Youth Work requires a broader view.
Youth Work requires a broader view.

As a youth practitioner I must confess to having possessed a myopic view extending to youth’s micro spaces: of interest to me was their families, their patterns of thinking, their peer relations, their school life and slightly beyond the micro scope, social media influences. Indeed, I wonder if youth share my myopic view and only look at the visible constructs that constrain, free or attempt to define/ shape them. Reviewing scholarship on the historical contexts that shape us and recognizing that their tendrils manifest in our contemporary spaces has flexed my thinking and opened my eyes to what was invisible to me before. I’m reminded of The Truman Show, starring Jim Carey, where his world is real to him but is a fake construction in which he is merely a puppet, playing out his pre-ordained role. Suddenly the theatre set is revealed and my understanding goes beyond the scope of what is ‘on stage’. Gleason’s exploration as an educational historian reveals many examples of schools’ role in ‘Canadianizing citizens’ and using ‘discipline’ as an agent to ‘socialize’ students to the norms of the time (Gleason, 2001, pp190-192). As Gleason notes, the school’s role as a ‘moral regulator’ included setting the norms for a good citizen based on class, race, gender, sexuality. Falling outside the ‘norm’ required ‘discipline’ or shaming affecting children’s developing concept of self in relation to ‘the norm’.   According to Gleason, how students’ bodies were treated or talked about affected their perceptions or thinking about themselves and the world. Being disciplined or observing others being disciplined/ shamed shaped moral codes and values, as did emphasis in the structure of schools on gender typing and discussion of sexuality. The myopic lenses removed, I would suggest that the views to ‘Canadianize’ children and youth historically were heavily influenced by Colonial ideals. But here is the real eye opener for me: These historical, value-laden constructs are still shaping our contemporary world, just in a different (or not so different) guise. The recent media story (September 16,2015) about 14 year old Ahmed Mohamed (www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34266389) who was arrested over his science invention (a clock) suggests he was being disciplined for being an innovative, scientific-minded Muslim. The question that arises is would he have had the same treatment had he been a representative of the ‘colonial norm’ (a white Anglo/Saxon teen). Although historical constructs still have their tendrils in contemporary society, thank goodness there are voices, including that of President Obama, speaking against racial profiling and standing up for innovative youth, no matter their ‘profile’, and hopefully setting a new norm that is more inclusive and representative of society. But what of all the Ahmed’s that don’t make the news headlines? A similar more inclusive response has recently been seen in Canadian public schools and universities regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. Gender neutral/ ‘genderless’ washrooms are a start in normalizing youth who identify as transgendered. (Although I take exception to genderless, which suggests no gender identity and seems to try to wash the importance of gender identity away). June 17, 2014 Global News (globalnews.can/news/1398131/motion-passes for –genderless-washrooms-in-Vancouver-schools) reported on a motion for ‘genderless bathrooms in Vancouver schools and in August 12, 2015, CTV News reported that ‘Gender-neutral bathrooms were coming to Ottawa schools’ (www.ctvnews.ca/mobile/canada/gender-neutral).   There are still holdouts, such as the Catholic school in Edmonton (May 14, 2015) who banned a 7 year old who identifies as female from using the girls’ washroom. (www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/edmonton-catholoic-school-child-7-from-girls-washroom-1.3073737). This slow changing response in our society to shifts in what’s considered ‘normal’ and re-examining ‘standardization’ seems to be following ‘spiral’ development: change is dynamic, regressing while making slow advances.  And sometimes change seems progressive, but may have a new guise, cloaking old views (Ekberg, 2007).

My myopic lens, now wide open, I see that youth are not only impacted by the micro space, but by this macro space-a changing landscape, the backdrop of societal constructs that shame and discipline those that come up against the norm. Who wouldn’t get angry/ anxious or depressed either as an observer or someone hitting the ‘normalcy’ wall?!  Are we pathologizing a normal response? (Brickell, 2013).  What do you see? What have you come up against? How does this shape you as a youth practitioner?

A therapeutic antidote: Ever the optimist, I would like to draw attention to a therapeutic approach that addresses shame, imperfection and vulnerability. Brene Brown has done some powerful work in this area. In the context of understanding the social landscape, this seems all the more relevant as we break the social construction of a new normal-being PERFECT (or not white enough/ heterosexual enough/ thin enough/ smart enough…). Check out this YouTube: www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame?language=eng

Brickell, C (2013).  On the case of youth:  Case files, case studies and the social construction of adolescence.  The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 6 (1), 50-80.

Ekberg, M (2007). The old eugenics and the new genetics compared. Social History of Medicine, 20 (3), 581-583

Gleason, M (2001).  Disciplining the student body:  Schooling and the construction of Canadian children’s bodies 1930-1960.  Hisory of Education Quarterly, 41 (2) 189-215



  1. Thank you so much for this post. I appreciate the perspective of the Truman Show, and how perhaps the reality that we’ve known and taken as true is just a set – and once that is pulled away, with what are we left?

    From my own memory of being a teenager, I definitely think there is awareness of the “system” in which we are living and being treated. However, like the Truman Show, there is also an element of not knowing the extent to which things are real and aren’t. Like with Carey’s character, he had to question his friendships, his family, everything… was any of it real? And certainly, there were real elements to his life. And yet everything was set in the context of a very contrived situation. And so we are asking children to grow up in a world that is very contrived – how they are expected to act and to be, to understand their genders and bodies, and to relate to peers and adults is laid out for them – and also encouraging them to form an identity within the construct, to develop relationships and “find themselves.” How very frustrating it feels to try to define yourself when you start to understand that your definition may in fact lay beyond the parameters of the social scenario of your time!

    I would be curious to hear more about how you would use Brown’s work in your practice with youth. I have been a fan of hers for awhile – specifically with what she says about the strength of vulnerability – and yet have largely approached her from the perspective of an adult, and thinking about my life as an adult.. not in respect to children or youth. How would you link her work, dealing primarily with adult subject, to our work with youth?


    1. Shame is universal-and perhaps even more poignant with the ‘spotlight effect’ of adolescence. I’ve actually done a workshop with girls (Grade 11/12) where we explored body image and shaming practices, and through this came up with ways that they could create a ‘shameless’ environment (both interior and exterior). They embraced this opportunity and it freed them to talk to each other about shaming practices.


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