The following is a short article I wrote that was published in Youth Work Now Magazine (A supplement of Children & Young People Now) last month. In addition to the print copy, it can be found on the CYPNow website here.
Is the concept of youth work hard to grasp?
Over the past month, I have experienced two incidents where I have had to question my role and how people perceive me as a youth worker.
First, I had a call from a parent whose son attends our youth club. They were having difficulties with him at home and wanted me to spend some time chatting with him about those problems. I assumed this meant some informal work over a period of months, however, after two group sessions the parents cancelled because his behaviour hadn’t significantly changed.
Second, I accompanied a young person to the child and adolescent mental health service for an appointment. This individual was taking their aggression out on close family and wanted to see if their medication might be changed to help them control themselves better. While the doctor did not change the medication, he suggested that as a youth worker I should be doing various “behaviour modification” activities such as anger management to help support this young person. “After all”, he commented, “that is the domain of services like youth work.”
While specific support work like anger management can be very useful, both of these scenarios have given me cause for concern. It seems there is a general perception from people outside our discipline that youth workers are there to make young people conform, behave or toe the line. Of course, this has never been the purpose of youth work.
The suggestion that I should be actively working to modify the behaviour of young people deeply worries me. Any change that occurs out of a relationship between a worker and young person is a by-product of the relationship itself, not the end result. Besides, as workers shouldn’t we be encouraging young people to test the boundaries, question the status quo and make up their own minds rather than being told what to do?
Some have used this ambiguity around our work as a chance to put a stake in the ground for traditional youth work values and practices. There have been increasing calls to defend our craft and compelling arguments have been expressed in the pages of this very magazine. Meanwhile, others have used it as justification to tighten up on an ill-defined profession and prove the value of our work through targets and outcomes. Whichever opinion you may hold on this current debate, it is clear there is considerable work to be done in helping others understand the nature of the work that we do.