Activities that Address Adultism

I have recently made the acquaintance of an executive director for a nonprofit in Pennsylvania. We have carried on a dialog over the last several weeks that has been really neat, and I want to share with you another thought I just wrote to her. The other day she asked, “How do you show folks that young people are capable of SO much more than we know? I think about just giving them the opportunities to do things and make decisions and then I run into people who say, “They won’t tell us anything that we haven’t thought of ourselves.” I of course disagree, but how do we show the other side?” Here’s my response – let me know what you think!

I think that there are two steps to answering your questions, which are important ones:

1. Show folks the possibilities by showing them what has already been done. In addition to everything you can find on the Freechild and SoundOut websites, my friend Wendy Lesko has collected a great group of stories. Additionally, the What Kids Can Do website is packed with great stories that really show the reality and possibilities of youth involvement. Folks need to see what is possible. There are lots of cool, fun and engaging ways to present stories to groups – let me know if you want ideas.

2. Challenge people to see past their blinders by having them confront their discrimination head on. I describe this activity in the Washington Youth Voice Handbook in depth, but here’s the gist of one I use frequently to break down some mental barriers. Its particularly useful for age-divided groups, 4-6 youth in one group and 4-6 adults in another – but it can be used in any configuration for any size groups. I’ve led 100s at a time. Here ya go:

  • Give each group a seat around a piece of flip chart paper. Make sure each person has a marker, and ask one person from each group to divide the sheet into quadrants. Explain that you’re going to ask them to brainstorm “reality” with each other in order to get a clear idea of what we’re all thinking. Encourage each person to write something, be as honest as possible, and tell them that there are no right or wrong answers here – only their thoughts. Give them 5-10 minutes to answer each question.
  • In the upper right hand corner ask them to brainstorm answers to the question, “What are the best things about working with youth?” In the upper left hand corner, ask them to answer, “What are the best things about working with adults?” In the bottom right hand corner, “What are the most challenging things about working with youth?” and in the bottom left, “What are the most challenging things about working with adults?”
  • When everybody is finished ask each group to post their papers around the room, and then ask all the groups to get up and read each one to themselves.
  • When everyone has had the opportunity to read them, ask participants what stands out the most to them. What trends or patterns emerge? What is the weirdest thing they read? Then just have a free-flow conversation and see what emerges.

I think that activity could segue well into a frank conversation about the value each side brings to the table, which is vital for breaking down adultism. One of the perplexities of adultism is that it insists adults put themselves into positions of authority all of the time, which requires being right all of the time. I don’t know the last time you felt that obligation Jackie, but man, it stresses me out! So we’ve got a society ran by a bunch of well-meaning but powerfully stressed out adults who we’re asking to create space for youth to participate, let alone become equals with? Its no wonder they scoff! So this activity can help them identify – for themselves – the value, capacity and reality of involving youth.

The other thing I’d recommend is to lead by example. Involve youth in facilitating, advocating, speaking, cheering, anythinging as often as possible – and model youth/adult partnerships, not simple adult leadership disguised as allyship. That will give you more credibility with all sides.

I love to answer great questions and share conversations. Keep ’em coming!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

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