Why youth voice matters

"...you are never too small to make a difference."*

According to former President of the USA, Barack Obama, "The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create." We spoke to Head of Department for Childhood, Youth and Community, Rose Lowe, about importance of youth voice and rights and why it can make adults uncomfortable…

Youth voice - primary

It’s been difficult not to notice the presence of Swedish schoolgirl and climate emergency activist, Greta Thunberg, whose campaigning has gained international recognition – and rebuke. Fox News, which later apologised for its comment, described her as a “mentally-ill child”. This media interest extends to cover the young people around the world who have been involved in the climate emergency protests. Young activists have been attacked in the media, raising questions about why some people in society find children and teenagers, like Greta, so threatening. Greta bucks the trend; she has an opinion and she’s not afraid to articulate it. In turn, it encourages other young people to speak out about the things that matter to them. Society can find it quite scary to see children taking control because children tend to be seen as an unfinished product – they’re the adults they’ve not yet become. Traditionally, it’s only when they’re adults that they’re valued and considered to have a contribution to make.

There is an unwritten antagonism between adults versus children. Greta’s voice and the actions of young people in striking for the climate emergency challenges our perception of who we are, turning everything on its head. Yet, parents and teachers are allowing this strike, allowing children to take part in something we hold so dearly as a society – the democratic process. The only way children learn about things like democracy is by being allowed to have a voice and the opportunity to make decisions. How can we expect a young adult to be able to properly engage with something like the voting process if they’ve had no experience of the thought processes involved in making choices and decisions?

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People often argue that if children have rights they will get their way all time but this is not the case; with rights come responsibilities. Children have to understand their place in society and learn to negotiate their interactions with an ever wider circle of people in their life. It’s what adults do all the time without realising it and beginning to learn about this in childhood is what helps them to become successful at this as adults. All of that learning is not about romanticising society in terms of us all getting our own way, it’s actually about learning about the impact our decisions have on other people – positively or negatively.

The idea of child and youth voice and young people’s rights is tied closely with our perceptions of what the differences are between adults and children and when children become adults. Is it when you hit puberty? Is it at 16? Is it at 18 when you can vote and do many things without parental consent? It could be argued that many people in their twenties aren’t adults yet as they are often still living at home with their parents, perhaps not financially independent, and don’t have the responsibility for any children.

As childhood and adolescence seems to be longer in some ways, it is simultaneously shorter in terms of the aspects of society that younger people are now exposed to due to developments in technology. Sexualisation of childhood, whether that’s through the lyrics in pop songs through to social media and the internet. This is something that society is concerned about as it’s another aspect of life that’s seen as for adults only. The blurring of the distinctions only serves to highlight that childhood and adulthood are on a continuum rather than in opposition to each other. Of course adults benefit from their accumulated experience but that experience encompasses their whole life up to that point, including things learnt through experiences during childhood and adolescence. The whole issue of rights, voice and who children are is uncomfortable for some people because it involves rethinking how they perceive children in relation to themselves.

Youth voice - content

As a department, we aim to give our students the understanding and skills needed to enable children and young people to feel valued and that they have a voice in their community on all levels from school, to extended family to the family living with the child at home. Having a voice to make decisions and choices is as much about responsibilities as it is about rights and adults don’t just suddenly learn this at 18 when they technically become adults; they have to start much earlier in life beginning with simple things like choosing between options for what to eat or drink, what to wear or what to play with. They might not always make the appropriate choice or change their minds, but learning to live with the consequences of choices is one of the ways children learn and build the resilience they need. Children need to be involved in making these decisions and choices to prepare them to make ever more complex choices as they progress through life.

Across our courses we discuss why children are generally seen as unfinished products – and can, therefore, be dis-empowered – and also look at why and how we might promote an alternative view of children and childhood. Students on our courses look at the theory and debate but then also consider what that means practically in terms of the services they provide and the support they give vulnerable children and young people in a variety of contexts. The courses provoke students to rethink and review and re-evaluate what they think about children and children’s place in society. Once you can do that, we think about how we enable children to take responsibility and take calculated risks in order that they further their learning and ultimately how we can be advocates and agents for change in a society whose structures and policies can be disempowering for children and young people.

*Greta Thunberg, quoted from United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24)

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