Home truths and tough love by Howard Williamson

Context of Author

Youth worker, academic youth researcher and lecturer, and youth policy adviser. Professor of European Youth Policy at the University of South Wales.




Sometimes in youth work the thing that stays with a young person is not how friendly you were and all the good and great things you think that you did, the thing that stays for some is that you put things into perspective and laid down the law, created boundaries and did not let them run riot.

Story in Full

Now and again a tall man in his late twenties strolls into my youth centre. He shakes my hand with transparent warmth and refers to me as the ‘main man’. Young people looking on are rather impressed. But it was not always like that. Michael is the only individual I have ever banned. Moreover, he was banned twice, both from attending the youth club and from residential weekends.

When he was around ten, Michael’s older brother died from sniffing glue. Maurice was fourteen and much-loved by the boys and girls alike. It was remarkable how many of the girls claimed to have been going out with him at the time he died. The boys in Maurice’s peer group were distraught at his death and, for many years afterwards, Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ was listened to with solemn respect as it had been Maurice’s favourite song.

Michael was a big lad, even at ten, and was ‘adopted’ by Maurice’s mates, almost as a substitute for Maurice. Michael put his not inconsiderable weight around. He was something of a bully to those in his own age group, knowing he always had the older crowd to back him up. Michael did anything he wanted. Nobody intervened; they felt sorry for him because of the loss of his brother.

One day a sequence of expletives was graffiti’d on the youth club wall. I knew who had done it (well, I was the usual 95% certain) but Michael was aggressive in his denial. I told him he was no longer welcome in the club and informed his parents accordingly. None was happy with the decision.

But I did not abandon Michael. All I wanted was an apology and some reparation. I used to go outside and talk to him on a regular basis. At first, he had no wish to communicate with me. Later we talked about many things, but I would not let him in the club. Over a year later, one of the older boys from Michael’s adopted crowd said that Michael wanted a word with me. I went outside. He told me he had sprayed the words and apologised. I invited him into the club for a cup of coffee. He remarked, incredulously, ‘is it that easy?’ and conceded that it was his stubborn pride which had kept him out of the club for so long.

Something similar happened during an early residential and Michael missed a year of such participation accordingly. For a while, he really hated me for this decision. Years later, however, Michael told me that he was forever thankful for my taking a stand. No-one else had done so since Maurice died. It had been me who had made him aware that he could not be both Michael and Maurice at the same time. It had been me who had given him boundaries and told him what the limits of acceptable behaviour were. And he acknowledged that, although I had applied these boundaries, I had not forsaken him. He realised that I had remained accessible and supportive. Even today, he comes and chats about his career progression and his family life. None of the young people in the youth club can ever believe that he is the only kid I ever banned.