Impact of a significant adult

July 15, 2021

Why is the role of a significant adult important for young people who are caught up in crime and violence?

Let us imagine for a second that my son, who is 13 years old, comes to me and asks me for food. He says he is hungry and wants to eat. I respond by saying,

“listen you are 13 now, feed yourself, you do not need my help”.

My son then goes about making some food, he makes a real mess, using all the pots, leaving beans all over the side, does not recycle the tins, cooker is dirty, and the sink is full! I come to find this mess, and, like any parent with a teenager, I moan about how messy he is and tell him to clean up the mess, meanwhile I am moaning about it all to him.

The above is a made-up story, but one that rings true to so many other situations - a child asking an adult for help. The adult assuming the child should be more responsible or is old enough to make the right choices and should know better. Adults then, pass their harsh judgment and declare their disappointment and disapproval of the child. I think we can all agree that this is not a fair scenario, but one that is very apparent. Think back to school, or growing up for some of us, adults expecting more from us and, when we do not perform,  get criticised, told off, or worse, excluded.

See, I have an issue with this for many reasons. In one breath we complain children are growing up too fast, but then we place these unhealthy expectations on them. In school I was not the brightest, did not work the hardest, and never had much expected of me academically. There was, however, an expectation that I would be a “gang member.” Teachers said I would end up in prison. My mum agreed and said I could even end up dead before 18, so there is always an expectation, just not always the right one.  

For those who do not know this, I am now the founder of my own organisations that I co-founded with my wife. I have 3 children, 13, 4 and 5 months. I own my own house, I am a born-again Christian, a board member who speaks to government officials and influences policy around Youth Justice in England and Wales and I am studying Sociology and Criminology at uni. A far cry from the expectations people had of me many years ago. Be of courage my young ones, we can redefine who we are and what is expected of us.

The reason I started with a story and mini bio was to set the scene and remind us of the question here, ‘why is the role of a significant adult important for young people who are caught up in crime and violence’? Reach Every Generation and Building Lives Project CIC are our companies. We work with young people aged 10-17 years old, who are at risk of crime and violence, exploitation and the criminal justice system. We offer hope and opportunity. Let me clarify, we do not condone violence of any kind and we do not excuse crime. We do however, believe that vulnerable children, who are at risk of such things, require a significant adult to guide and support them.

Is life not difficult as it is? How much more for a child who is trying to navigate the social world of cultural capital, resisting peer pressure and, in some cases, serious harm or even death! We work with young people who have been left to “cook for themselves” just like my 13-year-old. Social conditions, environmental learning and Adverse Childhood Experiences all play a major part in the development of young people. Imagine you live in an area where your role models are drug dealers. People get stabbed daily, you could be the next victim and you do not feel safe anywhere, not even at home. Furthermore, there are no youth clubs, due to austerity, you can not afford to pay for football, boxing, gym etc and you have been excluded from school. What now? Sit on that for second, a child has very little control over their life, yet they are expected to make good life choices!

Children need positive role models, adults that can guide them, advise them and act as a supervisor - someone who can see the way this path ends and try their best to guide the child down a better path. As I said, we work with young people, we are the ‘significant adult’ in their lives. We do not try to force young people to see it our way, we try to see it their way, that way we can co-design a way out. Just this week, one of my guys who works for our company, showed a young man the end of the path, challenged him to think differently, dared him to supersede the expectations placed on him and as a result the young man asked for help with an exit plan. We call this is creating fire exits. Another one of my guys has been supporting a young man who has had traumatic experiences growing up, does not trust anyone, but will only work with our guy. He has been taking this young man to a project and dropping him home. The young man said,

“it makes me sad, because my dad promised me he would do this.” His dad has missed the opportunity to be a ‘significant adult’ however, our guy stepped up. What difference will these two examples make to the young people? Restoring hope, an opportunity to live a better life and consistent support along the path of life.

Can you step up today and be a ‘Significant Adult’ and change the path of a young life? They say it starts at home, but remember not everybody has a home.

Written by Gavin McKenna - founder of Reach Every Generation