Accidentally Undermining Young People

As adults who care about young people, we’ve heard it all over the place: Children and youth are resilient. Lucky for them, because most of us are undermining young people accidentally. 
It’s hard for us to acknowledge this though. We think that all our well-meaning gestures and activities, plans and proceeds are benefiting them, no matter what we’re doing. Handing out gold stars is supposed to build self-esteem; starting youth councils is supposed to increase Youth Voice; we mean to help decision-making by letting our kids pick what is for dinner tonight. Sometimes these are genuinely supportive and occasionally, richly rewarding for everyone involved. 
However, many times our best intentions are diminished by unexamined assumptions and irrelevant activities. There are countless ways this reveals itself in our work, from grantwriting that positions youth as “high-risk clients” when they’re actually under-challenged geniuses to report cards telling parents their kids are behaving poorly, when in reality they have ADHD. Its revealed in our communication styles, including the unspoken norms and awkward phrases that reveal adultism deep in our psyches. We undermine young people in so many ways.
There are many ways we can challenge our undermining ways. Here are some critical questions that might prod you.
  • In your home, school, organization, or program, are young people safe to be vulnerable or do they only exhibit comfortable behaviors and attitudes? 
  • How do your opinions reveal age, class, and gender stereotypes? 
  • Where do young people feel safe to be themselves- earnestly, honestly, and openly themselves- in your community? Do youth leave your community when they have a chance? 
  • Why do organizations launch programs that are less than half-baked? What are the consequences of those activities?
If you want to learn more about how adults undermine and support young people, you might be interested in downloading my most recent article. It also explains the continuum shown above.
More information on Adult Support for Children and Youth
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Hostile Adults Are Undermining Young People

Adults have been hostile to kids for a long time.

When it comes to undermining young people, I have grouped adults into three main categories: well-meaning adults, indifferent adults, and hostile adults. This is about hostile adults.

Who Are Hostile Adults?

Hostile adults don’t like young people. They have a great deal of antipathy towards young people simply because of their age, and are genuinely and overtly determined to maintain over-controlling relationships with children and youth.
Generally bound by distrust and misunderstanding of young people, hostile adults’ attitudes and behaviors are assertively anti-child and anti-youth. They routinely strive to make young people feel like infants who are incapable or subhuman, no matter what their age. They lock doors, code language, and choices made for children and youth that often force adult will upon them. These people frequently use abusive manipulation to domineer over young people, and rely on straight-forward hostility to enforce their way of being.

Changing Times

We live in a time when brutally overt undermining of young peoples’ well-being appears to be waning, with practices like corporal punishment and behavior modification schools becoming less favorable. However, at the same time more children and youth routinely face food insecurity, poor schooling, no health insurance, and blatantly anti-youth legal and economic systems,, than ever before. The simple fact of the matter is that the institutions of society are still largely hostile towards young people.
Unfortunately, these people occupy all stations throughout society. A growing number of parents are hostile adults. So are other people who are supposed to directly serve children and youth, including teachers, childcare workers, youth workers, store clerks, librarians, and others. Indirectly or directly responsible for upholding the well-being of young people, hostile adults also occupy the ranks of police officers, politicians, school principals, mental health counselors, and family doctors. So many of these individuals interact with young people every single day that its no wonder how youth discrimination is relayed from generation to generation.
In order to ensure that adults remain powerful over young people, almost all young people everywhere are frequently and ultimately undermined throughout their childhood and youth, whether by well-meaning adults, indifferent adults, or hostile adults.
Read Some Evidence
Read Some Other Writers’ Assessments

Well-Meaning Adults Are Undermining Young People

Things dropped by well-meaning adults still do what?!?

There are several ways that adults undermine young people. I have grouped them into three main categories: well-meaning adults, indifferent adults, and hostile adults.

This post is exploring the first category, well-meaning adults. They are determined to “help kids”, and can often be identified as progressive teachers, social workers, counselors, and parents. 
Assuming young people need as much freedom as possible, they aspire to always think “the best” of youth and want to be their “friends”. However, this is a disingenuous understanding because it ignores or denies the realities of present-day society. Any right-thinking adult would never give a completely inexperienced person the keys to a car and expect them to teach themselves how to drive.This is seen as a dangerous and irresponsible gesture that can lead to death. 
Well-meaning adults routinely presume the abilities of all young people are on par with all adults. No matter what age a person is, without experience, exposure, and education, all people do not have the same abilities nor capacities. These people inadvertently deny young people their personal needs, wants, and desires by over-estimating them.
The problem inherent in their position is that well-meaning adults undermine their own best intentions and denying their ability to truly help children and youth. Through an honest, engaged, and deliberate awareness of their preconceptions, these adults can be among the greatest assets in the lives of young people. However, without increased awareness of their conditioning and behavior, they are doing as much good as adults who are anti-youth.
Read More from Other Writers
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Do Not Let Go Of Young Adults

Youth engagement happens way into young adulthood. During one of my recent training events, participants were fixated on the end of youth. “When is youth over?” “How do youth move on?” “Can we just declare a youth finished?”

“Youth” is never finished. We are all always youth, and we can never truly leave our youth behind us. I believe that “Youth,” as a time of life, is about change at home, in school, and throughout our lives. However, its also a place in-and-of-itself. To paraphrase Alfie Kohn, youth aren’t just adults-in-the-making. Youth are people right now. Sure, youth change and move and shift, but adults do that too.

Youth engagement is no different from this. The foundation of engagement we experience (or do not experience) as youth stays with us for all of our lives. As youth become young adults, communities and organizations can foster and sustain their engagement. One important way to do that is to teach youth about giving back what they have received, or reciprocity. This powerful transition moves young people from being those who are engaged to being those who engage others.

Young adulthood is a cautionary place in time though. The forces of work, college, and social life pull at the desire to be involved throughout communities. As a consequence, many young adults become disengaged from the activities that once sustained them. That makes it essential to develop and maintain partnering relationships with young adults as they move along this transition. Our programs, organizations, and communities need to encourage young adults to stay connected through concrete action and involvement throughout their communities.

Do not let go of young adults. Spend time together so they learn what responsible adults do, from bill-paying to participating in committees to leading protests. Teach young adults that adulthood is about responsibility and privilege in equal measures, and they will neither turn away from it nor lose their connection with youth.

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

Adultism and Classism

After getting prompted to expand on it in the “I Fight Adultism!” group on facebook, tonight I’m thinking about the inseparable connection between adultism and classism.



Adultism is bias towards adults. Classism is discrimination against someone because of their social class. Class is the grouping of people according to their social, economic, or educational status.


When the middle class was built up in the 19th century, Western cultures designated 18 as the wholly arbitrary marker for admission to the new class. At 18, you could suddenly vote, sign contracts, drink alcohol, and so much more. The most important part though was access to money.

Instead of how it’d been for a thousand years earlier, class stratification made it suddenly wrong for children to earn money, and increasingly wrong to bond children of Western European descent into indentured servitude. Note that it was completely different for African American, Eastern European, and Native American children.


This new fiscal empowerment proved to mobilize whole families by showing kids can be in largely docile childcare and schooling rather than volatile work environments, showing the effects of ecology on children and youth. The stabilization of a middle class culture allowed for trickle down upper class attitudes, such as “children are better to be seen and not heard” and so on. This became the fetishization of childhood, and in modern times, the infantalization of youth.


I think these two phenomenon led to the amelioration and eventual glamorization of the image of white, middle class youth in America. Held on a pedestal, the image of Alex P. Keaton became the standard against which all others were measured. Too black or brown? Forget about it. Too poor? Nadda chance. Too gay? No way. If you weren’t a heterosexual, middle class, educated white male you weren’t worth a toot according to adults, and in many cases it’s still this way. There’s a reason why upper management in most major businesses, along with most politicians and the vast majority of lawyers, doctors, and others in the middle class are heterosexual, middle class, educated white male – and that reason is the intersection of adultism and classism.


Adultism is a tool of classism used to ensure the stagnation of social class status. The bias toward adults is always colored with perception of who the adults are; how the adults should behave, act, think, or feel; where the young people and adults are located; why they are there; and whether there are alternative social classes present.

Whether at home, in school, out of school, in community programs, through government, by the law and legal systems, or through cultural activities, young people of all ages are routinely made sure they stay in their social classes according to adults’ standards. In the U.S. and increasingly around the world, this is ensured through a system of commercialization which has ensured social class conformity. The way they’ve done this? Adultism. Marketers routinely and deftly mask classism in a cloak of adultism, often coupled with racism and sexism, in order to make sure young people “act right”.

This demonstrates why and how adultism and classism are inextricably linked. More complicated are the relationships between young people and adults that ensure they stay that way, if only because adultism is pervasive throughout all social classes – but for different reasons. Next time…


How to Start Engaging Children and Youth

As a seasoned youth worker, I have met my share of “good kids”. You know, the ones who were excited to do activities and eager to please adults? Generally, they are excited at the right times, attentive when they’re supposed to be, and friendly almost all the time. I was not one of those kids myself.

While growing up in adverse situations of many types, I constantly switched my behaviors and attitudes. There were places and people I felt like pleasing, and others that I cared less about. I struggled to make adults happy sometimes, and others I just didn’t care.

Somewhere along the way though, I met an adult who changed my mind and lassoed me in. He consistently engaged me and readily made hay of my bad moods. To this day, 25 years later, I’m still appreciative of the effect he had on my heart and mind.

A lot of people who are earnestly, honestly, and meaningfully concerned with engaging children and youth simply don’t know how to reach the kids like I was. They want to be like the adult who changed my life and simply don’t know how.

When I began my career as a youth worker, I didn’t know how to do it either. However, after more than a decade working directly with children and youth in many different situations, I learned a few things. Here are 10 ways I found to be effective to begin engaging young people.

10 Ways to Start Engaging Young People

  1. Name your motivation. Spend some time in personal reflection about why you want to engage children and youth in your program. Name the reasons why you think it matters, and write down the answers you already have but haven’t thought of yet.
  2. Be honest with young people. Let them know that you want to engage them, and be frank about what you want from engaging them. If you want children to trust you, tell them so. 
  3. Practice reciprocity with them. Relationships with children and youth work in circles, and how you feel and act towards them will come back toward you. That means that if you want young people in your program to be excited, you have to be excited.
  4. Keep it real. If young people in your program are hungry, they can’t be really concerned about being engaged with a program. If they’re lonely or tired or angry, they’re going to be challenged to engage with anything beyond those needs. Keep it real and meet their basic needs first.
  5. See the differences between friend and ally. Many children and youth don’t need adults in their lives to be their friends, per se. They want constructive, healthy relationships with you. Learn about being an adult ally to young people, including what that means and how that can happen.
  6. Stay consistent. Engaging young people who aren’t normally engaged requires acting in consistent, deliberate, and conscious ways. Don’t vary according to your mood or the situations you face. 
  7. Honor their boundaries. Children and youth will reveal their rough edges and attitudes to you. If you honestly want to engage them, you have to learn to identify their boundaries and honor them accordingly, and challenge them when possible.
  8. Recognize their contexts. Young people have their own lives before and after they walk out of the door to your program. Recognize the contexts they’re operating from. Engaging with adults might be threatening in 9/10s of their lives, and despite your best intention, you might be challenging that 1/10. See that.
  9. Open doors when possible. Adults often use the phrase “servant leadership” when talking about volunteering or church or leadership. We can apply it with young people too. Open doors for them when you can, and be humble enough to learn what they’re teaching you.
  10. Play, have fun, and give space. Remember that being young means having fun, not just for kids, but you too. Engaging young people means playing and giving space for them to play. Don’t be afraid, they’ll see you for what you are – a true adult ally worth engaging with.

When you start with these steps, you’ll find others unfurl in front of you. I have found it to be incredibly useful to be willing to have fun, consistently be an adult, find and honor appropriate boundaries with young people, and facilitate meaningful activities that honor the intelligence and capacities of children and youth.

Over time, engaging with young people become bonds that can transcend many other situations in their lives. As you slowly become an ally, young people will turn to you for healthy support, meaningful conversation, and real change making. From that place, you can change their lives, your life, and the world.

There’s no higher calling in working with children and youth than to do just that. Engaging children and youth is the road to get there.

When you start with these steps, you’ll find others unfurl in front of you. I have found it to be incredibly useful to be willing to have fun, consistently be an adult, find and honor appropriate boundaries with young people, and facilitate meaningful activities that honor the intelligence and capacities of children and youth. Learn more about these relationships from the rest of this blog.

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

Adultism is Tearing Nonprofits Apart!

Download the full version of this article here.

As a consultant, I work with organizations that serve children and youth across the United States. I am regularly called in by local and national nonprofits, government agencies, foundations, and others to help figure out why their programs for young people are failing. Like an emergency room doctor, I’m called in after the wound has been inflicted in order to stop something from dying.

Why Child and Youth-Serving Programs Are Started

Before identifying why programs for young people fail, it is important to understand why organizations start child- and youth-serving programs. Usually, a well-meaning executive director or community leader identifies a need they believe they can fill by helping young people directly. Their reasons often include that it feels good to them to start programs, offers opportunities for new funding, or fulfills their organizational mission. It also helps grow organizations as they attempt to meet community needs more fully and directly.

Once the program is started, organizations set out to hire the best staff. Adults who work with young people are hired for many reasons. When they’re hired for the right reasons, they have a heart for young people, confidence, a desire to do the right thing, and are committed, sincere, flexible, and responsive.

Why Child- and Youth-Serving Programs Seem to Fail

After these steps are filled, there are a few essential components programs for young people have to have in place in order to exist.

  • Funding—Foundation grants, government funding, and individual donations are meager or non-existent.
  • Bad promotion—Outreach to the community and young people specifically doesn’t really happen.
  • Poor communication—Once young people are in the program, there’s no regular dialogue with them, parents, and other relevant people.
  • Undertrained staff—Adults who work with young people aren’t taught how to sustain and grow the program in healthy ways.
  • Low commitment—While everyone was on board in the beginning, few people stayed around when they were really needed.

When asked, many adults who work with young people will add to this list. Depending on circumstances, they’ll identify lack of support from org leadership; no genuine need in the community for the program that was created; lack of partnershipping among other programs serving young people; under-resourced; no written program plan or curriculum; no sustainability planning; underestimated program costs; poor or no strategic planning; no record keeping; no leadership transparency in the org; little adaptability in programs; mission drift; poor reporting; and many other reasons that are typical of failed programs of all types serving all kinds of people. I’m not going to keep listing these, because the U.S. government has a guide that covers all of them. There are also several guides from other organizations, and even an eHow article on how to do it right!

A few other folks go deeper when they’re looking for the challenges that sink their programs for young people. They uncover phenomenon like empty optimism or a “values vacuum”, where people have little actual depth in what they’re doing. They find competition is promoted while innovation is smothered, while organizations act like their alone trying to solve every problem in the world. All these are among the deep reasons why the things listed above happen.

I am not saying these analyses are wrong, but honestly, if everyone knows why programs serving children and youth fail, why do so many still fold today?

Why Do Programs for Children and Youth ACTUALLY Fail?

At the core of all failed child- and youth-serving programs is something so deep that its rarely seen, and so widespread that it doesn’t appear on almost anyone’s radar. The adults who serve youth directly in these programs, the org leaders behind these programs, and the funders supporting these programs are like fish that keep running into a glass wall but don’t know that they live in a fishbowl.

Those walls are made of something called adultism. Adultism, which I define as bias towards adults, is everywhere throughout our society. It is deep in our language, engrained in our culture, and infused in our institutions. Many people have focused on those components, as a simple google search will show. However, we rarely expose how deeply it affects everyone, including the people who are trying to serve young people in beneficial ways.

Adultism is imbedded in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of organizations. It reinforces individual bias towards adults and is reinforced by those biases in turn. The term is typically used when discussing the treatment of children and youth by adults. Adultism can be expressed through low expectations for young people or the failure of young people to advance our communities. There are no laws against adultism, and it is all around our society. Once you’re aware of it, adultism is obvious in our language, activities, policies, evaluations, attitudes, and ideas.

There are many ways adultism causes programs to fail that I’ve explored throughout this series of articles.

How Programs for Young People Can Succeed

Undoing adultism should always begin on a personal level. However, in order to truly commit to making sure programs succeed, organizations have to commit to change. Some steps that can be taken include:

  • Training—Providing organization-wide training on adultism, discrimination against youth, ephebiphobia, and adultcentrism.
  • Confronting—Committing to ending and confronting adultism throughout the organization structure and culture, in policies, activities, language, and outcomes.
  • Eliminating—Not creating barriers to the full and equitable involvement of young people in services and activities.
  • Infusing—Make deliberate space for the full and equitable involvement of young people in all decision-making processes at all levels of the organization.
  • Educating—Support the hiring, retention and professional growth of young people throughout the organization.
  • Sustaining—Prioritize staff training and communications to ensure that they understand the impacts of adultism and that the organization delivers all services in a competent manner.

There is a lot to learn about adultism. You can find my in-depth thinking about adultism on my own blog. Paul Kivel, John Bell, and Theresa Graham are among the adult authors who’ve written substantial articles about the topic. You can also join the facebook group called “I Fight Adultism!” for all kinds of conversation about the topic.

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

The Effects of Adultism on Morale

zombie brain

Over the last few days I’ve been writing about the effects of adultism on organizations and programs that intend of help children and youth. Here is another one.

The Effects of Adultism on Morale

Adultism lowers the expectations, abilities, and outcomes of organizations. Young people may be found doing more whispering than working, acting hostile toward each other and towards adults, and shunning or refusing to interact with other young people or adults. The reasons could be unfair treatment, favoritism, or a lack of acknowledgement from adults. These actions cause youth programs to fail constantly and leave children and youth feeling insecure, unappreciated and anxiety ridden.


Adultism is not just offensive to young people themselves, but to all others in youth-serving organizations. When adultism runs rampant in the vision, mission, goals, activities, and outcomes of an organization, “success” itself is determined solely on adult terms, offering little or no checks and balances for bias towards adults.



Because of all of this, adults lose their credibility, trustability, and connectedness with children and youth. When adults are not respected, some engaged youth and highly motivated children, regardless of their age, will leave.


As a result, youth-serving organizations will lose young people from their programs, outcomes from their activities, funding from their supporters, and goodwill from the larger community. This is what truly causes youth programs to fail.


Let me know what you think in the comments section! If you’re interested, you can read the complete paper this is taken from called Adultism Kills: The Effects of Discrimination Against Children and Youth on Nonprofits at




The Threatening Effects of Adultism

I’ve been writing about different ways adultism effects people for my forthcoming book on discrimination against children and youth. Studying a number of ways adultism effects young people, adults, and whole communities, following is part of the summary of what I’ve found.

The Threatening Effects of Adultism

Since adultism is the bias towards adults, young people face it constantly in the organizations and programs that are intended to serve them. Depending on its expression, young people who face adultism in words and treatment may feel physically threatened because adults are always in positions to emotionally, physically, and psychologically harm them.

Even if no harm is imminent, adults routinely use forceful and threatening enough words and gestures to create a feeling of fear and resentment. This kind of environment is not engaging, is not enlivening, and cannot truly teach anything positive to young people of any age.

Youth programs cannot maintain any level of “success” in the presence of these imminent threats towards the very people they’re supposedly serving. The ecology of the child or youth hasn’t been improved or enriched; instead, its been held constant. Young people living in constant fear will ensure the failure of any program and organization eventually.



Let me know what you think in the comments section! If you’re interested, you can read the complete paper this is taken from called Adultism Kills: The Effects of Discrimination Against Children and Youth on Nonprofits at

The Cultural Effects of Adultism

For a while, I’ll be writing about different ways adultism effects people for my forthcoming book on discrimination against children and youth. I have studied a number of ways adultism effects young people, adults, and whole communities. This is a summary of what I’ve found.The Cultural Effects of Adultism on Organizations

Every nonprofit, government agency, and community group that wants to serve young people needs teamwork and cooperation to get things done. The use of adultist language and the culture of adultism spread throughout this work is a demoralizing force. When adultist language condescends a young person in a program, all children and youth in that program can feel devalued and not part of the team. That demoralization will in turn lessen their response to programs, the output of the program, and young peoples’ commitment to the program, it’s mission, and the vision behind it.

In my years of work, interviews with thousands of young people and adults, and observations as an international consultant, I have seen adultism create environments where young people unconsciously fear that their genuine feelings, words, actions, and ideas will confirm the stereotypes against them that are believed by adults. This fear can cause young people to either act like adults in order to gain their approval, or act in other non-age appropriate ways. As a consequence, all young people suffer from having too-high expectations thrust upon them, or too-low responsibilities.

Learn more about adultism on The Freechild Project website.

Let me know what you think in the comments section! If you’re interested, you can read the complete paper this is taken from called Adultism Kills: The Effects of Discrimination Against Children and Youth on Nonprofits at