Friendship: The ‘Achilles Heel’ of European Youth Work Policy
2. Friendship as an Ideal
Friendship has consistently attracted the attention of novelists, playwrights and screenwriters. An interest that mirrors the pivotal role it plays in our own lives. Friendship is a topic that persistently arises in conversation and doggedly occupies our thoughts. Not only do our own friendships concern us, for example, parents regularly deliberate on those of their offspring. Youth workers scrutinize the web of relationships prevailing amongst members and devote several hours to discussing with young people the trials and tribulations the latter experience acquiring, maintaining, and losing friends.
Friendship is a fluid concept; individuals collectively apply copious criteria as to who they might, or might not, designate a ‘friend’. Youth workers, for instance, may refer to work friends, childhood friends, close friends, ex-friends, and new friends. In doing so they differentiate friends from others categorised, say, acquaintances, neighbours, peers, mates, clients, companions, colleagues or even enemies. Amongst those nominated friends we may enquire as to whether these are of equal standing. For example, how secure is the friendship with a colleague? Would it, for instance, survive your or their promotion? Similarly, can a teenage friendship outlive the discovery that your friend has now radically revised their political or religious beliefs?
Aristotle contends there are three discrete forms of friendship founded in turn upon utility, pleasure, or virtue. He differentiates the first two from the third as follows:
Those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other. So too with those who love for the sake of pleasure; it is not for their character that men love ready-witted people but because they find them pleasant.
When we are going wrong, reprove us, advise us, can suggest a course of action when we are wavering in a dilemma, can stand up for us or do something for us when we need an ally. She can also tell us helpful lies when we need reassurance or calming down.
The above captures much of the role that a good youth worker can be called upon to fulfil. Over and above this role of the supportive ‘friend’ the worker must via modelling give expression to the attributes of ‘perfect’ friendship. They must offer those with whom they work an informal educational experience that will suggest alternative lifestyle choices and more appropriate values that will make for them the ‘perfect’ friendship something that is a feasible possibility.
4. Valuing Friendship in Youth Work
The talent for making friends is indeed one of the chief secrets of success in this work. It is not difficult; if a lad wants to talk, let him: do not put him off or snub him undeservedly, but listen patiently and appear to be—you will gradually become—interested in all the petty details of his life. However trivial his confidences, be sympathetic. Do not say “Oh, really!” and walk off with the ill-bred manner with which you may defend yourself against a bore of your own age and standing. Make a point of inquiring after and visiting boys who are ill, and in general, show the active interest which all men show in the welfare of their ordinary friends. Unless a boys’ club officer becomes a friend of the members, he will lose his greatest opportunities, and his other possibly excellent qualifications will be largely at a discount.
to know and to understand really well every individual member. He must have it felt that he is their friend and their servant.
Subscribing to the idea of the youth worker as “friend” is problematic since the word carries heavy associations of “socialising” which detracts from the essential “professional” or “work focus” intended.
Unfortunately, once friendship becomes ‘problematic’ then it becomes much harder for the youth worker to embark on teaching it via example or dialogue. Likewise, barriers intrude that make it difficult, if not impossible, for a youth worker to engage in a dialogue with young people that will enable them as friends and equals to mutually acquire the virtues needed to guide us to a ‘good life’. At best ‘friendship’ might become, in this context, yet another item on the syllabus to be ‘delivered’.
5. Friendship and Youth Work in the Professional Era
6. European Youth Work Policy
An additional notable milestone regarding the promotion of youth work within European policy discourse was the Council of Europe’s Recommendation to Member States on Youth Work released in May 2017. The document contended that:
Youth work makes an important contribution to active citizenship… and is based on non-formal and informal learning processes focused on young people and on voluntary participation. Youth work is quintessentially a social practice, working with young people and the societies in which they live, facilitating young people’s active participation and inclusion in their communities and in decision-making.
7. Friendship in European Youth Work Policy
References to friendship in European youth work policy are rare. Not entirely absent but given, as we have seen, the centrality of friendship to young people involved in youth work and its prominence within youth work theory, it is surprisingly scarce. The influential Recommendation to Member States on Youth Work has an implicit, if brief, reference to young people’s peer relationships when it states that:
Youth work should create an enabling environment that is actively inclusive and socially engaging, creative and safe, fun and serious, playful and planned… It should focus on young people and create spaces for association and bridges to support transition to adulthood and autonomy.
References to the importance of ‘socially engaging youth spaces’ and the focus on developing ‘association’ are important but it is surely remiss to not explicitly mention friendship. After all ‘association’ does not necessarily entail meaningful relationships between either a youth worker and the young person, or between the young people themselves. It may comprise only contact via an activity, event, or programme which has zero or minimal educational content and amounts to scarcely more than a gathering or passing experience. Of course, the recommendation can be read as valuing the development of adult or youth worker relationships with young people as much as or, even instead of, peer relations. However, peer relations which may be, and often are, brief and superficial cannot be viewed as in any way synonymous with friendship. At best, without the educational and dialogical dimension, they will amount to friendships of utility or pleasure, at worst just socialisation or nodding acquaintances.
The power of all youth work lies in its ability to create free spaces for young people (being young together) characterised by… friendship and relationships.
The authors place a marked emphasis on the need to establish new friendships in the host countries. Given the significance of friendship is highlighted in this context it is bizarre that it is overlooked elsewhere with respect to other youth work contexts. For instance, do not young people who relocate to acquire employment or continue their education also face the risk of separation or loneliness? Similarly, might not those who remain in their hometown often encounter loneliness as they transition to adulthood or because their past friends move away? We might, therefore, suggest that friendship is integral to the lives of all young people—not just displaced refugees—certainly young people identify it as one of the most valued aspects of youth work.
8. Demand for Friendship
More than 200 years ago John Pounds ventured forth into the slums of Portsmouth to befriend homeless young people and provide them with a rudimentary education, shelter, and nourishment. Thirty years later the YMCA and YWCA extended the ‘hand of friendship’ to young people who found themselves alone in cities and towns. Three decades on Jane Nassau Senior and her colleagues from MABYS pushed aside predatory pimps and other scoundrels to stand on the platforms of London’s railway terminals in order to extend the hand of friendship to young women forced by poverty to seek employment in the capital. Subsequently, girl and boys’ club workers picked up the baton of friendship and proffered it to generations of members.
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