Adults as youth allies

By: Amy Torchia, Children’s Advocacy Coordinator, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence

My 15 year old daughter said something to me last night.  She said, “You know, Mom, I just realized something.  Sometimes when I’m with other kids’ parents, I feel like I have to be on my best behavior and can’t really be myself…like in the car or whatever.   But, when my friends are with you, they don’t seem to feel that way.  They seem to just feel OK being themselves…like there is no judgment there”.   It was the best answer to the question:  what does an adult ally look like? that I could have asked for….and I actually didn’t ask for it.  Don’t ask, just listen, and you’ll usually get the answer.

First of all, let’s get something straight…I am no perfect adult ally – there is no such thing.  It is something to aspire to that I know I will never fully become.  I am not a child or teen anymore (although, believe it or not, I sometimes wish I was).  My life experience and age has me tagged as a full-fledged adult – whether I like it or not.  By virtue of this, the culture in which I live has given me – on a silver platter – lots of power over children and teens.  I have a well understood and accepted adult privilege (a special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste).  I get to call the shots, say whatever I want to them, give them unwanted advice, send them little subliminal messages about how to act right and be successful.  Blah blah blah blah blah.  And, not just to the children and teens in my family – but to all kids. Whoever is sitting in the back seat.  And, they aren’t supposed to question me about it.

I am blessed to get to get to challenge myself about the issue of adult privilege in my work and personal life every day.  I do it to the point where I suspect it gets on people’s nerves.  But, I do know that this is one thing about me that does not get on my daughter’s nerves.  It appears to feel very different to her than me singing and dancing in public, for instance.

So, what do adults who aspire to be allies to children and youth need to do?  We need to recognize our privilege and work every day not to misuse it.  Work at it every day!  Think about it all the time…educate ourselves constantly…step back from the spotlight…watch our behavior…ask…listen…apologize.  And, know that it is not us who gets to decide if we are allies….it is the kids that get to decide.

My daughter’s words told me this:  Being allied with children and teens is evidenced in a lot more than our actions.  It is about more than being there, listening, and being interested.  It about believing that there is no difference between us and them and nothing makes adults better or more profound.  It is about pushing back on norms that allow us to exercise power over children and youth and indulgingly impart our high wisdom on them.  And, it is challenging ourselves to then change the way we are.