A new reality is setting in around the world as more people are practicing social distancing, isolating themselves within their homes and accepting that Things have changed. Among those people are children and youth today.
Not merely passive actors in this gigantic play, young people are finding their schools shut for uncertain amounts of time; parents at home and out of work, or working from home; and the looming threat of a virus killing family members, neighbors, teachers and others they know and care about.
Unfortunately, the media is taking this as an opportunity to paint young people with a wide, negative brush. They are assaulting children and youth with hyperbole, dismissing them with adultism and demeaning them with plain hatred and antipathy.
Advocates for youth, including those of us who care about youth voice, youth involvement, youth empowerment, youth activism, youth leadership and any form of giving a damn about young people, have to be attentive right now to all these damning perceptions. They are not reality, and they will harm young people today and into the future.
I would suggest the tone being set right now is will shift the culture long into the future. For more than two decades, we’ve made progress with adults perspectives of young people leading positive social change. In recent years, this has become more pronounced with youth leading massive movements for social change.
However, given the threat that viewpoint poses to the adultocracy that dominates our daily lives, there will surely be a backlash. Unfortunately, I believe we’re seeing that emerge right now, and more pronounced than ever before.
What To Do
Adultocracy—A governing system that assumes power should be concentrated in the hands of adult members of society; the collection of obvious and unobvious tools adults use to impose their authority, domination and superiority over children and youth.
Adult allies to young people have to stand up with and for young people right now. We have to message on social media, promote in our online workspaces and otherwise communicate to our coworkers, our friends and family, politicians and others three essential messages:
Young people are not the problem; they are the solution;
Adults need to support young people with attitudes, words and actions right now, and;
Organizations need to stand with youth as allies more than ever before.
By focusing on deliberate support for young people right now, we can continue to move forward in our society with young people providing essential wisdom, ideas, action and outcomes. Without this focus, we might lose the ground we’ve gained for all these years of struggle.
The gigantic, cream-colored fellowship hall at the old Methodist church was filled with tables and chairs made into a square, with a row of chairs behind them like an observation gallery. That’s where I sat. A few months earlier, I asked the pastor if I could join the church’s governing board. He said he’d ask a few people, then let me know the board was going to take up the issue.
The issue was that I was 16-years-old. A year earlier, I went on fire after reading a booklet called “Youth Involvement in the United Methodist Church,” or something to that effect. The year was 1990, and I had started working for our neighborhood nonprofit as a drama teacher. Reading this booklet, I decided joining the church’s governing board was a logical extension of the my newfound voice that would give me a chance to express my opinions, ideas and knowledge about what would be right for the church that I loved.
This was no ordinary church, whatever your idea of that might be, and I didn’t feel like any ordinary church youth. Instead, Pearl Memorial United Methodist Church in North Omaha, Nebraska, was a mission church established to serve a once suburban congregation that was struck hard by white flight, where the transitioning neighborhood around it looked more like tales from the 21st century Detroit than any sense of a bucolic Midwestern city pumped full of the American dream. The surrounding neighborhood was predominantly working class and low-income residents, and my family belonged there.
I struggled to belong in my neighborhood though. As a goofy white immigrant kid from rural Alberta, Canada, I wore cowboy boots and corduroy pants in a school where other kids were were Air Jordans and parachute pants. Pearl Church was filled with old white people who’d refused to move from the reverse-gentrified neighborhood, and survived off the energy of post-hippy young parents who wanted to live radical faith, and saw the church as a logical extension of their Christianity.
Not understanding their faith, I marched into that room full of church elders and made the case for why I should be allowed to join that board. My lack of knowledge about the Bible and the Christian faith didn’t hold me back; I was driven by determination and zeal. I made the case that since I was the senior patrol leader for the church’s scout troop; since I volunteered in many of the church’s ministries; and since I was young, I could provide a voice that was missing among the group, which was a voice of youth.
The church had never had a youth member on their governing board before. In this era, it was brash for a teen to ask to represent themselves or other people in these types of setting. To that effect, I distinctly remember Paul, one of the resident WWII veterans, immediately scoffing at the preposterous idea that a kid should be a leader in the church. After being dismissed from the group to so they could discuss the issue, I heard back later in the week that I wasn’t allowed to join the board.
Holding that United Methodist Church booklet in my hand, I wagged my finger and sighed in response. Soon, the pastor of the church invited me to get involved in worship services, and within the year I’d preached my first sermon. In addition to working with one of those radical post-hippies to start the church’s youth group and recruiting my friends to attend, I got involved in the district youth council which covered all of Omaha, and was invited to represent the district youth at the state conference. After that I was invited to annual regional youth gatherings for a few years, and when I was 18, I got to attend a national youth conference. All of these were honors that didn’t escape me.
However, that first sting of awareness that I was seen as less-than-worthy because I was young never left. The excuse given to me for my rejection was simply that I was too young. They didn’t say I didn’t know enough and they weren’t overtly rejecting my abilities or lack thereof. The reasoning was solely dependent on my age. This became part of the energy that fueled my decades-long quest to build youth power throughout our society.
These days I’m beginning to understand (again) how these experiences from my own youth inform my practice as a professional in this space. Not only did the overt discrimination drive me, but the implicit exceptionalism and adultcentrism hurt. From then on, when I ran youth programs I intentionally worked to engage youth in making decisions whenever possible. Calling out my peers and challenging authority, I demanded the presence of young people in rooms where decisions were made for them, and when I had no authority to do that the anger and frustration built in me against those situations.
I was hurt because I felt rejected, and because that rejection was made explicit. The sense of difference and separation stays with me today, and no matter what kind of setting I’m in I still struggle with not fitting in, not belonging and otherwise feeling not quite right in many situations.
However, I’ve also used all of those hurt feelings in positive, empowering ways. My written and visual art is emboldened by my experiences of difference. Emotional experiences with friends and family are made stronger because of my ability to find the sense of place and purpose I didn’t have when I was young. Ultimately, I have learned to belong wherever I want to, and that’s a powerful skill. That was definitely informed by my experiences at Pearl Church.
Just like organizations throughout our communities, churches and other places of worship have to do more, better in order to engage young people. And not just the convenient youth, either; instead, they need to engage every young person within their locus of control. Roles will emerge throughout the structure of churches that allow every young person to become meaningfully involved, including planning, teaching, evaluating, decision-making and advocacy. Children and youth in churches have been involved in the multiplicity of issues affecting Christianity and spirituality, too.
Until that time, young people will continue to evacuate faith communities en masse. Their experiences as young people will continue to inform their opinions, ideas and knowledge as adults, too, so expecting them to en masse have a change of heart as adults is asinine, at best.
How do your experiences as a youth inform your youth work, classroom or youth engagement practice today?
People get excited watching the news. Like playing a fiddle, newscasters portray very depressing, very upsetting and slightly uplifting events as if they were regular, everyday events. Youth activism has fallen prey to this.
Using young activists as exceptional fodder to capture the attention of viewers and readers, sources including social media, newspapers, websites and television have taken comfort in knowing whenever they show a certain 16-year-old activist they’ll upset particular viewers into calling, emailing or responding somehow.
These same sources quickly post the latest protests, highlighting the picket signs and skin colors of the youth protesters. They are pulling on heartstrings of supporters, and pushing the buttons of haters.
Exciting youth activists aren’t to blame for this either. This isn’t a call to “get those kids off the stage.” Instead, I want to challenge the media to stop sensationalizing and tokenizing youth activism. This doesn’t mean they should normalize it, but it also means that they should quit with the alienation and separation of youth activists in the media. Infantilizing youth activists has to quit, too; when a large school district recently gave youth one day off yearly for civic engagement, a lot of media wrangled their hands at overwhelming the kids. Apparent indifference is no answer either, as was the media’s response to 20 years of activism before today.
Let’s move away from all the bogus responses to youth activism, and instead increase peaceful, kind and accepting responses that will benefit us all.
Standing awkwardly at the back of the room, I listened to the words coming from the four tables in the middle of the space. It was a drab, faded white hall with dull, grey carpet that smelled musty, felt greasy and looked depressed. I was 17, wearing my most optimistic white sweatshirt and clean jeans, and trying my hardest to stay attentive to what was being said.
“Why would any kid want to come to our meetings?” said Paul, a gruff World War II vet who clearly didn’t support the idea.
“I don’t think there’s a place for him here, or any other teen. This is the work of people with experience and knowledge, and when you’re in 12th grade you have none of those,” said Betty, who was one of the grandmas in the room that I liked.
That night, the church council decided there was no role for youth in their work. I’d lobbied the church and minister to allow me onboard for several months before that vote. Hearing their decision, I was crushed.
For three years, I’d been actively involved throughout the life of the church. Joining the choir, coming to classes, continuing my membership in scouts, and helping whenever the minister asked led me to join the church council. My mentors in the church made so many spaces for my voice and involvement that I wanted to take it to the next level. I had helped plan classes, build events and relations between the church and community, and preached at Sunday services at the invite of the minister.
I wasn’t ever given firm reasons for why I wasn’t allowed to join the church council. Instead, I was given platitudes and misdirections like, “You’re too young to understand,” “This is adult work,” and “We don’t have space for kids in our work.”
When I wasn’t allowed to join the church council, I internalized a lot of the messages given to me, whether they were inadvertent or intentional. Those messages included:
Youth voice matters in certain situations, but not all the time
Youth voice is useful when it fits adult expectations, but not when it goes out of the boundaries
Adults don’t want to listen to all youth voice, just the ones they want to hear from.
Rather than try to engage me in any sense, the church council simply denied me altogether. It would be too simple to say that was disheartening to me; instead, it’s more apt to say it was crushing. I didn’t realize it then, but I stacked that experience onto many others that felt disempowering, disconnecting and unaccepting.
Within the next year, I slowly moved away from the home I’d felt at the church. My longtime skepticism about religion took hold of my imagination, granting me some critical thinking but mostly lavishing cynicism in my heart. I no longer saw the people in that place as family, but instead as overseers. Sure, I still had mentors there cared for me, and I was always respectful and cared about them. But never again did I feel the same.
A few years later I left that denomination entirely and never returned. In the 25 years since, that congregation folded and the church changed hands. I moved on too, only occasionally visiting the place that raised me. My work allows me to keep it in mind though, especially as I work with organizations to consider never allowing adult discrimination against youth to happen again.
Children and youth face discrimination because of their age;
It happens everywhere, all the time; and
There are practical steps anyone can take to address it.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!