Are young people more perceptive than we realise?

About 10 years ago I was asked to help out with a friends research on their MA course. Ill keep it a little confidential, but the remit in the task was to prepare a session in 30 minutes or so with a group of young people in a room, whom I had never met beforehand.  There was no inclination of theme, of age of the participants or anything, but that in 30 minutes I was asked to prepare using a range of materials a session.

What I didnt know is what my friend was looking for. Neither did I know what she would be asking the young people about it afterwards.

I think she asked about 6 people to contribute and do something similar.

What she discovered that the young people appreciated the most about any of the sessions was that the youthworker had made them feel welcome, had created an atmosphere (with someone who was a stranger) given them opportunity to talk, be heard and respected and all of this led to them as young people appreciating the session further. The young people perceived the tone of questions, welcoming handshakes, body language, eye contact, confidence and also spaces to contribute. In short, what I didnt realise was how perceptive the young people were in these sessions. What I also realise now is that the culture that is created in the spaces of youth work are far more important to the ongoing flourishing of young people and their education informally, than we might imagine.

As youthworkers we are maybe told to be authentic, to be real, to get young people to accept us for who we are as adults – ie they spot a phoney. They do, but their level of perception doesnt end there. It continues into how we welcome them, how we greet them, how interested we are in them, how we open up the space to let them contribute, how we respond to questions, how we let them have questions, how rushed we might be when we talk to them- these all create an impression and form a culture within a setting.

If young people notice the minute things, then theyll even more notice the following:

  1. unkept promises, big ones and little onesImage result for perception quotes
  2. frequent changes of youthworkers
  3. limited participation
  4. no control or decision making
  5. high tunnelling into activities with limited choice
  6. youth leaders not interested in them
  7. changes to programmes and clubs and groups without consultation
  8. being judged.

and many more. And these things are fairly obvious, of course, young people will notice these things, but more to the point it becomes even more important to create an appropriate culture within youth

These things are fairly obvious, of course, young people will notice these things, but more to the point it becomes even more important to create an appropriate culture within youth ministry, so that young people in their faith exploring and journeying, as well as personal and social development can be encouraged. The effect on little things is noticed, what about things that we as adults might not think is big, but a young person is huge – like splitting up a group or changing its time, made even worse if young people have had no control over it.  Creating the right kind of culture in a youth ministry setting might be counter cultural to the church – but thats ok if youth ministry has to take a prophetic edge, so what if youth ministry creates a culture where:

  1. Having a question is ok, having good questions is commended
  2. The decision makers are the young people
  3. It trusts in conversations
  4. Leadership is open to everyone
  5. It is a space of welcome and acceptance
  6. Mistakes are acceptable consequence of taking risks
  7. Young people become creators of programmes and participants of them
  8. Young people are adults in the making, youth ministry needs to project the next stage with young people, not hold them back to a previous development stage.

Its easy to have a set of ground rules for youth groups, sometimes easy to get stuck into normal patterns of behaviour, and these start to set the culture of the group, and only when something is different might people notice. But young people – especially if Wyn and White are right – at a time of ‘youth’ they are making constructions of the dynamic between themselves and organisations ( Wyn /White 1999).

Image result for culture

So all the while in every moment, they are beginning to and are making interpretations of what is going on. Such as ‘ do these people like me?’ ‘ why is no one actually listening to me’ ‘ does this youthworker or church care about me’ – young people are fundamentally hugely perceptive. And it doesnt stop at groups inside buildings, they are doing it all the time on the street, and so as we meet them there we create a culture in the interaction we have sometimes in the fleeting moment, because young people are ‘reading’ us all the time.

Young people are highly perceptive, its part of their nature and development. Its something to treasure and make good use of and develop. Its in the little actions that they will notice so much of what we believe and value about them, not just what is said.


Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( and am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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