Recognizing Systems of Adultism

It is important to look beyond individual ways that people discriminate and are discriminated against to see that there are systems that define, support, promote, and sustain adultism. Everyone is affected by systems of adultism. The ways that adultism surfaces are so broad that it can feel overwhelming to try to name them. Systems of adultism stack up and cross other discrimination. However, when recognizing that adultism affects all people simply because of their age, it can become easier to see it. The timeline of any person’s life can be used to see the systems of adultism at work from the time they’re born until they become adults.

Before You Were Born

Before a person is born, they are subjected to the consciousness of their birth parents. Whether she is aware of it or not, the birth mother may be discriminating against her unborn child by subjecting it to what she thinks is best, rather than what science or experience says is best for the child. That can have both positive and challenging effects throughout life. The ways humans are born reflects adultism against infants, as sterile, scheduled C-section births demonstrate adults’ intentions almost as overtly as home births. As the child arrives in the world, the ways a parent treats them, talks to them, feeds them, and otherwise cares for them can demonstrate adultism, too.

When You Were Young

A parents’ child raising approach can reveal adultism against their own children in many ways. Addressing a child as “theirs” reveals a sentiment of ownership or belonging, which some people see as oppressive and purely discriminatory towards young people. Economic systems that ensure a child’s reliance on parents for their food, housing, clothes, and general well-being can be seen as adultism, as can educational systems that force parents to ensure their children attend schools. The ways power and authority are exerted within a household can demonstrate adultism, as older children exert power over their siblings or male children over females, which in turn reveals how adultism ripples beyond age and towards sexism and gender discrimination.

People Around You

As a child is growing, their neighborhoods may embody adultism. Neighbors may feel they have authority over children and youth simply because of their age. They might use this to enforce their knowledge over young people, or to secure their private property. Similarly, systems throughout a young person’s life reveal related patterns. This includes hospitals, which routinely distrust the opinions and understanding s children and youth have about their own bodies. During out-of-school time, youth workers, childcare providers, and other adults in the lives of young people often feel compelled to rationalize adultism by saying they know better. Rather than falling back on their own judgment, law enforcement professionals have the law on their side, including judges, politicians, and even the voting citizenry.

Forming Systems of Adultism

At the same time all of those elements work independently, they work together to ensure a singular experience of adultism that affects every young person individually. Adultism virtually ensures the disenfranchisement of every single child and youth, ending for some when they become adults and are expected to perpetuate it against young people. For those who don’t comply with this system, there are punishments that are so complex they look like “just the way the world works.”

The depth of this system of adultism requires further examination to really understand how these individual pieces of the puzzle work together to form a whole picture.

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

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