Adultism is... 1) Bias towards adults; 2) Addiction to adults; and 3) Discrimination against youth

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!

 

Stop Excluding People

When programs are developed, many people can be excluded. Among youth programs, community nonprofits and government agencies frequently cater only to particular children and youth. Same with activist organizations helping particular adult populations, and businesses doing outreach in their demographics. Our society is built on this type of exclusion.

In the name of social justice, many advocates frequently position their constituency above all others. In cities that are predominately white, people of color may be targeted for programs civic engagement, cultural enhancement and community-building activities. Women-focused nonprofits are offering more STEM programs for girls. Low-income and poor children are being provided free sports programs they couldn’t otherwise afford.

These programs are generally based on inclusionary assumptions: Where there’s a gap between haves and have-nots, they are bridged specifically for the communities where they’re happening. Programmers are literally trying to expand the in-crowd so there’s more room for more people to become active in things they want to, they could, or they should be involved in.

If we don’t remain vigilant, acute assumptions and prejudices can lurk in at about this point.

Exclusionary action of ANY kind is never the solution. These are not black OR white problems, rich OR poor, homeless OR homed, youth OR adult. We have to reach EVERYONE inclusively, everywhere, all the time. I’m NOT okay with segregation of any kind.

Our biases are ugly little hungry ghosts that come in from our pasts and invade our present. They have nasty names and do gross things, like excluding others and fostering dislike, in spite of our best intentions. Suddenly, we’re judging people by their skin color, socio-economic levels, cultural norms, gender identity and sexual orientations, and much more. In our attempts to make a better world, we actually serve to cheapen, lessen and otherwise tear apart the good things that exist right now. One of the good things about our world today is diversity.

Despite what some people would have us think, North America is not heading towards a giant pool of light-brown skin people who all earn middle class incomes, sharing loving families and equal lifestyles. That’s simply not ahead of us.

Instead, we’re going to continue being a pluralistic, spastic, dynamic and diverse society for a long time yet to come. Instead of forcing conformity, uniformity and singularity of any kind, we need to create new opportunities that foster dialogue, encourage interaction and give people chances to experience people from different backgrounds, different beliefs and different realities from our own.

From that place, we can build democracy. We got get behind positive, powerful social change. We can make a change. But not before then. Not before we stop segregating people for who they are, how they are, no matter what they are.

Don’t make new programs just for homeless people. Don’t facilitate new programs just for youth. Don’t target only rich kids. Instead, weave it all together and create new realities, new communities, new opportunities and new possibilities, everywhere, all the time.

That’s what I’m trying to do.

A Brazilian Interview

In the aftermath of my recent visit to Brazil I have been fielding a few online interviews. Following are my thoughts in reply to a reporter’s questions today. What do you think?

 

1 – What do you think about the idea of having a more open national curriculum for that age (15-17) so that each school could work with what’s interesting for their specific public?

In order to ensure a minimal ability to participate in democratic societies, it is important for there to be a consistent basic experience of learning, teaching and leadership through open public education for all students within a nation. However, it is also vital to allow for localization in every community and personalization for all students. Notice that I am saying all students and not just 15-17 year old students. Local communities should have the capacity to make effective, meaningful decisions about education for all students, and all students, regardless of their age, should have appropriate, meaningful opportunities to make decisions about their own learning. National curriculum standards should be made that facilitate that local decision-making and personal decision-making, along with policies that sustain long-term infrastructure, fiscal support, professional development for educators, and additional training as its needed.

 

2 – What needs to change in schools so that it is more interesting to young people and help reduce evasion?

All education should be made consensual between students and adults. Before undertaking learning, teaching and leadership, all people who are involved should understand what they are committing to. Students and adults should know what the alternatives are, because there are always alternatives. And everyone involved- young and older- should be able to say “yes” while retaining the power to say “no”. The time of forcing students to attend schools has been overshadowed by the era of choice that we live in today. With the unfettered ability to make consumeristic and social choices throughout their lives, young people need schools that support their abilities rather than repress them. Consensual education is the key to keeping schools relevant and meaningful into the future.

3 – In Brazil, teachers in the public educational system are very underpaid. It seems unreal to engage students when you cannot even engage teachers. How do you see this issue and the alternatives to tackle it?

Teacher pay is a real problem in North America, too. Undervalued for their contributions, teachers face many injustices in our imbalanced economies. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” In the United States and Canada, the death of the human spirit is made worse by consumerist pressures and the grinding inequities faced by low-income people and people of color. That said, money alone does not prevent teachers from engaging with their jobs, schools, communities, or the students they teach. Using economics as an enabling device can support further oppression and disengagement, as teachers can use it to rationalize their indifference, inability, or adultism. Adultism, which is bias towards adults and against young people, is apparent anytime adults work to fulfill our own agendas without considering or by dismissing the agenda of young people. Students in schools face adultism constantly, whether its teachers setting the school calendar, government officials creating curricula, or voters determining which political party rules the education system in the current election cycle. Engaging students throughout the education system can begin to challenge these disparities between students and adults, and teachers can be key partners in that effort regardless of how much money they get paid.

What questions do YOU have about my visit to Brazil or the things you’ve read here? Please comment on my blog!

Binary Youth Engagement

binary

Binary thinking is based in the belief that reality is based in either/or truths. We’re convinced in believing that it’s one way or the other, up or down, left or right. This thinking is damaging to young people today in many ways, including Youth Engagement at home, in schools and throughout communities.

Binary thinking leads students to be either forced to go to school or students getting expelled from school. The same goes with peoples’ understanding of youth rights: We’re made to believe that youth either have rights or they don’t.

This binary thinking is not accurate. There is no black and white perspectives in Youth Engagement. Instead, we’re all operating in shades of gray going through variations on the theme of democracy and civic action. That means that instead of believing a kid needs kicked out or needs to be able to leave, there are a lot of variations in between we should understand and be advocating for. I believe that all young people have an obligation, morally and socially, to the democratic society we live in to get educated by other people with varied experiences. Where that happens and how that happens should be the question – not if that happens or who that happens for.

The same thing with Youth Engagement: We shouldn’t be addressing these issues as “youth are engaged” or “youth are disengaged”. Instead, we should acknowledge the shades of engagement all of us feel all of the time throughout their lives, whether in school, at home, or throughout our communities. Instead of pretending that youth are disengaged, we should see what youth are actually engaged in right now, and work to extend their engagement instead of pretending they’re completely disengaged right now.

It seems to me that the whole piece where we keep getting hung up on either/or and this/that thinking is just idle wheel spinning that takes up time and energy that could otherwise be expended more effectively.

Youth-Adult Relationship Spectrum

Youth-Adult Relationship Spectrum

 

I have seen three primary ways adults relate to youth, no matter whether the relationship is parenting, teaching, or policing. The first way is over-permissiveness; the second is responsible; and over-restrictive. Before I explain these, its important to remind you that I’m an adult and these are my opinions; a young person and other adults surely will see things differently.

Over-permissive relationships between children, youth and adults allow young people to do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever and however they want. Disregarding the longer term effects of how young people relate to adults, over-permissiveness can incapacitate young peoples’ ability to successfully relate to the broader society around them. By allowing too much freedom, these relationships give children and youth “just enough rope to hang themselves” by extinguishing their inherent away their sense of purpose and belonging throughout the larger society in which we all belong. Based in a well-meaning notion of equality between young people and adults, these relationships conveniently relieve adults of the burden of responsibility in parts or all throughout the lives of young people. They often happen to encourage freedom.

Over-restrictive relationships between young people and adults override the decision-making capabilities of children and youth and disable their inherent creativity in order to assure adults’ sense of authority, protection, and ultimately, ownership over young people. By discouraging young people from experiencing the freedom and ability they need in their natural learning process as well as throughout their social and familial worlds, these relationships can take away enthusiasm and unfettered joy, only to replace it with rigidity and structure. Over-restrictive relationships enforce inequality between children and youth, and occur by adults enforcing their power with heavy-handed education, tight schedules and severe rules, and harsh punishment. They often happen to encourage safety.

Responsible relationships between children, youth and adults are based on trust, mutual respect, communication, and meaningful interactions. Positioning each person as an evolving member of a broader society, they identify roles, opportunities and outcomes that benefit every person in uniquely appropriate ways while holding the greater good ahead of individualism. These relationships occur when adults consciously decide to foster equity throughout the lives of young people by intentionally acknowledging each others’ according abilities, fostering deliberate opportunities and continually embracing the evolving capacities of children and youth throughout their lives, starting when they are infants. Responsible relationships nurture appropriate attachment and encourage interdependence between young people and adults. They often happen to foster democratic sensibilities.

I have not met one adult who is constantly and consistently one of these ways with all young people all of the time. This isn’t meant to provide a puzzle for people to fit together the individual pieces, either. Instead, by showing a spectrum I meant to show that each of us can be any of these at many points throughout our lives.

Share your thoughts in the comments section!

Student Voice and Student Activism

One of the main researchers of student voice in the world today is Dana Mitra. Based out of Penn State, she’s done awesome work over the last 15+ years focused on students changing schools, and more. I really admire her writing, her commitment, and the breadth of her studies. She’s taught me a lot.

Today, she posted this video on our Student Voice Researchers and Practitioners facebook group. It details the causes of the massive uprising in Venezuela right now.

In response,  I asked the following questions:

Can we talk about the uncomfortable bridge between student-led student activism for education reform and adult-led student voice in schools? 

From my conversations and workshops, I’ve found that a lot of teachers are very off-put by that connection. Why is that? Is there an unspoken assumption that hidden inside every student is a possible revolutionary? Or that every student activist could potentially lead Venezuela-style protests?

Or does this get to the heart of why there still isn’t a #studentvoice movement throughout North American public schools, en masse? Is it that schools (including but not limited to teachers, administrators, and elected officials) are simply frightened by the prospects of educated, aware, and empowered students?

These questions go further, too, as they reach to the very heart of our society’s relationships with young people today. That’s all for another post though…

Quotes about Ending Discrimination Against Young People

Quotes about Ending Discrimination Against Young People by Adam Fletcher.

 

Quotes about Ending Discrimination Against Young People:

“I’ve been re-reading this lately to help form a proposal essay for a class and it is the ONLY well-rounded and researched source I have found. Adam did a great job of making me see how youth discrimination is affecting our society negatively and provided plenty of ideas to get us on the right path of increased equality among adults/young adults/adolescents.” – Emily Richardson, Omaha, Nebraska

“I have been a youth worker for over 45 years and seen many changes, but it has not stopped my enthusiasm for learning, This book has challenged me to think in the way I work with young people, to understand the challenges and pressure on young people to succeed, with no time and space to be a human being & a young person. This book makes you reflect on your practice and experience of working with children and young people in reality. I would recommend the book for youth workers, teachers, social workers and anyone who works with children and young people, good reading for anyone training has a youth, school or community worker.” – Terry Mattinson, Preston, UK

“Fletcher provides an expert look at the revolutionary idea that youth endure, and are harmed by, pervasive age discrimination and supplies supportive advice on how young people and adults can work against it in their daily lives.” – Alex Koroknay-Palicz

Order your copy of Ending Discrimination Against Young People. 

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 http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Tall Pedestals for Old People

There’s a tricky space for adults as we grow up in our community work.

Spending all these years working with children and youth, I’m treated with more respect than ever before. Young people quiet when I speak, and older people lean in to listen. My peers recognize the experience I have and the knowledge I’ve accumulated, and my friends turn to me for advice. I’m a truly blessed man.

Getting my first job in this field of human engagement at the age of 14, I practically grew up in my career. I learned and grew along so many different pathways with so many different teachers and mentors who I will always stand indebted to. They were kind and harsh in equal measure, often working to make sure I didn’t grow up egotistical, other times letting me fall flat on my face when necessary. Always attentive, each in their own way. In the same way, my young people have taught me too. They’ve listened at times, learned other times, and let go occasionally.

This is how I’ve come to stare at this tall pedestal. Its about a million feet sometimes, and stands next to others’ tall pedestals. That’s the myth older people like me tell ourselves, anyway. We believe that since we’ve had all this experience and learned all this stuff we’re due some kind of innate respect and access that others aren’t.

However, I have learned that time owes us nothing, and none of us are due anything because of our age. Respect must be earned by subsequent generations and for all sorts of reasons. Age is an arbitrary distinguishing marker relied on by the lazy and privileged. The privilege of growing old doesn’t automatically anyone anything beyond wrinkles and Social Security, and even the latter is in question these days.

This doesn’t mean that young people should not be taught to value their elders, or that respect should only be afforded to those who demonstrate their worthiness. Instead, it means that the people who are in power right now- middle age adults- should set about teaching young people and each other that they can form substantive relationships between generations in order to foster meaningful interactions, which in turn allows older people opportunities to earn younger peoples’ respect. In turn, this allows elders to respect young people.

I read recently that youth and old age are the two mystical bookends of a lifetime. One end is occupied by visions and action, while the other is filled with reflections and ease. I believe that. But let’s acknowledge that tall pedestals for old people get nobody anywhere fast. Instead, let’s create a level playing field we can all benefit from.

CommonAction is available to train, speak, and share about this topic and many others. Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360)489-9680.


Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!