Expanding Adultism

adultism

ANY bias towards adults is adultism.

That is the reason why sink heights in schools and parks are adultist. And adultism is the reason why sink heights have anything in common with the phrase “It’s better for kids to be seen and not heard.” And adultism is what sink heights and old adages have in common with curfews and compulsory schooling and so many other parts of our adult-biased society.

Is there anyone who doesn’t show bias towards adults? In my way of thinking these days, the answer is “Sure.” There are plenty of young people who aren’t biased towards adults. Some are though. As for adults, I’ve come to accept that we ALL are, even the best-intentioned among us. We have a disposition towards other adults, and that is what makes us adultist. I’m not interested in whether that’s “nature or nurture”, only in helping people acknowledge that it simply is what it is…

When we’re talking about relationships between adults and youth, I think we have to stop using terms like “oppression” so easily. That doesn’t mean it’s not real; but rather, it’s acknowledging the term isn’t accessible. It simply shuts people down. Oh goodness do I know how that term shuts people down.

In trying to popularize this conversation, I want an accessible language that people can discuss without it being loaded with insinuation and implications.

When we discuss adultism as meaning bias towards adults, then more adults can understand the nature of their own behavior. It can also help people understand that adultism is a simple fact, not a judgment against their very core moral fiber. 

All adults are biased towards other adults. Does it have to be that way? Probably – nature is beastly in some ways. Can we acknowledge this bias and work for justice in this situation? Absolutely.

The Simple Formula for Youth Engagement

transform

Engaging young people does not require a miracle formula or spectacular logic. Instead, we simply need to recognize the roles that most affect young people. We can engage young people by transforming adults, organizations, and communities.

Learn more from my FREE A Short Introduction to Youth Engagement and at The Freechild Project website.

3 Secrets of Adults Who Help Youth

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As teachers, youth workers, parents, counselors, and other adults who work with young people every single day, we have our secrets. They’re not true for every adult, and being able to admit them takes courage, especially when we admit them to other adults we work with.

In my new book, Ending Discrimination Against Young PeopleI explore the need to create safe spaces for honest conversations among adults who work with young people, and parents who are progressive. I am not one to tell others’ secrets; however, here I want to distill some of what I’ve heard and share it with you. These are secrets that many adults who work with young people have told me about the young people they work with.

3 Secrets of Adults Who Help Youth

SECRET #1: Adults don’t trust young people.

Generally, the reason why adults work with young people in any supportive way is that they simply don’t trust them. They don’t believe children and youth can get the supports, experiences, ideas, knowledge, or outcomes adults think they should without the active participation of adults throughout their lives. This is true in the best classrooms and the lovingest homes, as well as the friendliest offices and healthiest workplaces. Ask an adult if this is true, and they’re likely to adamantly deny it. You can tell adults don’t trust youth when they…

  • Make decisions for young people without young people
  • Give young people consequences that wouldn’t be there without those adults’ interventions
  • Use phrases like, “I’m the adult here,” and insist on young peoples’ compliance

 

SECRET #2: Adults almost always think they know best.

An evolutionary mechanism of many creatures, including humans, is called the fight or flight response. The idea is that animals react to threats with a feeling in our nerves that helps us determine whether to fight or flee. I believe adults are almost constantly aware of what they perceive is the compromised ability of young people to respond accordingly to perceived threats. Because of this, there is an evolutionary response within adults that causes us to believe that we need to know the best for ourselves and young people whenever we share company. This is apparent when…

  • Adults limit young peoples’ options “for their own good”
  • Young people are infantalized (treated like infants) no matter what age they are
  • Children and youth constantly defer to adults

 

SECRET #3: Adults are scared of youth.

Any adult who says anything about the future in a negative context is plainly afraid of youth. This is true because they lack the faith, trust, or perspective to see that young people are inheriting a world that is gonna survive. It’s not going to fall apart, stop spinning, or implode at any second. Instead, it’s going to keep on turning, and things are going to work out. This becomes obvious when…

  • Adults talk about “kids today” in a negative sense, or talk about their childhood and youth as if there was nothing wrong, bad, or challenging when they were that age
  • Young people talk, act, dress, or behave like adults in order to make adults more comfortable with them
  • Adults make generalizations about today’s generation
I began this article by talking about adults who work in “helping professions” and parents. The reason why I single these folks out is that first, I am one of both. Secondly, as adults we get into these professions and learn to rationalize our work through many guises, which are the bulletpoints I shared above. But those are the symptoms; the words in bold are the realities.
Let me know what you think in the comments below!

New Approaches to Youth Action

Description

If our goal is to engage young people in social change, there are many ways to do that. This diagram illustrates four distinct ways to engage young people: youth-driven community organizing, systemic youth involvement, situational youth voice, and service learning. It then illustrates the traditional and non-traditional approaches to doing that within these ways, as well as the overlaps that are apparent.

 

Traditional Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change

  • May be exclusively youth-led
  • May partner with adults
  • May be led by adults
  • May include equity
  • May have explicit learning connections
  • May include adults
  • May be focused on sustained change
  • May have sustained funding
  • May position youth as “outsiders” versus “insiders”

 

New Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change

  • Infuse youth as full members
  • Recognize mutual investment by youth and adults
  • Focus on sustained change
  • Make explicit learning goals for youth and adults
  • Focus on systemic and cultural transformation
  • Requires equity between youth and adults.

 

Explanation

In my own restlessness, I find myself craving something different these days.
I’m increasingly dissatisfied with isolated experiences of “youth-led” activity that is seeded and driven by adults. I have come to see that the majority of this work is largely disingenuous and ultimately incapacitating for the young people who participate in these activities. I say that very cautiously, as I personally know and am professionally aware of the immediate feelings of empowerment that are inherent in this type of action.

 

Today, I’m coming to understand that we need approaches to this work that more deeply situate young people as full members of currently existent society. That way they can be partners in what already exists and transform situations in deeply sustainable, deeply transformative ways.This has to happen by working with the institutions we already have in place. It has to happen with the attitudes we already have at work. This is where my writing on meaningful student involvement comes from: Students working in the places they already occupy with people who are already committed to working with them. There are attitudes, cultures, structures, and connections to transform, but those are sustained changes that won’t go away with passing generations.
This article is meant to illustrate what the difference I see looks like visually. Respond and let me know what you think about a new approach to youth action – I’d love to hear what you think!

Defeating Adultism by Design

Our society is deeply entrenched in adultism, which is bias towards adults and consequently, discrimination against young people. It is prevalent throughout the institutions of our society. In order to re-negotiate adultism, we have to identify what support has to exist throughout society. I call this support “scaffolding”. I call this re-negotiating “youth integration”.

Youth integration will occur in two steps: The first step is desegregation, which is deliberately ending the segregation of young people throughout society. Today, segregation happens implicitly and explicitly throughout society, including schools, at home, in commerce, and in law-making, enforcement, and courts. Desegregation will address the tools of segregation, including policies and practices, as well as the attitudes and opinions that reinforce them.

The second step is integration. When young people are re-established in equitable relationships throughout society, including their relationships with parents, teachers, youth workers, police, and others, integration is present. It is a deliberate step meant to stop and reverse segregation.

Scaffolding for Youth Integration, aka, How to Defeat Adultism

Supporting young people as they’re integrating throughout society has to be done with deliberation and determination. Challenging adultism and fighting discrimination against youth must be situated in the larger struggle for nonviolence and social justice across our society. Awareness of these struggles and attuning with great legacies of transformation positions young people as the substantive leaders in social change they have been for more than 100 years.

The three pillars of adultism are culture, structure and attitude. If adultism is going to be defeated, efforts must be designed to address these three pillars.

Pillar One: Culture

The first pillar is Culture. Culture is made of the beliefs, habits values, visions, norms, systems, and symbols within a specific and definable community. Adultism is made in the fiery furnace of culture, as groups of people work together to define and reinforce stringent perspectives that re-enforce adultism. In the same way, culture can help examine those assumptions and redefine them in line with social justice through youth integration.

Pillar Two: Structure

The named activities, policies, strategies, processes, allocation, coordination, and supervision of people throughout a community happens through the structure of a definable group of people. In schools, structure includes school rules and curriculum; in society, it includes laws and policing. Structure makes things happen, enforces those things, and encourages them. Structural change promoting youth integration requires deliberate action for transformation. It should actively engage young people in equitable relationships while establishing and maintaining adult allyships.

Pillar Three: Attitude

Where culture and structure belong to a group, attitude belongs to individuals. “Your attitude determines your altitude” applies to adult understandings of youth: “Adult attitude determines youth altitude.” In our adult-dominated, adult-driven society, young people are subject to and subjugated by adult opinions, actions, attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs. This is the full effect of adultism. In order to counter this effect, we must change our own attitudes and provide opportunities for the people around us to change theirs, including youth and adults. This takes new ways of communicating, interacting, and being. It takes personal engagement within our selves and throughout the worlds around us.

 

We must address each of these elements when we seek to integrate young people in any part of society. Each is present throughout all the formal and informal institutions throughout our society. You can find culture, structure, and attitude in individual homes, schools, governments, and other places. By creating scaffolding for youth integration, we can re-negotiate adultism throughout our lives.

 

What is an Adult Ally to Young People?

An “adult ally” is “a person who is a member of the dominant or majority age group who work to end oppression in his or her personal and professional life through support of, and as an advocate for, young people.”*
“Allies are adults who advocate and support young people. They assist young people in their lives, support them when they struggle, and let them know how important they are and that change is possible.”

Adult allies have been remarkably effective in promoting positive change in society. Over the past 40 years adult allies have worked in organizations and communities around the world to make adult culture more aware of bias and discrimination against young people, and challenging of the privileges automatically given to adults.

20 Ways to Be An Adult Ally to Young People

An adult ally strives to…
  1. be a friend to young people and adults
  2. be a listener
  3. be open-minded
  4. have his or her own opinions about age
  5. be willing to talk
  6. commit him or herself to personal growth in spite of the discomfort it may sometimes cause
  7. recognize his or her personal boundaries about age
  8. recognize when to refer young people or other adults to additional resources
  9. confront his or her own prejudices about age
  10. join others with a common purpose
  11. believe that all persons regardless of age, sex, race, gender, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation should be treated with dignity and respect
  12. engage in the process of developing a culture free of age-based oppression
  13. recognize his or her mistakes, but not use them as an excuse for inaction
  14. be responsible for empowering his or her role in a community, particularly as it relates to responding to adultism and adultcentrism
  15. recognize the legal powers and privileges that adults have and which young people are denied
  16. believes that youth can “be youth” and be partners and meaningful participants
  17. is clear about his or her intentions as an adult ally
  18. fosters environments where young people feel comfortable and respected
  19. does not assume that youth only know about “youth issues”
  20. supports young people’s development as meaningful partners and leaders

As important as it is to define what an adult ally is in a positive sense, it is also helpful to understand the boundaries of an adult ally’s role.

An adult ally is NOT…
  • someone with ready-made answers
  • necessarily a counselor, nor are they necessarily trained to deal with crisis situations
  • expected to proceed with an interaction if levels of comfort or personal safety have been violated

Sources

Sources in this post include Washington, J. and Evans, N. J. (1991). “Becoming an Ally,” in N. J Evans and V. A. Wall (eds) Beyond tolerance: Gays, lesbians and bisexuals on campus. Alexandria, VA: American College Personnel Association and (2002) Get the Word Out! Boston: Youth On Board. Some other sources I’ve used for this include this PDF and this PDF, this PDF and this PDF. Learn more here, here and here.

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