YWN Article: Let teenagers learn from their mistakes

6 March 2009 — Leave a comment

ywn-logoThe following is a short article I wrote that was published in Youth Work Now Magazine (A supplement of Children & Young People Now) this week. In addition to the print copy, it can be found on the CYPNow website here.

Let teenagers learn from their mistakes
I recently read an online discussion between two youth workers. Although both held similar faith-based youth work roles, they had very different opinions about teenagers and how best to work with them.

The first worker stated that he worked in a way that allowed young people to take responsibility and make decisions for themselves, even if they turned out to be wrong. He wanted them to share their faith with friends.

The second worker argued that young people lack the mental capacity to make informed choices. His approach was to guide them, but not give them any big responsibility. He didn’t want the young people to share their faith until they were older, as they might set an inconsistent example to their peers.

Whatever opinion you may hold regarding faith groups, the argument about mental capacity and maturity is relevant to the wider field. Research into adolescent brain development suggests that during puberty, the brain literally rewires itself. This is why many teens exhibit more risky behaviour during this time and make decisions without realising the consequences. But is this a valid reason for limiting opportunities or withholding potential learning experiences?

Personally, I found myself siding with the first worker for two main reasons. First, we cannot treat all young people the same based on generic observations or statistics. Maturity is more about a combination of responsibilities and individual development rather than a particular age. Collectively, young people may still be developing mentally, but individually each has particular abilities and we as workers are often best placed to provide them with responsibility appropriate to their level of maturity.

Second, we have to believe young people can succeed. With so much stacked against them, young people need our support and encouragement to broaden their horizons. We must give them as many opportunities as we can, regardless of whether they are successful or not. Failure can be a powerful motivator. Even for those young people that get arrested, there are youth offending teams to guide them and give them positive alternatives.

While we should be aware of young people’s development, we must not let it become an excuse to hold them back. If we limit the possibilities for young people in our care then we are guilty of oppressing a whole generation.


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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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