When it comes to nurturing young people, we struggle individually and collectively with two competing goals, which we don’t often talk about at the same time:

  1. Protect them from harm.
  2. Empower them to have a voice, lead, and discover themselves and the world.

These sometimes-conflicting themes shaped much of the conversation at an international conference I attended at the University of Oxford titled “Adolescence, Youth, and Gender: Building Knowledge for Change.” It brought together researchers, policy makers, and practitioners to reflect on “the latest evidence, paradigms, concepts and approaches to adolescence, youth, and gender in international development.”

Parallel themes

Protection and empowerment were thematic threads that ran through most sessions. On the one hand, too many boys and girls face real and horrific dangers, from war to domestic violence to sex trafficking to forced early marriages to chronic deprivation. As nations and people, we are compelled to protect young people from these and other atrocities.

At the same time, these leaders also recognize the vital role of empowering young people as leaders, change agents, and activists. That commitment is undermined, however, by widespread resistance to honoring young people’s voice and a lack of meaningful roles in their schools, organizations, communities, and nations.

A central challenge

It strikes me that the tension between these two priorities reflects a central challenge in working with young people. How do we recognize and balance both their vulnerabilities and strengths, when young people are in transition between childhood (when we typically emphasize protection) and adulthood (when we expect them to be responsible members of families, communities, and society)?

This dynamic plays out at many levels. For example, UNICEF is poised to issue new guidance on conducting ethical research with vulnerable children and adolescents. A major question is whether younger youth should be included in studies on sensitive issues, such as sexuality. From a “protection” perspective, asking them sensitive questions about sexual and other forms of violence could be seen as traumatizing. On the other hand, from an “empowerment” perspective, not including them in these studies leaves them without a voice in how these issues are understood.

A challenge at home

Closer to home, these priorities animate many of the challenges of parenting, particularly as children enter early adolescence (around middle school). As parents, we’re often terrified of the potential dangers they face as they become more independent and their world expands to new people and places—compounded by physical changes brought about by puberty as well as other challenges in the neighborhood or society. Out of love, parents often do everything they can to protect kids. That can result in trying to control them at exactly the same time when they need to learn self-control and to take responsibility for their own actions and choices.

In Search Institute’s emerging focus on helping families explore developmental relationships through our Keep Connected initiative, this tension is palpable when parents and kids talk about sharing power, one of the key elements of developmental relationships. Parents struggle to rethink how they listen to and learn from their growing children while also helping them stay on track through adolescence. Kids are eager to “take charge,” but also still crave (and need) guidance and care from parents.

Being encouraged to engage with these tensions together can be refreshing for families. In the process, parenting adults can recognize that kids wanting to have a say probably isn’t about rebellion or rejection of authority, but just about growing up. At the same time, children can see that parenting adults’ questions and limits may not be because they’re nosey or mean, but because they desperately love their kids and want to keep them safe.

A perennial challenge

These tensions have been with us for many generations. Most of the time, we manage to work through them and, for the most part, young people grow into strong, responsible adults who are prepared to take on the challenges of their generations (even if we in older generations aren’t always confident in them!). Yet we also have the opportunity to be more intentional and reflective about how we approach the tensions between these goals.

Sometimes, however, circumstances cause greater vigilance and protection than we might wish. When young people face threats from war, violence, discrimination, and other injustices, adults rightly do everything we can to protect the young.

Yet, even then, how do we ensure that our fears do not overpower young people’s emerging voice, identity, agency, and contribution? And how do we ensure that we embrace, not shun or forget, those young people who have not been protected when they needed it?

No panacea

We must also acknowledge that sometimes things go horribly wrong. Sometimes parents cross boundaries to control their kids, and sometimes young people fail when they take on greater responsibilities. Even our best efforts to protect kids can fail, perhaps with tragic consequences.

That reality has been starkly underscored in the past two weeks with breakthroughs in the case of the Jacob Wetterling, who was abducted near his home in rural Minnesota nearly 27 years ago. The perpetrator’s confession and the recovery of Jacob’s remains told a horrific story of Jacob’s abuse and murder. Jacob’s disappearance in 1989 sparked a national commitment to protect children from predatory adults.

Toward hope

Stories like Jacob’s can paralyze us with fear and propel us to put all of our energy into just protecting our children. Yet in the long run, that will not, by itself, serve them well. As Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s mom, said several years ago, “There’s no research to show that scared kids are safer. . . If children don’t feel safe, they don’t develop properly.”

So we must continue to struggle in our families, schools, and society with how we both protect and empower young people during and through the transition from childhood to adulthood. I would suggest that the heart of our response lies in the relationships we deepen with young people that consistently demonstrate that we deeply care for them, expect their best, give them a voice, support them as they grow, and help launch them into new possibilities.

I think that’s consistent with what Patty Wetterling said when she posted this request following the public release of the news about finding Jacob’s remains:

“Say a prayer. Light a candle. Be with friends. Play with your children. Giggle. Hold hands. Eat ice cream. Create joy. Help your neighbor. That is what will bring me comfort today.”

Young people need us to protect them at home, in their communities, and around the world. They need us to love them not matter what.

And, just as important, they need us to unleash their energy and innovation to shape their own lives and to participate in addressing the challenges we—and they—face in a complex and changing world.

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Get Updates from Search Institute
Sign up below to get updates on research and events.