What It Means to Me

April 15, 2012

Yesterday was the third annual National Youth Rights Day. A few days ago, I tasked some of my fellow NYRAnians with sharing, in whatever way, why they supported youth rights. Perhaps a little hypocritical on my part, as I not only didn’t share my own but wasn’t even sure how to answer my own question for myself!

But then I realized. Yes, I do!

Youth rights has been such a major part of my life over the past several years that it’s hard to even pinpoint any single sources of inspiration anymore. And even before I found NYRA, there were many little things here and there, the recognition that people thought little of me during my teen years and before, and, of course, my 8th grade English teacher saying “There’s no such thing as a typical teenager.”

But there is an underlying motivation, and it’s a simple one.

In short… I know this is right.

And I know it works.

I’ve met youth who were raised in whatever way in less oppressive conditions than average. In 2006, Alex and I were tabling at a conference and next to us was a table for Albany Free School, and with an adult or two from the school was a group of ten-year-old students from there. These kids? They were actually pretty mature and socially competent. They saw our NYRA table and were happy that we existed and related their frustrations at an Albany mall that had a youth curfew (Fuck you, Crossgates!) and they bought a bunch of our buttons. I don’t remember many more details than that about them, but I recall being pleasantly amazed at these ten-year-olds, the product of a non-oppressive school and probably non-oppressive families (if they had parents cool enough to send them to the non-oppressive school). It was nice to be reminded all the info flyers in front of me on my own NYRA table weren’t just spouting nice-sounding ideas that had little basis in reality, but were encouraging real changes to the way young people are thought of and treated, encouraging freedom and respect, and here were comfortable, competent, dignified kids at the table beside us, having grown up with that respect, as living proof of it.

Unschoolers, too! Whether it’s that teen rebellion isn’t necessarily a thing or just the continual accounts of unschooling families of the quality of life of unschooled youth as compared to traditional school students (yeah, I know there’s a “consider the source” factor here), the comparison between the unschooled youth who are generally more included and their choices respected as opposed to the voiceless traditional students who are coerced and dictated to at every turn.

The youth who are living with rights and respect at home and school ARE in fact happier, more fulfilled, more competent, and actually understand the value of these things and of freedom. They are truly empowered.

Right, there are certainly a lot of self-identified youth empowerment groups out there. A lot of them, though, have a rather different idea of youth empowerment. Their definition is sometimes really “youth empowerment to support and speak about what we want them to“. Other times it’s just giving the illusion that youth are being listened to but it’s little more than an “awww, isn’t that cute?” stunt. Yeah, none of this is youth empowerment. It’s just more youth exploitation but with a nice ring to it.

The only true youth empowerment is their autonomy and choices being respected and seen as valid.

Anything short of that, they are dangerously disempowered. Disempowered people have no hope. They just do what they have to in order to get by with as little pain and suffering as possible. If their voices will fall on deaf ears no matter what they say, why bother to say anything? If their choices will be always overridden, why bother to choose? When your single most important job in the only life you’ve thus far known is to obey and please the big people in your home and school, what real self do you even have? Where is the self-confidence to live?

And, when you think of all the teen problems people go on and on about, aren’t they all, whether bullying or gangs or whatever else, just the ordinary results of any severely disempowered population?

Okay, the (false) youth empowerment groups have that much right. But they either don’t seem to get what empowerment actually is or they think only some youth deserve it. And often the desire to empower or help youth in any way isn’t for its own sake, to actually make life better for fellow human beings, but to be the great saviors to those they believe are helpless and need to be rescued from all the bad things. Whether they like it or not. Because, to those child protectionist types, they see it as little more than saving puppies, as they see those they are saving as equally voiceless and incapable of having much in the way of preferences for things.

True youth rights very much IS about youth empowerment AND even youth protection. And it’s the only correct way to do it. Child protectionists, while intentions are generally good, tend to completely ignore young people’s actual desires when it comes to protection, and protection without the consent of who’s being protected is an act of abuse and exploitation. They also tend to exaggerate what’s dangerous to youth, such as mistrusting strangers even though friends and family are far more likely to be abusive. Or they think internet child predators are lurking on every corner, so they advocate parental privacy violations. And they advocate a load of other intrusive measures “for their own good” even though how such measures truly maintain safety is questionable.

You really want youth protected? Then they should be EMPOWERED to PROTECT themselves! They should stop being raised in heavily restrictive, coercive, oppressive homes and schools, and start being treated like human beings with valid feelings and choices, so they can develop the social competence and self-confidence to protect themselves in an adverse situation. I mean, they’re going to have to do that once they are adults anyway, and therefore impeding this is only going to hurt them later, aside from how much this already hurts them now.

And that’s what youth rights mean to me. It means young people will not only stop being hurt, but start being truly respected as members of society like the rest of us, and being allowed to flourish freely at younger ages rather than living day in and out only by what the adults want for them. And I’ve seen the youth produced by a pro-youth rights upbringing. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s what the world needs!