I am journaling my way this month through Reclaiming Youth At Risk: Our Hope for the Future by Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg & Steve Van Bockern. Part 1 of 3.
How you define a problem informs the approach you will take to solve it. Young people at risk are often defined by their traits, and carry labels such as lazy or disadvantaged. This approach defines the problem as a negative characteristic in the young person. Fix the young person and you will fix the problem.
Reclaiming Youth At Risk takes a different approach, one that gives attention to the environment young people find themselves. What have their interactions with family, friends, school, and work taught them? The authors lay out a convincing case about the profound alienation youth at risk experience.
The first hazardous environment (their term) is destructive relationships. They write, "When caretakers fail to meet a child's most basic needs, the child learns that they are unpredictable or unreliableExpecting rejection [by other adults], they employ protective behaviors learned in prior encounters with threatening persons."
The second hazardous environment is climates of futility. Putting it bluntly, we don't believe some youth will amount to anything and consequently don't invest in them. The path of least resistance is their only option.
The third hazardous environment is learned irresponsibility. We seesaw between overindulging our youth and over-regulating them. Neither approach leads to the real goal of self-sufficiency. Instead it results in victim-mentality mindset, rebellion, and narcissistic behavior.
The fourth hazardous environment is the loss of purpose. Youth play no vital role in our culture. The authors unpack this idea in describing how the meaning of employment has changed over the years. What used to be financial assistance for the whole family and a rite of passage into maturity is now merely an avenue to pocket cash. Is it any wonder that young people are disconnected, bored, and indulgent with no values to guide them? The monotony of existence is only broken by the next new toy, new download, or new high.
This section of the book really has me thinking about the vital role that people who work and volunteer with youth play in the well-being of our community. While no one can replace a parent, the stable presence of an encouraging adult makes a huge difference in how a young person at risk perceives life. The book has me taking a critical look at my youth program plans to best ensure that our environment, teaching, and shared experiences foster self-sufficiency and values.
Writing about these seeds of discouragement makes me want to re-cultivate the garden. In part two of the series, I'll relate how the authors propose shared values as a way of getting a community working together to clean up "hazardous environments" for youth.
Ian Eastman, M.A. is a community educator with Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that provides counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups.