conferences; puts students in charge of the school board for a day; makes some youth shine while others throttle, stuck in gear without the resources and attention they need to move forward. Well-meaning adults perpetuate this by making formal youth leadership opportunities distinctly for so-called Youth Leaders. These young people often already have a lot of access to the adult work, and are merely gaining more as their pedestals are made taller.

Solving the crisis of youth pedestalling is going to take more than a blog post. Its going to take a commitment by every adult who works with youth to stop assuming young people need to be held up high above their peers. Instead, we must create opportunities for all children and youth to experience having the spotlight shine on them for who they are, rather than simply how we want them to be.

The real root cause of youth pedestalling is adultism. We, as adults, have distinct ideas about who we want to be around and how we want them to behave, every single one of us. The young people who shine through the morass of youth segregation and demonstrate their effectiveness at being adult-like are generally the ones we place on pedestals. The inverse is true, too: The young people who don't behave how we want them to become disengaged.

How do you treat children and youth you particularly like or get along with? Do they stand equal to their peers and adults, or do they stand above everyone else? Putting youth on a pedestal does no favors for them, and ultimately undermines your best intentions. Is that what you really want?