F***ing Youth Work!

So this is my first personal blog post – ever, and I’ve called it ‘F***ing Youth Work!’  Don’t get me wrong, I love youth work, I’ve been playing this game for a decade and still finding new reasons for why I love it – No, this post is about swearing.

Working with young people and hearing all sorts of swearing kinda goes hand in hand – a generalisation I know.  Not all young people but not just ‘naughty’ youth either – cursing, cussing, effing and blinding are often prominent parts of a young vocabulary.  My point is that maybe youth workers need to swear a bit more themselves…

So there’s a few different points here;

1) I’m not talking about discriminatory swearing or swearing at people with harmful intent.  I’m not saying this is what youth workers should do more of, let’s be clear.

2) “But ALL swearing could be offensive” – Sure.  I’m not saying that you should bust out your arsenal of favoured profanity in front of 5 year olds stood next to their mums.  Please don’t turn the air blue around teens you know would be upset – an ability to judge these situations is assumed.

3) “Shit – Balls – Crap – Coooooock!” –  I’m not even saying that you should be busting it out for the sake of it – liberal cursing wont help you – and what purpose would it serve?

What I am saying is that I firmly believe that swear words are like colours on the paint palette of vocab.  They may not be used by all painters in many of the best paintings but they do have their place.  Sometimes there are just no better words to sum something up – at least not without using circumlocutory or tautological verbosity – like that.  Now who wouldn’t sum up any of those three words when talking to a young person with the perfectly simple one;

Just when you thought I was all about the shock value, I do have some theory…

Carl Rogers gave to the world his three ‘core conditions’ for counselling and education – ’empathy’, ‘unconditional positive regard’ and the one I’m interested in tonight – ‘congruence’.  Congruence is all about the realness of the practitioner and whether the character you present in your work is the genuine you.  If not you may be jeapardising the impact of your work.

In practice – I swear. I swear if I would normally swear in conversation.  I tend to tone it down, but then I don’t swear a huge amount in my personal life anyway.  And in my experience not only does it better represent a congruent you but on some level it shows trust.  The trust in the young people you work with to use swearing with you, but use it ‘properly’.  Groups I work with don’t have a blanket ban on swearing – whenever they do ground rules they always say “No Swearing” as if it’s expected.  I challenge that, “Is that realistic” – reflection – “No, I guess not” – “Ok, so what is realistic?” – discussion around what’s appropriate and not…  This way groups know the difference between using swear words and being nasty/bullying/discriminatory/offensive – a lesson they’re free to take to other areas of their lives.

I also find that casual (and proper!) swearing can lead to a mutual respect between youth worker and young person.  Not the kind of respec’! you get preceded by the word ’nuff’ that it’s embarrassing to try to cultivate as a youth worker.  Not even the Respect‘ the Labour party tried to force down people’s throats in 2005 but the kind of respect you give and get when you treat teenagers as they want to be treated – as young adults.

So, swearing, why not give it a fucking go?


10 thoughts on “F***ing Youth Work!

  1. Glamour Puss says:

    As a practitioner who has both embraced person centred approaches, falling stupendously in love with Rogers, I have struggled and continue to question ‘congruence’ in relation to professional boundaries.

    If the language is used with the intention to further develop meaningful relationships with a view to have impact, ‘bollocks’ works for me. However, barriers and boundaries, need be take place within an appropriate transactional
    analysis relationship.

    Bloody love this stuff!

    • youthworkable says:

      I agree with everything you’ve said – people should trust their guts a bit more when it comes to things like this and how to keep it appropriate, rather than bow down to convention. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  2. Simon Boland (@siboland) says:

    Young people are young adults, are our future, and are our long term reliance to make whats left of this country and its economy prosper when we are living our days out in old age. So yes realistic language should be used in proper and meaningful situations. There is nothing worse than swearing for the sake of it, it simply takes the meaning out of the words. I’m sure we’re all guilty of that. However, young people should be treated as we would want to be treated, and on the flip side they should treat us as they would want to be.
    I also agree that as youth workers we do have boundaries both professional and personal which should be reconised and not overstepped.
    Which ever stance you takle on this, just remember that young people are PEOPLE too, and are the adults of tomorrow, so treat them that way.

  3. youthworkable says:

    I’m with you on respecting the youth as the future game-changers. And you’re right about boundaries being important – I’m just keen that people should play with the grey areas around those boundaries. Now more than ever it seems that there’s scope to play with the role of the youth worker, this obviously being a miniscule example, but what’s vital is that we stay self-reflective and self-critical.

  4. Natasha Adams says:

    I agree with there being scope to play with the role of ‘Youth Worker’. I feel very lucky to be able to practice my passion daily, especially in such difficult and uncertain times. Creative innovation and taking ‘risks’ within our practice can be hugely enabling and empowering to whom it is intended. Being congruent with ourselves about our professional identity is perhaps more important now as we face ourselves in both entrepreneurial and uncertain times. And we know that taking ‘risks’ are integral to our success. Forgive my generalisations here, but let’s keep it real and be clear of our rational behind our risk taking approaches. After all, how many people ‘get’ what we do? How easy is it to explain to stakeholders, why we swear, (and ‘seemingly’ deliver functional skills), why we will join in with a young person having a tantrum, encourage them to shout with you and promote graffiti art.
    Reflective and Critical – keeping it real and fighting for what we do so darned well

  5. Rachel Day says:

    Hi there. I am too a youth worker who believes there is a place for using swearing. Would you know if there were any theory out there to back this up. I would find it really helpful – at the mo where I work Youth Work is being scrutinised by people who dont understand our practice.

    • youthworkable says:

      Hi Rachel,

      I’m not sure if anyone out there has *explicitly* researched this subject but I did find this article, some interesting points towards the end (although more geared at parenting).


      …maybe it’s the projection of “anti-authoritarian” principles that appeals to many of us youth workers – helps young people to understand that we’re stood with them when it comes to (many) challenges with authority that are inherent in the teenage years.

      Rogers’ core conditions have been a shining beacon for me in dark times – helping me to remember lots of the reasons why our work is fairly unique in the realm of Education.

      I’ve also often experienced ‘outsiders’ not understanding the practice and art of youth work. It seems to me that as much as the theory can be really useful, it’s also been about finding new ways to articulate and express the passion that helps stakeholders take notice and start to understand us. Easier said than done though I guess…

      I’ll certainly keep an eye out for relevant theory and post it here if I find it 🙂

  6. paul says:

    I totally agree. I am a youth worker in a secondary school and with the older young people it definitely helps build respect, you are showing them that not only do you feel that the relationship can handle it but that you are treating them more on your level. Let’s face it, by this time they have been talked down to for eleven years of education already. I also run a football group, the young people are not allowed to swear at others but swearing in general is just part of their competitiveness and passion.

    • youthworkable says:

      I think it’s a really difficult environment to challenge stuff like this Paul – I give you credit for making it work in a school context.

      Schools remind me of the monkey/banana/water experiment (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOSbYHxwBpY) where if you asked the question “Why don’t we just relax the swearing policy?” many schools would be up in arms without too much critical engagement.

      As my original bit said – there’s a time and a place where it’s fine as far as I’m concerned and you’ve hit the nail on the head with what you say about it testing but affirming and validating relationships – proving that they can handle it. I remember the sports teacher at my school who used to swear with us – treated us more like adults but definitely still managed boundaries well. However many years on since leaving school he’s the only of my old teachers I’m aware of with a Facebook page dedicated to him!

      I wish you well in your secondary school swearing – keep up the good work!

  7. blatter says:

    Swearing in an appropriate context is fine – meaning those party to the conversation are happy with it and that the conversation merits such language.

    Swearing for the sake of it is generally done by young people as part of ‘growing up’ or by adults too stupid or drunk to articulate themselves otherwise.

    Swearing done by those working with young people for nothing other than an attempt to appear cool makes you – well a bit of a tw@t.

    You do not need to be a surrogate friend, it’s perfectly possible to gain the respect of young people by being an adult. It is after all what we aspire to be when we are young.

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