When Youth Voices aren’t saying what we want… or speaking another language altogether

hand raise

This is a follow-up to my most recent post; I’m still ruminating about the idea of Youth Voice, and how, where, and why youth are speaking.. and what they are saying. That, alongside how adults are responding to those words. Right now, it seems like one of the most relevant things to be considering within the boundaries of working with teenagers.

To set the stage, I invite you to stop for a moment. Think back. Do you remember being fourteen? Actually remember – not just what you think you remember, or think you ought to remember, based on what you think “youth these days” think/act/feel? Close your eyes, concentrate. What grade were you in? Who was your homeroom teacher, your crush, your best friends – and your “enemy”? What the fashion statement of the year? Do you remember what you dressed up as for halloween, and why? How about the things that would keep you up at night, talking and scheming with friends? What were the papers you were writing for school; how and why were they irrelevant to you?

Do you remember what made you mad… and what you did about it?

Chances are, it wasn’t what the adults of your time expected, or even wanted.

When I was fourteen, I was beginning to have the thought processes – and writing about them – that I am still having. I thought about simple living, and about minimalism; I researched the eating disorders of my best friend and considered what Beauty really meant; I felt deeply wronged by my school’s policy to do a “modesty check” on every girl’s dress for formal events – and even further appalled at what would be said to me and my friends during these checks. I was engaged in my critical thinking, and the adults who didn’t take me seriously were just wasting my time.


So then. How can we harness the creative and critical work of youth, without wasting their time, without minimizing them? How do we encourage the great thoughts and work that are emerging in our youth?

The truth is, fourteen year olds (and 12, and 17, and 9) aren’t going to get riled about what adults want them to, necessarily. They have different issues.

And they have smart ways to approach those issues.

Teens are speaking up. They care about their world. Some are looking at how their generation (and, if we’re honest, the generation above them… their parents, us) is so engrossed in social media and the “unreal” world, and are stepping out of it. Teenagers are leading the way. They are saying smart things about their bodies and clothes, about their media use, about rape culture and how to treat other humans.

girls speak

But we (adults) often ignore, downplay, look over these words and actions – because it doesn’t look the way we think it should. It doesn’t fit into our agendas for what we want youth “voice” to be saying. In fact, [insert youth opinion here] occasionally goes directly against what makes us comfortable, or feel good. 

Sometimes, it actually looks like rebellion. (Imagine that.)

One of these “rebellions” is taking place over the issue of school dress codes. Now Elisabeth, you might be saying, students everywhere have fought their school’s authority over dress codes. Always. What’s the point?



Recently, young women, and their male counterparts, are recognizing and calling out their schools’ restrictive – and, largely, female-specific – dress codes as being part and parcel of the much larger, society-wide rape culture. They are reading the fine print of their schools’ policy handbooks, and seeing how the wording is directly linking female students’ choice in attire to male students’ ability to… concentrate, at best. Refrain from indecent thoughts and actions, at worst. It doesn’t take a degree to see the quick leap into shaming a woman for being assaulted, abused, or attacked, because she was… “asking for it.” And schools are upholding these standards, even defending their position that girls ought to dress (well, not dress, really) a certain way to avoid causing problems for the boys and, by consequence themselves.

…A bit more weighty than just fighting the color of shoes, hey?

Basically, the overwhelming message is: hey wait a second. We’re being policed on our clothes, because of what thoughts how we dress gives boys? Yeah no thanks.


And, it’s not just this one girl, with one group of friends, at one school. No, it’s happening here, and here, and here. Here, too. Again. And again. How many more do you want?

Young people see a problem with the way society – and their schools – are subject-ing young women. And they’re speaking up.

A scholar I have quoted before – Shauna Pomerantz – wrote an article about these youth’s body-positive activism within their schools. “Many adults say that young people are politically disengaged,” she writes, “but this example offer thoughtful political engagement.”


Young men and women – boys and girls – are standing up and protesting with incredulity the idea that females are responsible for the actions of males. Fourteen year old girls are telling us this. And how are we as adults responding? We suspend her from school; write her up; fine her for her “rebellion.”

So sure… let’s talk about youth voice. Because it isn’t a thing adults need to jumpstart. It’s something we need to recognize. And then, let’s stop fighting them. In fact, let’s give them a freaking megaphone.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s