If You Want To Fix Kids' Problems, Let the Kids Lead

Whether it's lack of activity or youth suicide, we need to listen before we act.

Posted Apr 19, 2016

There’s a small town in rural Ontario, two hours drive from Toronto that banned street hockey a few years ago. How unpatriotic! How mean! I guess town council thought they’d keep kids safe, or maybe they were just fed up with kids being kids. The parents protested, twice, but the municipal councilors held their ground. As un-Canadian as it seemed to be, there would be no hockey on the streets of their small town.

At least until the kids mobilized. Where the adults failed, the youth decided to take matters into their own hands and politely but firmly explained to the town council why it was wrong. It worked. Score one for young people, zero for the adults.

There are plenty of stories like these and good reason to trust young people to represent their own interests. Even the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12, promises children the right to be heard and to have a voice in the decisions that affect them. While I’m sure the authors of the Convention meant to secure the rights of unaccompanied child refugees, and children who needed medical care, there is something inspirational about a bunch of kids from middle-class homes exercising their right to play outside and be healthy.

My own work often involves negotiating access to young people through alliances with young people themselves, or engaging young people on boards and committees. I sometimes waver on how much of this is tokenism and how much is meaningful engagement, but on balance when young people speak for young people the result is much more likely to produce meaningful change.

How disillusioning it must be, then, for young people in Attawapiskat, a northern Ontario First Nations community. A week ago, a suicide pact was revealed that could have resulted in the death of as many as 11 young people on one day in April. It’s no surprise that once every newspaper in Canada was carrying the story, the provincial government responded. Their solution to the crisis, though, is terribly shortsighted and, I’m afraid to say, likely to produce no lasting change at all. How could it? It ignores the very things kids themselves say are the problem. People in Attawapiskat live in conditions that we would travel overseas to fix if they were in the Third World. And yet, we ignore the same problem here in a wealthy country like Canada. Or at least we did until it was almost too late.

Suddenly the government has responded by flying in a dozen mental health care workers for a month. But the one mental health position in the community that was permanently funded had been vacant for months largely because no suitable housing could be found for anyone who applied. Sadly, in the midst of a crisis, government is responding to the needs of young people in the same ineffectual way that led to the problem in the first place. They think professionals are the solution to mental health problems that even the kids say have more to do with recreation, education, mentorship and jobs. Why would the government spend $2,000,000 on mental health care providers when the real source of the solution is already there in the community?

Now let me say I’ve never been to Attawapiskat but I have visited communities suffering the same horrible legacy of residential schools, trauma and government neglect. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve been impressed by the voices of young people who seem to intuitively grasp the seriousness of their situation while giving us adults a simple way out of this mess. If only we’d listen.

Let me tell you what I’ve learned from young people themselves. First, much like those young people who petitioned their municipal council to permit street hockey, adults are not always the solution to children’s problems. Studies show that when it comes to preventing problems like depression and delinquency, the presence of a caring adult has merit, but it is less the relationship and more the predictability of rules and consequences that help children heal. That’s the take-away message from a recent study of African American fathers and sexual initiation of teenagers conducted by Cheri Langley at the Kent School of Social Work at the University of Louisville that was published in Family Process.

There is a clue here to what kids really need and want. Structure, safety, commitment. Does anyone seriously think that flying in strangers to talk to children who are depressed, and then removing those strangers afterwards, is going to do anything but make matters worse? Shouldn’t we be thinking about this from the point of view of the kids themselves? Did they ask for therapists from outside their community to talk with on a temporary basis? The truth is that rural and indigenous kids already use Canada’s national child helpline at a rate far higher than other kids. If the kids wanted to talk to strangers, they already had the means to do so.

My second lesson, then, is that we need to spend time listening to the kids more. And what the kids in Attawapiskat have said (at least on camera to reporters) is that they have no place to be, few mentors to support them, and little hope for a good education or meaningful jobs in the future. Last I heard, Canada had 10,000 young people from Indigenous communities wanting to go to university who lacked the funds to attend. Let’s do some math here. If even 5% of Indigenous youth made it to university right now, the catalyst they would be for their communities would be enormous, especially if that education was delivered in a way sensitive to their culture and backgrounds.

Which brings me to my third lesson learned. Provide young people with opportunities to make a real contribution. Rather than just building a recreation center for young people in Attawapiskat, how about employing young people to build it? Or even better, could we think about the problem of a place to be in more creative ways. Are we certain a building is what the kids want, or would they be just as happy with experiences of being out on the land? It’s not for me to say, but I strongly believe we need a process that opens opportunities for children to be heard rather than trying to fit kids into the solutions we adults propose.

A couple of years ago, a team I lead called the CYCC Network set out to understand the best strategies for engaging young people in the delivery of health and social services. We produced a report and a policy checklist for anyone developing a program and wondering, “How does my work measure up with regard to youth engagement?” Getting young people involved in their own solutions is a best practice for effective services the world over. Peer mentors. Training older kids to teach younger ones. Engaging children in the design of their services and supports. These are all ways to help young people during a crisis that don’t involve airlifting professionals.

Here are a two other things the report on youth engagement recommends. Consider these lessons four and five.

  • Culture and Context Matter. Make sure the youth engagement strategy makes sense to the kids themselves. Where do they meet? Who leads? Are they asked to volunteer or paid? These are all aspects of youth engagement that need to be negotiated so that efforts to include youth are perceived by young people as respectful.
  • Create Mentorship and Partnership Opportunities. Young people have talents, but they need adults to mentor them if they are to realize their potential. Even those young street hockey buffs had parents in the wings encouraging them and offering advice on how to present themselves to town council.

These five lessons make good recommendations for service providers, governments and even families. They don’t mean that we just hand over responsibility to the kids and let them figure it out on their own. They do mean that if we are going to solve problems plaguing young people we’re going to have to engage them in the solutions and listen to them when they tell us what they need.