In preparation for a workshop I did recently on mentoring teenagers, I googled "mentoring older youth" to learn about current research and practice. Virtually all of the links that came up made the assumption that older youth were troubled youth, or high-risk youth, e.g., "juvenile delinquents," pregnant and parenting teens, youth in foster care or with parents in prison. What is that about?!
It's ageism, plain and simple. There is such a pervasive belief that teenagers are not to be trusted, are "screwed up," are something to be avoided or "dealt with" rather than that they are creative, ever-changing, exciting, cool people with strengths and expertise. You see this not only in the research that is conducted but also in the news, movies and TV, conversations with friends, family and neighbors, as well as where we spend our public dollars (youth intervention versus youth development).
Gisela Konopka and other youth development proponents enable us to see experimentation, creative license, struggles with varying values, ideas, and perspectives as necessary for healthy development.
So next time you see a young person doing something that makes you uncomfortable, remember that trying on new identities, unusual hair styles or clothes, bumping up against current values and cultural norms is expected, normal and healthy for young people. It's how we figure out who we are, what we stand for, what matters to us, what we're good at and what we need to get better at. Ask yourself whether the behavior is merely troubling to you, or indicative of a troubled person. If the former, dig deeper into your own value assumptions; if the latter, and you are fortunate enough to have a relationship with this person, state what you see and feel and ask how you might help.
Come on people, fellow researchers, practitioners and policy-makers: Let's invest in the healthy development of young people and let's make room at the decision-making table for people of all ages. Young people have such great insights, connections, knowledge, and expertise. Teenagers can be great researchers, media experts, youth development and engagement experts, marketers of youth programs and opportunities, friends and mentors. For those who work in youth development, there should be no end to the ways in which young people's expertise can be utilized in doing our work. How can you create opportunities for youth leadership?
-- Rebecca Saito, Senior research associate