What does youth engagement mean? Maybe a clinical therapist or another professional can give you the true definition; I only know what it means to me. I’ve been working with kids most of my life, and certainly for my entire career, so I would like to think that I know a little about how to relate to them and what it means to get them engaged.
For me, youth engagement is all about connecting. It means getting involved with kids on a very real level; taking a significant role in their lives in the hopes of shaping things for the better. It requires an understanding of and ability to care about the things they care about. But it also means getting them involvedin their communities in an impactful and meaningful way. Showing them that there is more to life than what is going on in their own lives.
Kids, especially teenagers, can be very insular in their way of thinking and focus. And while this is understandable in some respects—being a teenager can be extremely difficult, especially in this internet age where every mistake you make can potentially be broadcast to the entire world in a few minutes’ time. In order to combat some of the pitfalls of growing up, kids need to develop a sense of purpose, of connection with others, and a sense of community. Youth engagement provides all of those things in a healthy way.
When you have young people who are engaged, they will participate in life around them. They learn compassion and empathy. They are young, they have the energy to learn about a topic and be inspired by it. By experiencing more, they are able to find ways to solve problems creatively.They have the curiosity and determination to do something about the things they don’t like, and the confidence to carry it out when they know they have people who believe in them. These are the kids thatform life plans and goals they may never have even thought possible before. They learn how to be leaders and how to express themselves more effectively, especially when they are secure in knowing that someone is listening to them and values their feelings and opinions.
Kids who are actively involved in their community—either through clubs or sports—tend to achieve more academically and socially than peers who don’t explore interests. I’m not just talking about things that colleges would be interested in, either. It can be anything: a board game club, a videogaming group, anything that gets them out into their neighborhood at large and involved in a positive dynamic.
The best part of youth engagement is that once they see the benefits for themselves, they keep coming back. They bring their friends. They make real and meaningful changes in their neighborhood by supporting others and being supported. They influence those who are younger to do the same. They learn how to be valuable and caring members of their community. And as they grow up, they continue to reflect those positive influences on those around them. Maybe they’ll be like me and find a way to give back even when they’ve moved on and have careers and families of their own!