In this field we work for the benefit of youth. To improve their lives and give them plenty opportunities to grow up and become healthy, happy adults. As we basically work for them, we must try to look for ways to meaningfully engage them in our efforts.
Much, for example, has been said and written about Youth Participation. You can refer to Roger Harts’ Ladder of Participation or CHOICE’s excellent FLOWER of Participation, to get an insight into the challenges, opportunities and intricacies relating to Child and Youth Participation.
These models inform us about multiple levels on how youth can be involved in programmes concerning their lives. Inspired by the wisdom provided by these models and our own experience, we would like to share some -seemingly simple- pointers that are important when working for and with children and young people.
1. Tell them who you are:
When implementing a programme aimed at children and youth, tell them who you are. Say something personal about yourself and your organisation. But more importantly, tell them why you are here, in their world. Tell them what you are planning to implement and how you hope this will improve their lives.
Ask them for their opinion: No matter what the subject is, you can always ask children and youth for their opinion (in age appropriate ways). If your programme is about school, ask them about their opinion. If it is about sexual and reproductive health rights, they surely want to talk about it. Not only does this convey that you take them seriously, it also reminds yourself why you do the work that you do and keeps you focused on the right topics.
3. Ensure that they have a role to play:
As we have seen over and over, children are builders, opinion makers, researchers, educators and change makers. And are key in real success of any project or initiative. They want to be part of something meaningful and enjoy responsibility and ownership.
4. Be reliable and flexible:
Children and young people are still growing up, in preparation for being (hopefully) responsible adults. Besides growing up they have a lot to do: school, relationships, chores, sports, and all the other social, emotional and physical challenges that life throws at them. This takes time and energy. So when engaging children and youth, take this into account, and appreciate any time or energy they can give to you or to the project. At the same time, be reliable yourself, don’t make promises you can’t keep and follow up on any agreements made.
5. It’s about them, their world and how they experience it:
We adult professionals often claim to know so much about child development, child rights and, as the models above show, about youth participation. We think, maybe subconsciously, that we know what they need and how to support them. The knowledge is there, strategies and plans are ready to be implemented. But one of the problems of being a so called adult is, that we tend to forget how it is to be a child or young person, how they experience their lives, how everything that is thrown at them affects them and what a challenge it must be to navigate in this world. Yes, this is hard to remember, but we must try.
Something telling came from an interview with a 15-year-old girl from The Netherlands, recognized through research as one of the countries where children feel most happy. When we asked her how she experienced life as a teenager, she replied that there were enough opportunities for her and that life was generally good, but that she felt that there was no place left where she could be completely herself, where she could feel safe but where there was no supervision or someone or something watching over or communicating with her all the time. This is quite striking. After providing lots of protection, education, health care, opportunities and a say in her life, what we forgot to give her was … SPACE!