Finding Hope for and in Children and Youth

Reclaiming Youth At Risk

Finding Hope for and in Children and Youth
A review and summary of: Larry K. Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg, and Steve van Bockern, Reclaiming Youth At Risk: Our Hope for the Future.

In the early years of the 20th century, Swedish sociologist Ellen Key proclaimed the world was about to embark on the “Century of the Child.”  As time wore on, however, many scholars saw that the 1900s was anything but the century of the child.  Although child labor was becoming a thing of the past in the Western world, children were still subject to economic, physical, sexual, and emotional exploitation.  Troubled, “alienated” and “at risk” children have always been present, but there were few constructive ideas forthcoming in this new supposed age of enlightenment.  Many troubled teens and youths were being written off.

Professor Brendtro and his colleagues refuse to allow for any “disposable” children.  Drawing on progressive philosophies from both the European and Native American traditions, they proposed examining the lives and ways of these children through the lenses of “courage” and “discouragement” to “reclaim” the children much of society was willing to write off – “disposable kids,” to use the title of one of the author’s later works.  The word “reclaiming” came from Martin Wolins, a sociologist, who described it as comprising four elements:

  • Having a feeling of belonging in a supportive community
  • Being able to meet one’s needs for mastery, not the convenience of adults
  • Involving youth in determining their own future without engaging in that which society deems harmful
  • Having youth be caregivers, rather than being dependent on the care of adults.

Dr. Wolins edited the works of another pioneer in child welfare, Janusz Korczak; Dr. Korczak is quoted extensively for his ground-breaking philosophy on the importance and responsibility of adults to see the world of the child from the child’s perspective.

Courage and discouragement—The seeds of discouragement leading to alienation come from four “ecological hazards” in the lives of youth at risk:

  • Destructive relationships, in which a rejected child is hungry for love but unable to trust adults, for fear of being hurt again
  • Climates of futility, which are expressed by the sense of powerlessness many disaffected youth feel and often express in defiant or rebellious behavior
  • Loss of purpose, where youth—too often portrayed by society as self-centered—feel overwhelmed or lost in a turbulent sea of confusing (and conflicting) values.

All too often, society puts the blame on these children, giving the “problems” a negative label, each of which elicits negative responses.

Discouragement must be replaced by courage.  Borrowing from multiple Native American cultural philosophies of child rearing, the authors present The Circle of Courage.  The Circle of Courage seeks to build on four basic components of self-esteem: significance, competence, power, and virtue.  The circle is made up of four components arranged in a continuous circle:

  • The spirit of belonging. Everyone needs to belong to a community and have the chance to cultivate the skills necessary to live with others in harmony.  These real communities are important to keep at-risk youth from joining “artificial” communities such as gangs in their quest for belonging.
  • The spirit of mastery. Everyone needs to cultivate the wisdom and self-control to feel in control of their environment; to feel competent, all at-risk youth must be encouraged in their competency.
  • The spirit of independence. Everyone needs a sense of autonomy and control over their destiny, with the accountability that comes with it.  However, if a child is to be taught responsibility, he or she must be treated with maturity and dignity.  Moreover, such an education does not preclude nurturing.
  • The spirit of generosity. Everyone should know the value of sharing and empathy and be part of a community that embraces these values.

When there is a break in one of these components, the entire circle needs mending.  Say the authors, “Discouragement is courage denied.”  A break in the circle occurs when normal values become superseded by distorted ones or the opposites or absence of the good values.  Repairing a break requires a combination of forgiveness and reparation on behalf of the person who went astray, to restore the confidence and harmony of the community.  The authors quote Korczak:

   We fail to see the child, just as one time we were able to see the woman, the peasant, the oppressed social strata and oppressed peoples.  We have arranged things for ourselves so that children should be in our way as little as possible…. A child’s primary and irrefutable right is the right to voice his thoughts, to actively participate in our verdicts concerning him.

To follow this philosophy, according to the Part III, The Reclaiming Environment, four fundamental elements of the reclaiming environment must be considered:

  • Relating to the reluctant—establishing positive relationships with alienated youth
  • Brain-friendly learning—using teaching methods that reverse patterns of failure and futility
  • Discipline for responsibility—countering irresponsibility and rebellion by fostering positive youth involvement
  • The courage to care—encouraging prosocial values and behavior in at-risk youth engaging in self-centered behavior and rebellion.

Any intervention should use discipline, which stresses positive solutions, over punishment, which falls back on control and punitive measures that do not allow for any sense of control or responsibility, of “ownership.”  For adults, to reclaim lost youth and do justice to Ellen Key’s vision, adults need to follow the sentiment Korczak expressed in his Ghetto Diary, “I exist not to be loved and admired, but to love and to act.”


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