Adultism is the bias towards adults that causes discrimination against youth. First coined in the late 1800s, the term describes the ways adults treat children and youth, and is obvious through language, culture, architecture, education, healthcare, families, and more. Adultism includes attitudes, beliefs, and discrimination in favor of adults throughout our society.
Treating Kids Different
Adultism is about respect, trust, authority and power. It is apparent beginning when children are very young. Because of the ways our society generally behaves, babies are assumed to be incomplete and their opinions are seen as largely inconsequential.
Adults determine the feeding, caregiving, clothing, bedding and lighting of babies because we don’t understand whether babies are sharing their opinions about these things, among others. This belief continues until young children can share their opinions in language adults can understand. This establishes the basis of adultism that affects young people through the age of 18 and beyond.
At the point kids can share their opinions, adults constantly parse out what is a valid concern and what is invalid. Rather than referring to evidence or facts, adults mostly use personal judgment and beliefs to decide what foods, entertainment, activities, learning and opinions we should listen to. This is adultist.
It is obvious in our language with phrases like “Children should be seen and not heard,” and is apparent our built environment, too: The height of a fountain, door handle and chair reflects an adult’s needs, not childrens’ needs. Adultism is reinforced through arbitrary rule-making focused on ages, too, rather than science or best practices.
When children become teenagers, their own beliefs become stronger, their wisdom starts accumulating, and their value to society starts to become determined. Adultism ensures that young leaders emerge to represent their peers, as well as confines rule-breaking youth to “stay in their lane” through punishment, classroom tracking, and curfews.
In some places, youth are sent to jail for offenses only they can commit, like breaking curfews, being truant to school, drinking alcohol and other infractions. In other situations, youth are encouraged to put on a tie and “act like adults” in order to gain privilege and access that will benefit their futures. Each of these demonstrates bias towards adults, since our society reveres age and stands against the knowledge young people possess.
Movie ratings, drivers licensing, banking rules and compulsory education reflect this, too: We simply don’t trust the ability of youth to determine what’s best for themselves, so adults make judgments for them. That’s not just parents, either; teachers, youth workers, counselors and police make judgments for youth all the time.
All this shows how adultism is apparent in the attitudes, culture and structures throughout our society.
There are active movements across the United States and around the world today to face adultism head-on, and to fight and defeat adultism when it’s necessary. These movements are engaging youth as partners with adults in government agencies, building youth/adult partnerships in community organizations, challenging schools to build Meaningful Student Involvement, and transforming families everywhere.
In Seattle, Washington, I partnered with the King County Superior Court to design a program for more than 40 families created to keep youth out of jail. The Parent/Youth Engagement Seminar was designed to build the skills and knowledge parents and youth needed through 12 hours of interactive workshops. Participants learn what youth voice is, how it works, and the positive outcomes that can happen when parents and youth work together to make families more successful. This seminar directly challenges adultism by confronting parents’ bias towards their own opinion, as well as by teaching parents and youth about partnering together for success, instead of using coercion and force to enforce compliance.
Building support for empowered student voice around the world, back in 2002 I started supporting K-12 schools, districts and state education agencies after building SoundOut.org. Since then, I’ve partnered with more than 300 different schools and agencies to write policies, develop programs, facilitate professional development and speak at conferences about Meaningful Student Involvement. This work has resulted in roles for students on school boards, students training teachers, and new education policies focused on student voice and student engagement. This challenges adultism among educators and policymakers by showing the positive potential of all students in every classroom, rather than simply tokenizing through constrained student/adult relationships.
There is so much work happening to challenge adultism!
5 Steps to Stop Adultism
I have identified these 5 steps to stop adultism based on my experience and research. Leave your thoughts in the comments section!
- Name Your Bias. Every single person has bias towards adults. No matter how enlightened you are, how educated you might be, or how important you think you are to young people, you are adultist, and you’ve experienced adultism. Name your biases and be honest with yourself.
- Listen to Youth Voice. Listen directly to youth; read their writing; listen to them sing; look at their art. Don’t respond, don’t fix, don’t do for them; just listen to youth voice.
- Get Educated. Read my book, Facing Adultism. It’s a deep exploration of how adultism happens, who it affects, where it’s worst, who it affects most, and why it matters so much. Also, explore other writing about adultism and join the Facing Adultism group on Facebook.
- Find New Ways to Be. Declare your allyship with youth and stick to it. Be kinder and more compassionate with young people, and advocate for youth to be present when they aren’t in the room. Find new ways to be at home, at work and throughout the community.
- Make Change. When you’ve started changing your life, look at the health and well-being of your community. How does adultism affect youth around you right now? Which youth are most affected? Which adults are most biased towards other youth, and non-inclusive of youth?
What would you add to this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
When you’ve begun to address adultism, you might see how it’s tied together with paternalism, sexism, racism, classism and other injustices throughout our society. You might also discover different ways you have made the challenge of adultism worse, and how you’ve affected positive changes towards adultism in the past!
Each of us are capable of doing remarkable things–what are you going to do?