Thu, 27 May 2004

Youngsters need to be embraced, not blamed: Huberman

Barbara Kemp Huberman, director of the International Outreach Program for the Washington-based Advocates for Youth, spent three days working with Indonesian youth in Kuta, Bali. Having traveled around the world for the last two decades as a proponent of youth advocacy, Huberman shared her feelings and experience with The Jakarta Post regarding the problems of youth across the world. The following are the highlights of the interview.

Question: How do you see youth and their problems?

Answer: Youth around the world have similar problem. They are often misunderstood and viewed as troublesome. It is time that we (adults, parents, teachers, law and policy makers) change this misleading portrayal. Problems emerge because the youth often feel they are excluded and blamed. Let's value young people as a potential resource, as part of the solution rather than problem. Let's involve them in developing programs and policies that affect their well-being. Young people deserve respect.

How are parents and families playing their roles in supporting the youth?

It is clear, wherever and whenever in the world, that young people who feel closely connected to family are more likely to avoid risky behavior, including becoming involved in pre-marital sex, drugs and crimes, in their teens period. Ideally, parents are the primary educators for their children. They have to communicate their values and beliefs in verbal and non-verbal ways so that their children will grasp those values during their developmental years.

There is much parents and adults can do to help the young develop into a sexually responsible adolescence. Parents can start discussing sexuality, puberty and other youth problems honestly and openly.

In many countries, particularly those which still strongly adhere to tradition and religion, parents are reluctant to discuss sexuality, which is taboo, with their children.

Sexuality should be regarded as part of life and young people have the right to be informed about this from early childhood. There is always a misconception about sexuality. Talking about sexuality doesn't mean that parents teach them how to do sex. Parents and adults can teach young children appropriately about parts of the human body and their functions.

They must be willing to answer their children about their feelings, puberty, problems, so that they feel comfortable with their parents.

In many places, even in the United States and other Western countries, many parents do not talk to their children about adolescence. They rarely open their hearts or carefully listen to their young people. It happens everywhere, not just in Asian or African countries, where discussing sexuality is taboo and socially unacceptable.

Lack of understanding of sexuality and the problems of teenagers has also hampered two-way communication between parents and their children as well as teachers and students. How do you view this?

Based on my own experience as a mother and grandmother as well as a professional, I admit that a lot of parents do not have adequate knowledge so that they are hesitate and have no confidence in discussing issues that they do not fully understand.

However, I encourage parents to educate themselves, to obtain as much information as possible about teen problems. More importantly, they must be willing, even when uncomfortable, to talk to their children about issues of sexuality, relationships, love and commitment.

While discussing the topic, parents may be able to stress the importance of delaying sexual relations and building a healthy and responsible adolescent life.

The print and electronic media, and the rapid growth of communications technology, such as the Internet, over the last ten years has been blamed for accelerating youth problems at both the local and global levels. What role is the media really playing?

Instead of looking at the media as a potent "enemy", I have always viewed the media and other means of communication as effective partners in promoting youth health and programs. The rapid growth of technology has eliminated geographical as well as social boundaries.

It also provides wide and open access to almost all information. Teenagers in Alaska or in African countries or in Indonesia can get similar information from the Internet. They are able to download information, music and even pornography, and to read anything as the American or Australian youth do.

You cannot close your eyes to this reality. We, adults, have to accept the fact that we cannot prevent young people from getting firsthand information about various things.

How would you use the media as a partner?

The Advocates for Youth have been closely working with the printed and electronic media in the United States and other countries as well. We have joined together with various high- profile newspapers and magazines in promoting youth issues. We have been cooperating with radio stations in creating various programs such as talk shows on parental and youth problems.

Surprisingly, we have also set up very positive relations with American television and film producers such as the producers of popular sitcoms and soap operas, Friends, The West Wing, General Hospital and several others. We provide technical assistance and expertise and work together to produce film scripts that can spread the message of how to have healthy and respectful relationships, on HIV/AIDS, teen problems and many other topics.

We also do similar projects in several countries such as India and Egypt. Indonesia could also do the same. I believe there are many good television and radio programs.

After spending three days with some Indonesian teenagers, how do you see them?

Meeting them has been so incredible. Even in the United States, I could not gather as many teens together in such a way. This is my first time in Indonesia and I have read mountains of information about the country and especially about its young people. If they (around 131 youth participants) represent the majority of Indonesian youth, I am so impressed.

They are very active, committed young people who care about their problems, who are so committed and intelligent. I know there are some who are in trouble now. Let's help and embrace them and show them our empathy rather than blaming them for their mistakes.