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.

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!

White Culture Dominates Youth Engagement

White middle class culture dominates youth engagement. As the predominant culture in the U.S. today, white people operate many of the nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and education institutions where youth engagement activities occur throughout our society.

In most communities, white people like me create the policy, write the grants, operate the programs, identify the participants, develop the activities, hire the workers, manage the budgets, discipline the participants, evaluate and assess the activities, and promote youth engagement as a concept.

Elements of white middle class dominant culture are the driving force in our notions, activities, knowledge, ideals, and outcomes from youth engagement. Our ways of operating, our systems of belief, and our culture drives the nature of the work we do. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.

In their article “Elements of White Middle Class Dominant Culture“, authors Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun identify the following traits as elements: Perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, I’m the only one, progress is bigger/more, objectivity, and the right to comfort.

These traits are predominant in much of the youth engagement work I’ve seen across North America over the last decade. Perfectionism is typical of many organizations and programs that constantly strive to “get it right” without ever finding contentment among the ambiguity of young people. Many other traits, including quantity over quality; only one right way; either/or thinking; power hoarding; I’m the only one; bigger/more thinking; and the right to comfort are hallmarks for many programs and projects.

I find myself responsible for perpetuating many of these traits as I teach people about youth engagement. I constantly talk about the urgency of now, frequently inciting Dr. King’s work while railing against the perpetual disengagement of youth in most communities. The defensiveness implicit in my call extends from a sense of not-worthiness when I bring up the topic of youth engagement. Thinking about individualism and paternalism, I can see my entire practice as a consultant come into focus, as I work alone in many circumstances.

Identifying these traits isn’t about what is bad or wrong; instead, its an acknowledgment that there is another way to do things. Einstein’s insistence that doing the same thing over and over again is the definition of insanity may be spot on; we need new visions for youth engagement if we’re ever going to achieve mainstream cultural and social change.

If nothing else, I am going to facilitate new conversations for people to talk about the white middle class hegemony of youth engagement. I am going to make space for more cultures to inform and motivate youth engagement. I am going to keep bringing more people into the conversation, and continue stepping out of the way when its time.

What are YOU going to do?

 

Resources

 

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.