Making Adultism Okay

In many settings today, there is an increasing amount of attention towards racial, gender, and other forms of discrimination. However, little is made of a very real form of discrimination that is undermining a lot of well-meaning educators’ work with students today: adultism.

In my new book, Ending Discrimination Against Young People, I define adultism in three ways:

  1. Bias towards adults;
  2. Discrimination against children and youth;
  3. The addiction to adults expressed throughout our culture, society, and personal ways of being.

Adultism occurs throughout society. Despite our best intentions, many adults and young people try to make discrimination against children and youth okay in all kinds of ways. Following are some of them.


15 Ways Adults Try to Make Adultism Okay
  1. Denying discrimination against children and youth. Adults might say: “This is a free country, and kids can do whatever they want if they put their minds to it,” or “Hey, wait a second, that’s not what I meant… I mean… you took my words out of context, don’t make it try to sound like I’m adultist!” 
  2. Even when they’re aware, some adults still don’t get it.
  3. Telling young people they are too sensitive. Adults might say, ”You’re too sensitive,” or, “If youth weren’t so aggressive, vocal, hostile, angry, or upset, adults would listen to youth and they wouldn’t get in trouble!” 
  4. Speaking for youth. Adults might say, “I’m a youth ally myself, so why can’t we all just ignore age, it’s not like it’s even real. It is not as if I tangibly benefit from being an adult every day or anything! Can’t we all just get along?” 
  5. Turning the tables. Adults might say, “You are just discriminating against adults, you know. You’re discriminating against me right now, you hypocrite!” 
  6. Denying reality. Adults might say, ”Whoa, that guy over there is SUCH an adultist, unlike me… I know exactly the right things to say and I’m never adultist. By which I mean overtly offensive about it. Hold on, I think I’m going to go spit on that adult. I hate him.” 
  7. Bending over backwards. Adults might say, ”You kids are so right! I agree with everything you say, because you’re right, of course 
  8. Reinforcing adultism with personal reasons. Adults might say, ”But a youth cut in front of me in line at the grocery store last night, said something stupid, mugged me, or took my hubcaps! So as far as I’m concerned, they proved all of my prejudices!” 
  9. Taking on adultism. Adults might say, ”I can’t possibly be an adultist… I’m part of the oppressed due to the fact that I’m a woman! (or gay, poor, young, transsexual, etc.)”. 
  10. Trying to be a youth. Adults might say, “Dang, dude! I listen to emo and rock out at the shows, and you know I’m down with the homies. Did you see the last edition of that graphic novel?” 
  11. Being constantly available to youth. Adults might say, ”Teach me, help me. I’m just an adult, so I need your wisdom as a youth to show me how not to be adultist. Wait, is what I said earlier adultist? How about this shirt I’m wearing? Can you come with me to this meeting, so they know I’m not adultist?” 
  12. Rationalizing adultism through faux-empathy. Adults might say, “Unlike all those other adults out there, I’m an anti-adultist.” “I do anti-adultist work and I try to educate other adults about adultism.” “Wait, did you hear me?” 
  13. Switching sides. Adults might say, ”I totally agree. Adultism is one system of oppression among many interlocking ones that specifically awards more privilege and power to all adults whether they like it or not and serves to keep the existing power structure in place. Oh… what? You want me to volunteer in a community organization, contribute money, do security for your protest march? Uh… yeah maybe next time, I’ve got to wash my hair tonight. And walk my dog, see the latest episode of my favorite show, manage my stock portfolio…” 
  14. Sympathy for youth. Adults might say,”Oh my god… that is so awful. I’m so sorry. Sorry. I can’t imagine what it must be like… I’m sorry. That’s so awful. I feel so bad for you. Sorry.” 
  15. Being a friend by force. Adults might say, “Hey, I’m not an adultist, OK? Some of my best friends are youth. See?” or “Yeah, I’ve known her since I was a kid, and she’s never said anything adultist to me!” 
  16. Hiding behind their age. Youth might say, ”What? I can’t possibly be adultist – I AM a youth. How can I be adultist against myself, huh? No, I haven’t heard of internalized adultism, and I still think youth involvement is reverse discrimination!”

My book explores how all adults are adultist. It comes down to this: Discrimination has many definitions, and one of them is the capability to discern difference between two or more things. In this way, adults constantly discriminate against young people. That’s not necessarily wrong or bad, but it is true. Adults who don’t discern the difference between them and young people generally have developmental restraints that limit their ability to discriminate. Again, discriminating against young people and being in favor of adults isn’t always bad; it simply IS. Accepting that reality is the first step to creating a more just and equitable society benefiting all people.

The items on this list are signs of when that ability to discern difference is either accidentally or intentionally blurred and erased, or hyper-exaggerated. Recognizing that adults do that is important for creating /authentic/ youth empowerment, instead of simply giving lip service to young people and saying they’re equal, but acting in other ways. Adults who do the things on the list are generally being disingenuous and inauthentic by going through the motions without any real meaning behind what they’re doing.

Identifying how you personally rationalize adultism can lead to becoming a more effective adult ally. Learn other things you can do at The Freechild Project website and contact our office for information on publications and training we offer.
You can order Ending Discrimination Against Young People from Amazon.com or ask for it at your local bookstore.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

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