In her 1985 cover of The Greatest Love of All, pop icon Whitney Houston sings: “I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way”.
It was those lyrics that resonated most strongly for Mr Taha Mattar, social worker at VOX @ Children’s Society, as he marked Youth Month in July.
Reflecting on a decade of working with youth, he says: “As adults, we are responsible for guiding our youth as they learn to appreciate the norms that we were raised with. We also have the responsibility to allow our youth the room to create their own vision of what society should look like.”
As the team at VOX knows, this means dealing with young people who challenge established conventions and create new norms.
At VOX, one of four Children’s Society’s youth drop-in centres, the focus is on nurturing the 5Cs of the Positive Youth Development (PYD) framework – Caring, Character, Competence, Confidence and Connection. To stay true to both VOX’s tagline, Be Heard, and the second C, Character, which encourages the youth to find their own voice, being neutral and flexible is key, says Taha.
Open conversations often take place between social workers and youth on relevant and trending issues, whether in person or over digital platforms like Instagram Live, he explains.
He cites a recent discussion on stereotypes, specifically on how they are formed and how they affect us. In the lively session, the youth reflected on their own experiences and concerns, and were encouraged to decide for themselves what was acceptable.
Taha’s many interactions with youth over the years has shown him how the Internet and social media – and the perspectives and ideas from around the world that youth are exposed to – shape their own norms and values.
“At times, it can be a struggle for us as youth workers to come to an understanding with youth on what behaviours are acceptable,” he admits. “Some of the norms youth push for may go against what we want to achieve, but we do want to allow them a voice to share their side of the story.”
The use of foul language during games is one such battlefront. Some youth believe that this is spontaneous and as it is not directed at anyone specific, is acceptable among friends. Taha maintains that some youth have lower thresholds of acceptability, and that their viewpoints matter too.
Tapping another ‘C’ from the PYD, Caring, Taha’s proposition is that youth exercise empathy for all groups, and remain respectful while communicating their views. This is especially important given that youth also communicate extensively on anonymous platforms, like the Internet.
Ultimately, adults have to acknowledge that societal norms and values will continue to evolve, and that the standards of what is acceptable will constantly shift, he says.
“Though it may be novel, uncomfortable or even scary, we should let them lead the way.”