It is National Youth Week, a week that is designated to celebrate youth and their participation in their communities. Since 2007, the first week of May has been identified as a time to honour the involvement of youth and the important contributions they make to the communities they live in. It is a chance for organizations to “host events and support the principles of intentional youth development that National Youth Week stands for.”
Many communities host special events to showcase the abilities and contributions of youth, for example through art displays and film festivals in Toronto. Other communities honour National Youth Week by creating opportunities for better connecting and listening to their youth, for example, inviting them to tell the Mayor how to improve programs and services in Hamilton.
And our youth are worth celebrating—many are finding powerful and creative ways to make a difference, like these 7 young Canadians highlighted by Kid’s Help Phone for their contributions in areas of emotional and mental health last year.
While designating a National Youth Week can bring attention to the contributions and needs of teens, I’m not sure it actually makes a difference to the lives of the average teen in the families I know. In fact, in a poll of randomly selected teens in my household, 0% have even heard of National Youth Week, never mind participated in an event or celebration related to it.
Sometimes these types of annual grand gestures can leave adults or politicians feeling like they’ve done something for youth, while actually making little difference in the daily lives of most teens in their communities. The City of Hamilton seems to be taking it further through its Youth Strategy, a plan to promote youth involvement and enhance services for youth in a project that is being rolled out over 2018 and beyond.
But what do youth need, beyond an annual week of celebration and special events? And aside from organizational programming, what can parents, teachers, neighbours, grandparents and friends do in order to support “intentional youth development”? What makes the difference for the majority of youth in many communities across the country?
One thing almost anyone can offer is time. Taking time to be with the youth in your life, particularly time spent with them on the things that are important to them, is a powerful way to let them know that they matter. According to author and speaker Kerwin Rae, what youth need most is to know that they are loved, cared for and a priority in our lives, as measured by how attuned we are in the time we spend with them. As he and others say, love is spelled t-i-m-e.
The kind of tuned-in time youth need isn’t effective if it only happens once a year on a family holiday or a school celebration of learning. It happens in the drip, drip, drip of daily life, the moments of catching up as a parent taxis them to school or to the mall. It happens in the moments that a teacher listens for the reasons behind the late assignment and extends support instead of automatically docking marks.
According to this letter your teenager wishes he or she could write you, it shows up with every parent (or mentor or relative) who keeps holding on to the rope as youth play tug of war over every rule and boundary, not giving up, but loving them at their worst day in and day out.
Yes, let’s celebrate National Youth Week. Do something special with the youth in your lives. And let’s keep creating those special, tuned-in moments at every opportunity the rest of the year.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network