Mistakes I’ve Made #10

25 November 2011 — Leave a comment

Everyone makes mistakes, and when it comes to my youth work I’ve made some clangers! Hopefully by reproducing them here, it may give you a bit of a laugh and help you to avoid doing the same thing.

Photo: 'EXECUTED BY MISTAKE' by the_moog on Flickr

Mistake #10: Ignoring disrespectful behaviour

When groups of people hang out, there is usually some humorous banter between them; a bit of cheeky name-calling, a few in-jokes, etc. When you’re working with groups of young people you get all that magnified to the extreme and often things get said that are rude, offensive or generally unhelpful – even if they were not originally intended that way. When this happens, the comment or behaviour needs to be challenged (and hopefully discussed) so people can learn how it might be insulting to others. If it’s not challenged, then it can become normal or even a habit.

The classic example for me was in my early days as a youth worker. A group of young people I worked with would constantly be putting each other down, often in very witty and creative ways. It became a bit of an art to outdo each other with insults and make jokes at each others’ expense. The things they said to each other were rude and hurtful, but because everyone joined in and because they were delivered with razor-sharp wit, I ignored it for a long time.

I remember that one of their favourite phrases was “you’re gay” – a term they used towards each other in a derogatory way. The implication in the statement was that being gay was a bad or stupid thing, and by calling someone “gay”, they were therefore inferior in some way. Obviously this should have been addressed straight away, but it wasn’t. I let it go.

My biggest regret now is that I went so long without challenging this behaviour directly. Partly I think that I wasn’t too confident in standing up to them, and partly I rationalised that they didn’t actually mean what they were saying as it was a joke. However, it was still wrong. In the end, the other workers and I enforced some rules about respect but it was too little, too late for that group.

So what about you? Have YOU ever let young people get away with things that should have been addressed? What was the outcome? Share with us in the comments!


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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

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