Youth Today: Rights and Responsibilities Revisited

By Karen Pittman, February 2003

"Third time's a charm." One of those family sayings I have found to be not only colorful, but equally applicable in child rearing, home repair and public policy analysis. If, in the course of a month or two, the same challenge pops up in three different situations, I take note. In the public policy arena at large, the challenge is how to link ever-growing interest in out-of-school time programs with building interest in youth civic engagement.

Why bother? Because it's hard enough to have one elephant in the room. In three separate meetings with Hill staffers, local and regional funders, and city planners, both concerns were in the room — as already made commitments, competing alternatives or seemingly complementary strategies. The challenge, no matter how they came into the room, however, was the same: Are these linked or are they parallel? The obvious desire to think of them as closely linked is quickly outweighed by the frustration of figuring out exactly how they are linked. The compromise is to claim that they are both in the same family — they both help youth. We can do better.

The push for after-school programming is as close as advocates have come to having a new universal right to promote in a long time. After-school programs have been sold as the cure for everything from lagging workforce productivity to sagging achievement scores to crime. The economic downturn has slowed the pace of funding but it has not stopped the call for plans.

Youth civic engagement is getting increasing attention as a universal responsibility on the brink of collapsing. Deep concerns have been raised about the exodus of young people from traditional forms of civic engagement (e.g., voting, party politics, issue awareness). Long-neglected strategies are being dusted off and assessed. Young people are being wooed to join boards, mayors and governors are creating youth councils, school-based civic education is being revamped, youth vote initiatives are multiplying.

How do we link a rights-based movement to create tangible programs for elementary and middle school students with a responsibility-based movement to secure tangible participation of teens and young adults? The key is not to link the specific agendas, but to link the ideas behind them. How do youth rights relate to youth responsibilities? What are young people and their families responsible for? What rights do they have to the services, supports and opportunities needed to prepare for and execute their responsibilities?

The fundamental question of rights and responsibilities language does not come up a lot in U.S. youth policy debates, but it is central to these debates in other countries. Our concerns about youth engagement in the U.S. focus on civic engagement. Like other countries, we expect our young people to be engaged in education, the workforce and family life. There are penalties for truancy, limits on welfare and restrictions on independence. In the U.S., we convey these expectations almost exclusively through the family. Anyone who watches TV sitcoms knows that it is the family's job to make their children go to school, make them get a job, make them do chores, monitor their friends, and finally make them move out on their own. Anyone who watches PSAs knows that it is young people's responsibility to stay out of trouble.

I have listened to children as young as eight in other countries talk, with pride, about their responsibilities to their family, community and country. I have listened to them juxtapose that responsibility with razor sharp analyses of their rights and of the extent to which those rights are supported or violated. I have listened to them plan for change.

Out-of-school programs are opportunities for expanded engagement — not just supervision. Youth civic engagement is not just about shadowing elected officials or voting for candidates but about assessing and advocating for basic rights. Families, schools, communities and governments need to talk directly to young people about their responsibility to be absolutely ready by 21 for all that lies ahead; to partner with young people to ensure that communities provide ample and appropriate opportunities for learning and engagement; and to expect and encourage young people to exercise their right to access these opportunities and to support and challenge the systems that create them.

Read More:
The Civic Mission of Schools (44-page PDF)
The Carnegie Corporation of New York and The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. (2003, February).
This report highlights the convergence of research and practice on civic education, outlining comprehensive strategies for creating rich civic education programs.
The Civic Mission of Schools Executive Summary (5-page PDF)

Out-of-School Time Policy Commentary #2: High School After-School: What Is It? What Might It Be? Why Is It Important? (7-page PDF)
The Forum for Youth Investment. (2003, January).
High school is becoming the next frontier for after-school advocates. The leaps from programming for elementary and middle school students to high school students are significant. To support those making decisions related to high school after-school, this commentary summarizes what we know and answers some basic but important questions.

Social Policy Supports for Adolescence in the Twenty-First Century: Framing Questions. (10-page PDF)
The Forum for Youth Investment. (2002).
The conditions under which adolescents prepare for adulthood are changing and the need for tailored youth policies and programs is increasing. This article offers a set of "framing questions" to help communities create policies relevant to the particulars of a given context. These questions are presented as a means for policy makers, advocates, practitioners, researchers, community members, parents and adolescents to formulate services, supports and opportunities to help adolescents become adults who are problem free, fully prepared and fully engaged in their communities.

Why Do Expectations Matter? (12-page PDF)
The Forum for Youth Investment. (2000).
The broad expectations to which communities around the world hold young people determine, in large part, whether pathways to engagement are open and accessible. The specific roles available to young people are shaped by these expectations and, in turn, shape young people's experiences. This article underlines the importance of high expectations and plentiful roles.

Youth Action: Supporting a New Generation of Citizens. (6-page PDF)
The Forum for Youth Investment. (2001).
The vision, simple but powerful, is youth action: young people making a difference in their communities — often in partnership with adults — to effect changes in things that are important to them and the community at large.

Pittman, K. (2003, February). "Rights and Responsibilities Revisited." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in
Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
February 1, 2003
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