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!

Adultism is Everywhere

Think about it:

First thing in the morning mom’s saying, “In MY house you will follow MY rules,” enforcing your sense of displacement in the world.

On the way to school on the subway you glimpse at the headline of a magazine that says, “Look 20 years younger!” with a newspaper headline on the other side that says, “Study shows kids are out of control.”

When you get to school all self-control stripped away by matter of routine, with messaging reinforced through curriculum: No youth are mentioned in history, the classic literature was apparently written by old dead white guys, math seems like its from outer space, and the elective courses are from a 1947 curriculum guide. And when you ask why you’re learning all this, you are told, “Its for your own good,” “Its for your future,” or “You have to.”

When you leave school for the day, more than ever your life is driven by adults: filled with this activity or that, this job or that, there are few – if any – spaces where authentic youth culture is allowed to exist. Instead we’ve injected adults’ notion of what youth culture should be into every available crevasse of a young person’s life: Marketers are adults, youth program workers are adults, media-makers are adults, band managers and sports coaches and choir leaders and McDonald’s managers and so on and so forth…

The youth who apparently “succeed” most in our society are generally those who learn to accept these social norms; those who don’t accept them generally “fail,” particularly into early adulthood, where their economic/social/moral outcomes are apparently “questionable” at best – the history of any longtime surfer/punk/hip hop fan would demonstrate that quickly.

In response to this climate, the question becomes how to most successfully equip youth for this reality, particularly when any youth program is generally limited to 2-4 hours per week out of everything else. Is it responsible to actually tell youth they can do anything they want to, be anything they want to, or go anywhere they want to when they face the permeating reality that shows them otherwise for every other waking hour of their days? Or is there a middle ground, a compromise? I am not sure about that – I’m just not sure.

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

Parenting a Free Child

There is no such thing as a “free child.” This myth has been carefully spread over the last forty years by authors and speakers and all kinds of people that I have admired for a lot of reasons – but not this one. The ideal of the “free child” seems to be the ultimately anarchistic young person, able to reason and reckon on their own without influence or guidance from adults, from society and from all other people. While that seems like a radical vision, its nothing less than what Ivan Illich proposed in Deschooling Society, or even John Holt in Escape from Childhood. Apparently frustrated by The Freechild Project’s usage of the word, an author named Rue Kreame wrote a book in 2005 called Parenting a Free Child in which she laid out the pathway that parents could follow for raising so-called “free” children.

There is no simple reality involved here. Part of the issue was captured in the 1600s by a poet named John Donne that wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind… (Meditation XXVII.) The basic premise of that idea is that we’re all interdependent, tied together in a convenient reality that allows us to coexist on this small planet. That same idea was built on by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose 1963 book Strength to Love expanded on the idea:

We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women…. When we arise 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 that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.

That a child or youth could grow up devoid of influence from even the most “evil” source (which is the implication in a lot of this literature), including television, marketing, and governmental “control,” is simply unrealistic. We are all influenced by everything around us. Even by refusing to partake in popular society or mass consumption or any other form of personal/social/moral protest, we are reacting to those influences, thereby allowing them to influence us.

I can’t entertain the idea of the “free child” in a serious way because I don’t see it as a serious undertaking. I am a member of an extremely large and intertwined global community who cannot disconnect from that community. Sure, I can go climb in the Olympics and “get away from it all,” but even then I’m still in touch with my society. In that same way students attending alternative schools are still affected by mainstream schooling; youth enjoined in forums and councils where their voices are heard are still affected by youth discrimination, and; adults who want to ally with youth are still practicing adultism. Its the derelict truth of the world we live in, whether we like it or not.

That said, we do have opportunities to resist consumerism and challenge militarization and combat ignorance. We can work with young people to struggle for social justice and against youth segregation and for community. My ideal is more closely related to King’s vision of interdependence and connectivity, as the folks involved in the sustainability movement often pronounce. I know that we have to work together for that reality, rather than an escapist vision of an alternate reality in which humanity is displaced by individualistic selfishness, which is inherently bound up in anarchism and disconnection.

By the way, as many of you know, this isn’t just empty rhetoric for me. I have honestly sacrificed some potentially interesting connections throughout my work, even alienating friends at times because of my insistence on staying ingrained in the communities to which I belong. This is more important than ever for me, as my daughter is getting close to school age, and where this pathway of decision-making becomes life-altering for her, as well. We all have to make sacrifices, and this is the right reason to.

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

Why We Can’t Wait

In 2000 I was working as the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction‘s Youth Ambassador position where I was responsible for coordinating the statewide essay contest for K-12 students focused on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I also met Sasha Rabkin, who has worked for the Institute for Community Leadership for a long time. Between the contest and Sasha’s influence I became acutely aware of the power Dr. King had over the lifeblood of this nation, as well as people around the world. Beyond the mythologizing of King’s work, there is a deep power inside of his words and actions, and they resonated deeply in me.

The other thing that happened that year is that after spending a few years previous reading John Holt, Grace Llewellyn and Billy Upski, among others, I decided to become involved in the youth rights movement. That year I submitted a poem to be included on the National Youth Rights Association‘s website, and I named it after Dr. King’s 1963 book called Why We Can’t Wait.

Following is that poem, with a few revisions. There are strands about adultism, systemic oppression and alienation throughout. Another NYRA supporter felt moved enough to make a song from it a few years later. Let me know what you think of either one!

Why We Can’t Wait

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor;
it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
I look at the people around me
and see the prisons and traps
we are all stuck.
From an early age we are taught and trained:
sit still, hold on, walk (don’t run),
and be quiet.
Whatever you do, be quiet.

So we do. We go to polite schools or content jobs.
We type and read and feel nice.
Our hair is nice and our hearts are nice.
We live nice lives.

But what if…
what if we were shown the whole picture
from the first day?
What if they said
“Hey, when you’re poor, you’re screwed.
If you’re black, you’re facing an uphill road.
If you’re female, you’re up a creek.
Oh, yeah, and you’ll be young too!
Let’s not even go there!

What if we could awaken all people to the chains that tie them down?
What if everyone saw that
we are responsible for holding ourselves down?
What if the message of systematic and deliberate oppression
was exposed and the entire society
– everyone everywhere-
saw that young people are
looked down upon,
frowned upon,
sat upon
and shat upon?

Then they become adults.
The world turns.
They start pooping on youth…
and the cycle continues.

We’ve gotta speak up, act up, and quit
putting up, giving up and settling down.

We cannot wait any longer.

Its time to get up, stand up, scream out loud and dream out loud.
We’ve gotta break outta the chains that hold us down.
We’ve gotta stand up for what is ours:
To earn, to learn, to speak, to serve.

We’ve gotta tie people together
instead of tearing them apart.
We’re taught that we’re not the same because we are
young and old
black and white
educated and ignorant
rich and poor.

But we’re the same.
And that’s why young people have got t be free.

No one is free until everyone is free. Free Youth Now.

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

Adultism in Parenting: The Terrible Twos

The so-called “Terrible Twos” are a myth.

A Drunken Postmaster

Supposedly coined by a drunken postmaster in the 1800s, the phrase has become ubiquitous among new parents everywhere I hear anyone talking about children. I have raised a child through them and participated in the upbringing of a number of nieces and nephews, and every adult in my circle agrees that the so-called “Terrible Twos” are simply not real. Now, there are many terrible days when you are raising small children, days that are filled with excrement and urine and vomit, and I am under now misunderstanding those days are terrible. So are the days when my daughter, who is four, demonstrates her strong will beyond anything acceptable by adults. But there is no such thing as the Terrible Twos.

Adultism Expressed

WHY do I bring that up here? I believe that the labeling of the Terrible Twos are the near beginning of the lifelong scheme each of us face throughout our childhood, into our youth, and as young adults. That scheme is adultism. Meant to describe any bias towards adults and against youth, adultism casts a wide net over the hypocrisy and alienating practices in schools today. I firmly believe that no child should agree with everything a parent tells them, and because of that we should expect resistance. That resistence is often labelled “terrible twos”; unfortunately, the only thing terrible about it is the discrimination inherent in the label.

Moving Forward

Let’s move past our own adultism and embrace the new roles of children in our society. Instead of seeing screaming and yelling as resistence, let’s hear them as voices. Not all voices are comfortable or easy, and not all voices are easily pacified or understood. However, all voices should be heard. Among two year olds we should hear them as a child’s indication that they have a want or a need to be interpreted by adults – that’s our jobs. From there we can move forward.

3 Steps

Here are three steps we can all follow to move past our own adultism:

  1. Acknowledge Your Adultism. All parents are biased towards adults. We go to adults for advice on childraising, we learn how to change diapers from adults and we have many things for our kids that were made by adults for children. All parents are biased towards adults.
  2. Confront Your Own Injustice. If adultism in your parenting seems unjust to you, confront yourself. Check your bad behavior or attitudes. Watch your language and see your biases. When you address your own adultism, you will be a more effective ally to your own children. Discover new ways of being with your own children.
  3. Check Others. Don’t allow adultism among parents to go unchecked. Instead, call out others’ bad behaviors, wrong attitudes, unfair language and discrimination against their own children. Help them learn new ways of being that aren’t adultist.

After you’ve taken those steps, you’ll be farther ahead than the vast majority of people in our society, especially parents. That’s a place to start.

Adultism is a Tool

In an article for Suite101, D.C.-area consultant Khadijah Ali-Coleman proposes that “We can begin to stop adultism by listening and actually hearing. Stop belittling. Speak respectfully.” However, that’s just not enough.

Too often practitioners in the fields of youth development, community youth organizing and service learning rely on simplistic mantras to help themselves feel better about perpetuating the very injustices they claim to be addressing. However, this kind of gross oversimplification does no justice to the intricacies in the lives of young people face, or the complexities of oppression in American society. The first step in stopping adultism may be actually acknowledging that adultism isn’t the only force at work in the lives of youth. Adultism is an insidious and pervasive weapon in the toolbelt of oppression.

However, other forces, or tools, are at work, too. Racism affects young people in ways that transcend their age: As a force of oppression throughout society racism affects youth before their lives begin, after they are born, and throughout all of their years. Gender bias is another tool that pervades the lives of young people. Whether a person identifies as a male or a female, the forces and effects of gender discrimination supersede all behaviors in all components throughout all of life. Other weapons in the toolbelt include classism, homophobia, and misogyny.

Now, adultism is bad, and it is huge. The descriptions I use above can be applied equally to adultism, too. However, we cannot simply call out adultism as the sole force affecting the lives of young people. Let’s not ignore or deny the realities that affect youth throughout their lives by overemphasizing one above all others.

When youth workers, educators, counselors and parents learn to identify the range of oppressions affecting their lives and the lives of the young people they work with, we can begin an honest dialog about the causes, effects and outcomes of adultism. Until that point I have to ask: Are we just thinking in vain?

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

"Juvenile Terrorism"

We live in a time when being labeled a terrorist can lead a person to be indefinitely locked up in prison as a preventative measure designed to keep terrorists off the street. That’s what Guantanamo is for, and that’s what Mahar Arar suffered.

Mother Jones magazine has followed the long-standing diligence of the National Youth Rights Association to expose what they call a “School of Shock” where students who are labeled autistic, mentally retarded, and emotionally troubled are routinely treated like prisoners at Guantanamo, complete with food deprivation, isolation and electric shocks.

Out of the United Kingdom comes a story that proclaims that all “teenagers drinking, taking drugs and being aggressive” are “juvenile terrorists.” This from the country that brought us a large and damning study that shows how ephebiphobia – the fear of youth – is actually driving people to move away from the places they grew up. Oh, and let me correct myself – its not one story, or two, but dozens. Its not a new problem, either, and its not particularly English: a 2003 book exploring film making in the U.S. identified more than modern one film that uses “juvenile terrorism” as a plot point.

Now the American Youth Policy Forum thinks schools and youth development organizations should learn how to reach disaffected young people from the U.S. military, which is reportedly effective at doing that. Karen Pittman from the Forum for Youth Investment is helping them. Its discouraging to know that the leaders who purport to lead this field support institutions that systematically disenfranchise all of their members, meanwhile expecting organizations to learn from the very legion responsible for Abu Ghraib. That’s great.

KIDS ARE NOT TERRORISTS! EMPOWERMENT AND PREVENTION AND TREATMENT – NOT IMPRISONMENT AND DETENTION AND PUNISHMENT. Its so frustrating to have to consistently see this type of regressive, punitive and destructive thinking tearing at the heart of young people today. On top of the standardization they live in every single day, with the testing and the laws and the advertising and the programming directed at their every waking moment, now more than ever young people are the targets of demonization and alienation within the places they live! We’ve got to stop that. Got to.

Other items worth noting:

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

Two Magazine, Two Perspectives

I can be a junk reader at times. Oh sure, I toss around novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Saramago like they’re constantly in my hands (because they usually are), and I subscribe to more than one research database for a reason. But sometimes when I’m sitting around the house I crack open my latest edition of Fast Company or Wired magazines. This month the two magazines present two perspectives of young people today.

The first features “Teen Pleads Guilty in Rare Theater Filming Case” as the blaring title of an article posted August 21st to Wired magazine’s website. The story tells how a teen was arrested last month for filming 20 seconds of Transformers in a Virginia theater, and how he has pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully recording a motion picture in violation of state law. This 19-year-old is a college sophomore, and was arrested in Annandale, Virginia, a well-off suburb of Washington, D.C.

As the Motion Picture Academy of America continues its assault on new media and tries to avoid its death vis-a-vis the Recording Industry Association of America, it shows just how theaters target young people. Recent studies have shown the profile of the average movie pirate to be a 21-24 year-old male; yet the target of this bust was a 17-year-old female. While it appears to show an anomaly, this actually reiterates the assertions of many young people who regularly report that they are targeted by movie theaters, stores, and other businesses for their age. It also supports research that shows how laws are disproportionately enforced against youth.

The second article is simply titled “Girl Power“. Its the story of Ashley Qualls, a 17-year-old in Detroit whose young woman-focused website is making millions of dollars from advertising. It talks about the stupification of a marketer named Ian Moray, and his complete dumbfoundedness after discovering one of his leading sales websites was run by a youth. “I assumed she was a seasoned Internet professional. She knows so much about what her site does, more than people three times her age.” Its a redeeming story for these Internet-based times, and shows the particular power of programs like Generation YES, where students learn the ins-and-outs of technology by teaching it to other people. The article relates this story to the New Yorker cartoon on the below; its sad, but the only analogy that came to a seasoned jounalist was to relate Ashley to a dog.

Other interesting age-focused notes for the day:

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

We’re one, but we’re not the same

Question of the Day: How can adults realize that they are different enough from youth without thinking youth are so different that they cannot relate to youth in any form? Maybe one of the greatest challenges of building youth/adult partnerships is the continuous point that so many people like to draw out and get hung up on: We’re one, but we’re not the same.

On one hand, it’s right: youth are different! Their intellectual and emotional capacities, cultural norms, and social interactions evolve with every passing day, and because of that we can easily see that young people are different. Sociologist Mike Males explores a lot of these real and perceived differences in his writing, often demonstrating that differences between the racial and economic composition of young people today and previous generations leads to ephebiphobia. Henry Giroux, Kathleen Cushman and John Holt do this to some extent, as well.

But wait! That’s wrong – youth are part of us all! Every single person on this planet who is an adult has been a youth before. The experiences of young people vary so much, but the notion remains the same: For a period of our lives, each person is all commonly afflicted by the hallmarks of youth, which change from society to society, culture to culture. Youth aren’t so different from us that we cannot relate to them. No matter how we choose to relate, we all co-occupy this gigantic ball of Earth, and we’ve all got to learn to change it. Why not do this together?

Somewhere in the middle of that is a lot of tension related to adultism, adultcentrism and adultocracy. Its easy to admonish people for not understanding each other, particularly when we refuse to see difference. But there are differences that must be acknowledged and embraced. All that I’m looking for today is to stop the tendency of so many adults to make young people so different from ourselves.

Thinking about my previous post where I beg for a new vision for youth leadership, I realize that maybe another tension is in here: Adults who think they “know” youth and “get it” are the ones who seek out and readily interact with the youth who act most like themselves. Ooow, that’s a tough statement right there. Question of the Day: How can adults realize that they are different enough from youth without thinking youth are so different that they cannot relate to youth in any form?

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