Developing Responsible Youth Through Youth Participation

By May Conway Kohler

We can no longer deny young people an immediate, responsible role in our society, says Ms. Kohler, the benefits of suck productive participation far outweigh the risks.

Maturity is, measured by one’s ability to accept and follow through on responsibilities for one’s self, one’s family, one’s work, and one’s community. To make the transition to adulthood, young people urgently need opportunities to be responsible, caring, and to be a participating members of our society. In adolescence young people begin to define self – worth in terms of what they are able to do and the impact they have on their surroundings. Yet this opportunity to discover one’s self through action and contribution is missing in our society. We ask young people to prepare for a nebulous future without allowing them to participate here and now. By denying young people an immediate role in our society, we are prolonging their dependency, undermine their self – esteem, and cripple their capacity to care. No wonder young people feel anxious, alienated, and unwanted.

The problem of empty adolescence is relatively recent. In the past, no one expected young people to go through a lengthy adolescence. Agricultural and early industrial society required immense amounts of labour, and young people were absorbed early into the work force families were large, simple survival of the household depended upon contributions from everyone, including young children. As the children grew, they gradually assumed more and more responsibility until, almost without noticing with jobs and families of their own.

Instead of being seen as contributing to their families, young people are more often seen as a burden to them. Moreover, automation has reduced the need for unskilled workers so dramatically that there are not enough jobs for adults, much less adolescents. Teenagers account for more than 25% of the unemployed. In a culture that too often equates personal worth earning power, joblessness ineritably damages that self – images of young people.

The frustration of youth is compounded by the fact that adolescence has been prolonged. A weary mother once said to me, “I’d like to Bury them at 14 and dig them up at 20.” Today our societies tries to Bury young people in schools from the time they are 6 or 7 until they are over 20. This attitude is made people mature earlier today than ever before. By age 10 or 12, must youngsters are physically mature and, through the influence of television and other media, tremendously knowledgeable about the world around them. Social and economic pressures, however, force them to defer their entry into adult roles such as work, parenting, and citizenship until their mid – twenties. Society offers little for them to do in the intervening years, even though this is the time when they most urgently need to examine and explore the alternatives that will be available of them as adults.

Schools have borns the brunt of this problem. The role of other institutions such as church and family has been weakened. Societies has assigned to schools the tasks of occupying young people and “preparing” them for adulthood. Schools that were originally organised to meet a students intellectual needs have been slow to accept the responsibility for meeting the development needs of young people. Without debating whether the responsibility is appropriate we must face the stark fact that schools are probably the only remaining institutions that reach all young people and hence can help them make the transition to adulthood. Because of compulsory attendance, schools have an unmistakable opportunity to teach young people responsibility as well as reading, caring as well a computation, self – esteem as well as science. Unfortunately, many schools interpret “preparation for adulthood” as narrowly as possible. Too often, preparation has been equated with postponement, and students are asked to Master concepts, skills, and information to be used in some vague future. Actually, the best learning usually occurs when students are motivated by present needs, when they see the link between what they study and what they do. The importance of immediacy has been acknowledged by many educators, including John Dewey, who wrote:

The idea of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts off, the very condition by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to much.

The concept of adolescence as a waiting period reflects our society’s failures to understand or respond to the needs of youth. In this respect some “primitive” societies are more advanced than we are. In Africa, for example, many tribes expect male children receives a plot of land on which he builds his own house and lays out his own garden in preparation for the time when he will marry and start a family. Although friends and family are available to help, the young person is expected to assume responsibility for his life. As he does, he earns a respected place in his tribe. In contrast, our culture puts young people on hold. At a time when they need above all to believe in their own value, they are forced to be passive and dependent, deprived of the chance to make a difference in the world.

The sad consequences is the young people often turn their energies toward activities destructive to themselves and the society that ignores them. We’ve all seen the recurring headlines about teenage crime, pregnancy, suicide, vandalism.


Mary Conway Kohler is Chairperson National Commission or Resources for youth.


Edited By Azugbene Solomon

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