Authentic Engagement

by Lon Woodbury on August 21, 2014

It is obvious in many ways modern children have different goals than previous generations had when they were that age.  This reflects the changes that have been happening in our society, and from changing ideas in parenting.  The bottom line result is something very significant seems to be different about 21st-century children. Their needs and capabilities no longer match our education system.

Maybe what they need is something the author and child-rearing expert Ron Taffel described in his book Childhood Unbound written in 2009.  After itemizing many of the problems young people face in the 21st century, Taffel asserted that an important part of what they need is authentic engagement. As I understand his meaning, this means the students need to become more involved in life with all age groups and less isolated in schools with large numbers of same-age students. They need to be doing something constructive and contribute to the general community and interact with all age groups. Without that, they tend to get into an in-between existence of adolescence and dependency, delaying their entrance into adulthood by several years.

Before we developed the concepts of childhood and adolescence that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, most young children were participating in life and work as soon as they were capable. Traditionally, for the most part young girls were married in their teens and started raising families, and boys were working, learning a trade or preparing for a career so they could support their families. These young people were very engaged in a very authentic way. For better or for worse, they lived life.  History is full of examples of outstanding accomplishments by young people in their teens or their 20s, what we would today call adolescents or millennial’s.  John Paul Jones comes to mind, the navel hero of the War of 1812.  He had received his first commision as a ship’s officer at the age of 17 and command of his own ship at age 21. They didn’t have the advantages of our modern civilization, but those that followed normal development for that era were accepted fully by their society and were encouraged to contribute. What they did at that time was important to others and that met their need to be accepted as full citizens of their society. It has been the last 50 or 60 years where this type of engagement by young people has been lost under the perspective of “protecting” them. We don’t want to go back to the “good old days,” but we seem to have lost something important.

The balance has been swinging back in the last few years.  This trend is coming from young people themselves, frustrated by institutions that emphasize preparation over contribution.  We increasingly read reports of young people running for public office successfully, establishing entrepreneurial businesses that have been wildly successful, and insisting that they not be overlooked by society anymore. This is true of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and many other household names. This has accelerated as we get into the Internet age. Another example is the increased emphasis in our schools to get involved in meaningful projects within their community. I have visited several schools where students participate in River basin studies for example, planting hatchery fish, and starting social service projects to benefit under-served populations.  These limited steps in this direction of meaningful contribution I hope will only grow.

I think Ron Taffel is onto something. Young people need to be involved in life, more than just in the huge schools they attend dominated by same-age students.  When the school system loses the mentality of catering to mass education, or insisting decisions are to be made for categories rather than individuals, it will be able to take advantage of the many new opportunities technology and the Internet and the digital revolution offers for educating our youth. Young people are already dominating the digital revolution, and some of the most creative new digital businesses have been created by young people down to the age of those who cannot even vote yet. If this is a real trend that continues, our students will become increasingly allowed to achieve what they want, authentic engagement.

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Author of Parent Empowerment Handbook on   amazon.com

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