For all the bad news in the world, the antidote can be meeting kids who are engaged with life and want to take positive action to shape the world around them. Sometimes these sensibilities seem to arise naturally, but often they require nurture from parents, teachers and caring adults. When a group of students from the alternative education center presented to the school board in June, they spoke about research they had co-developed. This was important, thorough research about what keeps kids in and pushes kids out of school. The beauty was to see them engaged in the spirit of scientific inquiry. I have to admit, I never thought they’d demonstrate the stamina and tenacity to follow a research project through to the end. They trained as interviewers. They learned listening skills and ethical principles. They then interviewed, recorded, reviewed and analyzed the data that was generated. Then they had to boil that mass of data into a meaningful, coherent presentation. One of the students described it as “making a soup to serve to the school board.”
One of the messages that came through in the research was that we need to insist alternative education be seen as just that: an alternative way of being educated. Given the many different learning styles, we should have a multiplicity of alternative education options. The reality is that alternative education is more often education for kids who are marginalized, not making it in the mainstream education system. This is what made the research team of alternative education students all the more impressive. The key was involvement. Somehow, the researcher from the university was able to convince them that their participation wasn’t going to be a token gesture; that they were going to be partners.
The lessons from this youth engagement seem to have universal applicability. We humans do better when we are fully included and have reasonable self control over those matters that affect us. The research project was called “Nothing about us without us.” Whether in business, social groups or churches, if we feel included and have a say in what affects us, we are more engaged and alive.
I was thinking about this principle in relation to the upcoming Quality of Life Survey of the Chilliwack Social Research and Planning Council. This happens every five years and 2014 is the next iteration. As current chair of the council, I’ve wondered how we can increase participation – even at the early stage of setting the questions. Of course, we have to have some of the old questions so we can compare trends from 2014 back to 2009 and 2005. But, maybe there are new things we want to or need to know in order to make life better here. And how can we make sure more people participate so that the results give us meaningful information to consider?
My mother used to quote me the saying, “charity begins at home.” I think the same is true of involvement in decisions that affect us. If we want kids that feel responsible for the world they will grow up into, we need to give them increasing levels of control over things that happen at home and in their lives. Of course kids need structure, but parents who include kids in decision-making at a young age usually raise kids who are comfortable making decisions and are responsible about it.
If you have power that can affect the lives of others, give some thought to how you can share that power. It can be as simple as listening deeply or being prepared to accept the influence of others instead of having your own way.
Dr. Robert Lees, R.Psych, is the Community Psychologist for the Ministry of Children and Family Development, in Chilliwack.