Empowering Youth in an Adultist Society
Last month, my students and I celebrated the successful first year of South Jersey Sudbury School, a democratic school founded with the explicit goal of empowering kids with freedom, personal responsibility and community values. When describing the school and its goals, adults often ask what they can do to help youth empowerment in their own lives.
You can begin by recognizing the state of our society from a young person’s perspective. Children enjoy none of the so-called “rights” and freedoms adults enjoy.
In most schools, children are seldom given any meaningful choice in what or how they learn and never trusted with the slightest degree of freedom or independence. Children must request permission even to use the restroom to exercise a basic bodily function. They are also subject to dress codes.
My tenth-grade history teacher reveled in pointing out to me and my peers that we were not entitled to First Amendment protection while in school. Indeed, student essays and projects are subject to censorship, and students may not assemble or demonstrate without adult authorization. Even general chitchat and polite conversation is discouraged in school. Teachers and administrators take every opportunity to silence students. This is strange since conversation is perhaps the most valuable skill any adult can possess!
Dr. Robert Epstein, a preeminent psychology researcher, professor and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, states “the rate at which restrictions were placed on young people began to accelerate after the 1930s and increased dramatically after the social turmoil of the 1960s. Surveys I’ve conducted suggest that teenagers today are subject to 10 times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, to twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even to twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons.”
On this last claim, I'll add that my mentor, Dr. Jeri Quirk, who has worked as a psychotherapist in prisons before founding her own Sudbury schools, has also asserted that inmates enjoy greater day-to-day freedom than schoolchildren.
Once you have recognized this state of affairs, then you are ready to start making a difference in young people’s lives.
I’ve found that the most important element in empowering youth is trust. Trust that your kids, or the kids in your life, want to be responsible, competent people. That’s all it takes, really. It sounds simple but once you think about your own childhood you can imagine how powerful trust can be. How would your life have gone differently if you were trusted with making decisions about your own education, custom-tailored to your own interests and passions? How different would your life have been if you were trusted with the freedom to dress the way you liked or to study the professions that truly intrigued you? Young people who are empowered realize that they can make a difference in the world, that their perspectives and experience are valuable, that they have (or should have) the same rights to free speech, employment, and mobility as everybody else, and that they are not second-class citizens.
Of course, the opposite of trust, control, has a few benefits for parents, like a feeling of security about your child’s “trajectory” in life. However, there are many drawbacks to control for children and adults. Children learn that they cannot be trusted and start playing the part. Often, parental restrictions create a “forbidden fruit” (like video games, screen time, etc.) which only stokes the kids’ desire to engage in these activities. Their lust and enthusiasm for life begins to fade away as they become increasingly passive actors in their own life.
Parents that prefer control over trust will eventually come to recognize the toll this takes on their relationships with their children. Relationships are built on a foundation of trust. If a trusting bond isn’t cultivated by mom and dad, the relationship (not to mention the kids’ mental health) will suffer.
Youth empowerment in America has a long way to go. Kids are people too. Though they may lack experience and academic knowledge, they may be superior to adults in other ways. Dr. Epstein’s research confirms that teenagers are more creative and more competent than the average adult. The extent to which that surprises you is the extent to which you have already bought into the media’s portrayal of young people.
Trust your kids to empower young people. The rest falls into place from there.
Brian Foglia is an education reformer and founding staff member of South Jersey Sudbury School. For more information on youth empowerment and alternative education, visit SJSudbury.org.Edit ModuleShow Tags