The Basics of Adultism

Adultism is the bias towards adults that causes discrimination against youth. First coined in the late 1800s, the term describes the ways adults treat children and youth, and is obvious through language, culture, architecture, education, healthcare, families, and more. Adultism includes attitudes, beliefs, and discrimination in favor of adults throughout our society.

Treating Kids Different

Adultism is about respect, trust, authority and power. It is apparent beginning when children are very young. Because of the ways our society generally behaves, babies are assumed to be incomplete and their opinions are seen as largely inconsequential. Adults determine the feeding, caregiving, clothing, bedding and lighting of babies because we don’t understand whether babies are sharing their opinions about these things, among others. This belief continues until young children can share their opinions in language adults can understand. This establishes the basis of adultism that affects young people through the age of 18 and beyond.

At the point kids can share their opinions, adults constantly parse out what is a valid concern and what is invalid. Rather than referring to evidence or facts, adults mostly use personal judgment and beliefs to decide what foods, entertainment, activities, learning and opinions we should listen to. This is adultist. It is obvious in our language with phrases like “Children should be seen and not heard,” and is apparent our built environment, too: The height of a fountain, door handle and chair reflects an adult’s needs, not childrens’ needs. Adultism is reinforced through arbitrary rule-making focused on ages, too, rather than science or best practices.

When children become teenagers, their own beliefs become stronger, their wisdom starts accumulating, and their value to society starts to become determined. Adultism ensures that young leaders emerge to represent their peers, as well as confines rule-breaking youth to “stay in their lane” through punishment, classroom tracking, and curfews. In some places, youth are sent to jail for offenses only they can commit, like breaking curfews, being truant to school, drinking alcohol and other infractions. In other situations, youth are encouraged to put on a tie and “act like adults” in order to gain privilege and access that will benefit their futures. Each of these demonstrates bias towards adults, since our society reveres age and stands against the knowledge young people possess. Movie ratings, drivers licensing, banking rules and compulsory education reflect this, too: We simply don’t trust the ability of youth to determine what’s best for themselves, so adults make judgments for them. That’s not just parents, either; teachers, youth workers, counselors and police make judgments for youth all the time.

All this shows how adultism is apparent in the attitudes, culture and structures throughout our society.

Making Changes

There are active movements across the United States and around the world today to face adultism head-on, and to fight and defeat adultism when it’s necessary. These movements are engaging youth as partners with adults in government agencies, building youth/adult partnerships in community organizations, challenging schools to build Meaningful Student Involvement, and transforming families everywhere.

In Seattle, Washington, I partnered with the King County Superior Court to design a program for more than 40 families created to keep youth out of jail. The Parent/Youth Engagement Seminar was designed to build the skills and knowledge parents and youth needed through 12 hours of interactive workshops. Participants learn what youth voice is, how it works, and the positive outcomes that can happen when parents and youth work together to make families more successful. This seminar directly challenges adultism by confronting parents’ bias towards their own opinion, as well as by teaching parents and youth about partnering together for success, instead of using coercion and force to enforce compliance.

Building support for empowered student voice around the world, back in 2002 I started supporting K-12 schools, districts and state education agencies after building SoundOut.org. Since then, I’ve partnered with more than 300 different schools and agencies to write policies, develop programs, facilitate professional development and speak at conferences about Meaningful Student Involvement. This work has resulted in roles for students on school boards, students training teachers, and new education policies focused on student voice and student engagement. This challenges adultism among educators and policymakers by showing the positive potential of all students in every classroom, rather than simply tokenizing through constrained student/adult relationships.

There is so much work happening to challenge adultism!

5 Steps to Stop Adultism

I have developed these 5 steps to stop adultism based on my experience and research. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

  1. Name Your Bias. Every single person has bias towards adults. No matter how enlightened you are, how educated you might be, or how important you think you are to young people, you are adultist, and you’ve experienced adultism. Name your biases and be honest with yourself.
  2. Listen to Youth Voice. Listen directly to youth; read their writing; listen to them sing; look at their art. Don’t respond, don’t fix, don’t do for them; just listen to youth voice.
  3. Get Educated. Read my book, Facing Adultism. It’s a deep exploration of how adultism happens, who it affects, where it’s worst, who it affects most, and why it matters so much. Also, explore other writing about adultism and join the Facing Adultism group on Facebook.
  4. Find New Ways to Be. Declare your allyship with youth and stick to it. Be kinder and more compassionate with young people, and advocate for youth to be present when they aren’t in the room. Find new ways to be at home, at work and throughout the community.
  5. Make Change. When you’ve started changing your life, look at the health and well-being of your community. How does adultism affect youth around you right now? Which youth are most affected? Which adults are most biased towards other youth, and non-inclusive of youth?

What would you add to this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

When you’ve begun to address adultism, you might see how it’s tied together with paternalism, sexism, racism, classism and other injustices throughout our society. You might also discover different ways you have made the challenge of adultism worse, and how you’ve affected positive changes towards adultism in the past! Each of us are capable of doing remarkable things–what are you going to do?

 

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Showboating Youth

The youth movement isn’t the same as basketball or business, and there is no room for showboating.

It is a diverse movement filled with multiple perspectives and broad actions focused on many, many issues. Showboating happens when someone exaggerates their own skills, talents, or abilities. In

the youth movement, individual young people may be tempted to self-promote and make it sound as if they are the only youth voice, or their organization or program is the only youth program of value.

Instead of focusing on themselves, the Freechild Institute works to engage all voices and teaches youth and adults to honor the contributions and abilities of all youth everywhere all the time in order to avoid showboating.

 

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Youth On Pedestals

Adults can be easy to amaze.

Seduced by mainstream media and politicians that routinely dismiss the positive power of youth, adults often feel like they’ve discovered gold when youth stand up for themselves and work together to create change.

In some instances, they lean on these youth constantly and raise them to the point of infallibility. I call this pedestaling youth. It includes romanticizing, which is making someone always right and out of way of questioning.

The Freechild Institute supports organizations as they establish and sustain room for disagreement and mistakes between youth and adults, and among youth on their own. We work to model consensus and collaboration.

We are in these continuous learning process that engages all participants–adults and youth–as equitable partners without artificially or superficially elevating one voice above all others.

There’s no room for pedestals.

 

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Youth as Heroes

In a room with too few representatives, a particularly loud voice standing above all others can sound brave and unique, especially when they represent an under-acknowledged majority. This is especially true in the youth movement today.

Just because a young person puts on a suit and discusses social change in a way that makes adults listen to them doesn’t make them heroic or a superhero. It makes them dressed right and well-versed.

In the same way, there are organizations and programs in the youth movement that are made heroic too. They are made out to represent youth particularly well or be the “right” whenever they talk. Among the 56 million youth in the United States right now though, adults do not lionize programs that make them uncomfortable or ideas that are too far from their acceptance.

The ones that are uplifted are generally satisfactory to adults who make decisions about funding, data usage in society, and social change leadership. Organizational heroism is also a danger to the youth movement.

The Freechild Institute works with partners to make room for young people who don’t please or appeal to them so easily, and emphasizes teaching young people about the society that affects them so much.

When everyone does this, only then can we stop setting us up to fail by positioning youth as heroes.

 

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Lowballing Youth

There is more out there than just what you see. Youth are being lowballed everywhere, all of the time.

Many organizations and individuals today are calling for youth to be informants to adult decision-making in schools. They say they want youth voice to be heard. They want a seat at the table for youth.

There’s a lot more at stake for youth than simply being able to talk or be represented somewhere. In reality, youth comprise up to 94% of any given school building’s population, and 26% of the entire population of the planet.

Youth should be fully integrated into the operations of every single organization in our society, if only for their energy and to educate them about democracy. That means schools, nonprofits, government agencies, community groups, faith-based organizations and others have to make room.

Every layer of government should infuse youth as well, positioning in them in powerful roles that effect not only individual youth, but all youth; not as recipients, but as active partners who design, implement, critically assess, and make substantive decisions about the education system as a whole.

I say this with a love that is critical and necessary: Many people and programs in the youth voice movement simply don’t get it.

Reduced to reacting, they rally youth around the apparent problems throughout society without recognizing the deeper issues.

Reaching much further than simply acting like the flavor-of-the-day, the Freechild Institute works with partners to position youth as constant, deliberate, and fully engaged partners throughout all of education, all of the time.

Its time to stop lowballing youth.

 

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Does Adultism Affect Student Learning?

In a recent interview about adultism, the interviewer asked me whether adultism affects education. Here’s my answer:

All parts of society meant to address youth are compromised through adultism, especially education. The very premise of compulsory schools – forcing youth to attend – was originally meant to intervene against child labor. However, its become a tool for enforcing compliance and coercion in society. This disallows youth from acting as full members of society by forcing them to learn a standardized curriculum, stay confined throughout the course of the workday, and generally incapacitating their power and disabling their passions. By doing this, schools cynically enforce the power of adults over youth, further entrenching the social hierarchy that relies on adultism.

While there are obvious reasons for this like securing adult power, incapacitating revolutionary sentiment among youth, and enforcing social hierarchy, I think its vital to understand the economic manipulations that allow, encourage, sustain, enforce and manipulate all this: In the worldwide economic machine today, youth are a transitional commodity. This means that they’re seen as adults-in-the-making whose sole purpose is to become better customers. As adults, people are generally empowered to become economic agents as producers, accumulators and customers. Since they aren’t recognized in those economic realms, youth are generally seen as under-actualized consumers. This disallows adults from successfully advocating for youths’ genuine best interests, and wholly takes away youths’ abilities to advocate for themselves. Basically, no money = no power. Any appearance otherwise is simply a momentary blip or allowed by the economic system as a release value for the stresses of social change. That’s why we have a momentarily powerful youth movement right now; its seen as a pressure release valve. When that pressure is gone though, what will happen to that movement? Only time will tell…

 

What do you think – does adultism affect education? What do you think about my response? Share your thoughts here!

 


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Does The Media Treat Youth Fairly?

Recently, I answered an interview request with some pretty deep questions about adultism. I answered them, and thought I’d share my responses with you. In this question, the interviewer essentially asked me whether the media treats youth fairly. Here’s how I responded:

I’m an adherent to the analysis of Mike Males, Henry Giroux, Michele Fine and bell hooks, along with others, each of whom argues that American media, politicians and others have manipulated society’s perceptions of youth in order to profiteer off young people more effectively. This analysis informs the economic analysis I laid out in question 12, which relies on negative public conceptions of youth to continue their grossly cynical economization of youth today.

Whether portrayed as incapable, innocent children; hyper-violent adult-esque criminals; or apathetic irrelevant leeches on their parents; as a whole, youth today are wholly maligned by media of all sorts, and treated as mere economic pawns. That allows politicians, corporations, and others to profiteer off youth in countless ways, further perpetuating the oppression of adultism and the weaponization of social institutions against youth.

Let me know what you think about the question or my response in the comments below? Thanks!

 


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Are Youth As Wise As Adults?

Recently, I answered an interview question that essentially asked if I think youth are as smart as adults. I took the liberty of answering with my clearest thinking, and I want to share it with you here:

Adults have created a society in which we are powerful and youth are not. We have done this with the tools of shared culture, individual attitudes and systemic structures, and we’ve infused rumors, conjecture and insinuation throughout all those things in order to maintain, sustain and enforce our power. One of those rumors, conjectures and insinuations is the myth that adults are inherently wiser, smarter and more intellectually capable than youth.

There is absolutely no strong science that shows – wholesale – that all adults everywhere are naturally more able than youth. I think the reverse is actually true, and that’s why adults have created so many systems (economics, education, religion, families, neighborhoods, etc) to enforce adultism, and the myths that enable it. Sucky.

Let me know what you think – are youth as wise as adults? What do you think about what I wrote? Share your response in the comments section below.

 


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An Interview on Adultism

Recently, a youth activist in the UK wrote to me with some excellent questions about adultism. I loved responding to him, and I think we have some excellent conversations ahead of us. I want to give you a peek into what was exchanged. Let me know what you think?

Question 1: Why does youth-based ageism matter to you, both personally and from a broader societal perspective? 

Growing up, I experienced homelessness, generational PTSD, generational alcoholism, and situational poverty. After beginning youth work as a teenager, I discovered a realm of youth advocacy focused on youth rights. Beginning with the analysis that youth aren’t granted rights and freedoms enjoyed by adults simply because of their age, in my early 20s I examined my own professional practice and discovered that I’d perpetuated this discrimination against youth in my youth work. My own professional journey took a critical turn at that point, and I’ve never looked back.

Since then, I’ve studied the phenomenon of adultism in-depth, writing dozens of articles and a book about it called Facing Adultism. I’ve also led workshops with hundreds of youth and adults across North America and in Brazil over the last 15 years. Among my findings, I’ve discovered some radical trends that are disturbing. Rather consistently and regardless of setting, adults appear to be consistently predisposed to the actions, ideas, words and opinions of other adults. I call this bias towards adults adultism. Adultism seemingly happens everywhere, including many places that exist simply to serve children and youth, including schools, after school programs, youth centers, summer camps, and in childcare facilities, as well as businesses that serve young populations, including stores, healthcare, and restaurants. On a very basic level, the problem of adultism in democratic societies is that it inherently undermines and ultimately dismantles democracy. We basically spend 18 to 25 years of a person’s life telling them to be passive recipients of hierarchical, authoritarian decision-making, and then one arbitrary day we bestow them with the mantle of Voter and pray they have faith in democracy. That disjunction doesn’t sit well with most people, and easily explains why so many people are disaffected by voting today.

In a more complex way, I believe adultism is the conditioning that permits all other discriminations to co-exist throughout our societies. From infancy we’re taught in subtle and overt ways that adults are dominate in our worlds. At the same time we appropriately rely on them for food, clothing, shelter and security, we’re conditioned to accept their control over our appearance, attitudes, education and behaviors. Through this control, adultism opens the doorways for oppression through sexism, racism, hetrosexism, classism, and many other biases and discriminations, allowing each of us to both become oppressors and the oppressed. This has massive effects throughout our societies that are grossly underexamined.

Question 2: Is youth-based ageism entrenched in politics/culture/society? What are the consequences of it?

Bias towards adults is thoroughly entrenched throughout the entirety of society, including politics and culture, and education, healthcare, law enforcement, familial relations, community structures, government, economics, religion and spirituality, the arts, and even crime. This bias towards adults, and the discrimination against youth which is consequential, disallows all young people of every age from fully realizing their own capacities, personalities, abilities and interconnectedness. This continues until the time when society stops disallowing them to do so. This means that any contributions that children and youth could make to a better world for all people; any economic contributions they could make; any education they could become truly passionate about; any subject which they could master; all of this and so much more is thwarted because of adultism. The youngest people in our society could make the greatest contributions, if only they weren’t continually denigrated by adults simply because of their age. Mozart was five when he composed his first minuet – not bad for a kid. Imagine what any of us could do without the shackles of adultism.

Question 3: What would you argue is the main factor that prevents pro-youth organisations, such as the UK Youth Parliament and perhaps US equivalents, from being more effective than they are?

I would suggest that adultism is the main factor that prevents youth-serving orgs from being more effective, and that adultism uses money as a lever to control the structures, attitudes and cultures of those organizations. There are strong financial incentives that exist in order to enforce adultism. These fiscal constraints are the most powerful force that ensures the sustained habituation and enculturation of adultism in all of its forms throughout our society, especially within youth-serving organizations. Whether these organizations are working in hyper-local settings on the familial, neighborhood and community levels, or in national or international forums, all of them are generally constrained by the authority and ability granted to them by money. The simple fact is that there are absolutely no funds anywhere that actively support the elimination of adultism, or any steps preceding that. Because of that, each of these organizations choose the routes they need to follow in order to most effectively meet their funders’ expectations.

For instance, the UK Youth Parliament chooses politics as its avenue to serve youth. In these politics they follow the pathways which grant them the most ability to affect change on behalf of their constituents. That means that if a bill is going to be fought effectively, it might require a little adultism here and a little adultism there, which is acceptable in order to fight that bill. Similarly, a well-meaning teacher in a public school might know in her heart that student voice should be infused throughout her classroom, with students making and enforcing rules, cowriting and critiquing curriculum, administering and evaluating assessments, and so-forth. However, she also knows her headmaster placed a book in her hands, gave her a URL for student testing, and she must do what she’s told to keep her job. A little adultism here and a little adultism there, and she has a job again next year.

Question 4 and 5: What’s the solution for schools? And what are solutions beyond the school remit?

Schools must stop existing simply to promote academic achievement, and instead adopt the understanding that their singular purpose is to engage students in learning, teaching and leadership throughout their own lives and their communities. Academics is one avenue to student engagement, but only one. There are dozens of ways to engage learners, and schools should be held to the highest account for engagement, simply because that does not happen anywhere else in society. That’s because student engagement is the sustained connection a student feels towards something, and schools should be responsible solely for fostering that feeling. Who is in charge of whether or not a student becomes engaged in something? The student, and the student alone. Who can help facilitate whether a student becomes engaged in learning, teaching and leadership throughout their own lives and their communities? Educators. Student engagement would be the ultimate goal for schools because nowhere else could do it quite the ways they do.

Beyond schools, there are countless avenues towards a more successful society for all people, regardless or because of age. Starting with full suffrage for all people regardless of their age, I believe it extends towards complete citizenship for all people with equitable roles, responsibilities and rights accorded to people because of their ages. Teaching, reinforcing and uplifting the notion of interdependence is vital, too, as it can help both young people and adults understand complex social understandings in a concrete, tangible way. In his last book published, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “When we get up in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap created by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.” I believe that same sentiment must be translated on the age issue. I don’t think we have a case of youth versus adults here, Tom. Instead, this is an issue that’s endemic in Western culture and its tearing us apart. We can work past this, given the right mindsets and resources.

 

Again, this was just the start of a long conversation. Let me know what you think and whether you’d like to read more!

 

Becoming Aware of Youth Culture

Culture is anything and everything that makes up the parts of a person’s entire way of living.

Culture is organized into groups, including a person’s geographic location, political identification, sexual orientation, familial makeup, friends, religion, jobs, and AGE. Age is a cultural group because of the traits shared among different age groups throughout society.

Ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia are all rooted in these cultural realities. Adultism is too.

Adultism is bias towards adults.

In order to successfully, meaningfully and wholly engage children and youth anywhere, anytime for any reason, adults have to confront our bias towards adults, and the consequence of that: discrimination against young people.

The question of becoming aware of the culture of young people is at the very core of my work for a lot of reasons.

For all that we continue expanding Euro-awareness of the value of indigenous culture; for the cultural expansion towards equitable roles between women and men; for the upsurging awareness of the equal rights of GBLTQQ folks; we’re missing a key element in these conversations, and that’s the cultural shoehorn known as children and youth.

Young people have a distinct and unique culture for many reasons, not the least of which being the routine and systematic segregation of them from society by adults. The culture of young people is almost wholly and constantly neglected, denied and dismissed by adults. They are actually and actively repressed, consequently fostering adultism and the adultcentric nature of schools and homes and businesses and government and, and, and…

That’s why cultural awareness is at the middle of what I do. From my perception, we’re talking about human rights, and the distinct right young people should have to be themselves.

We can and must do better.