The Dimensions of Adultism

Angry Adult CartoonSo I’m continuing to explore youth-worker John Bell’s article “Understanding Adultism: A Key to Developing Positive Youth-Adult Relationships”. According to Bell most young people experience adultism from the day they are born until the day the world around them recognizes them as an adults. It is part of the structure of society and its institutions, including families, schools, churches and government. (If you did not read my first piece introducing the concept of adultism, you can read it by clicking this link.)

The essence of adultism is when a person treats a child or youth disrespectfully in a way that they would not treat an adult in similar circumstances. This mistreatment is reinforced by social institutions, laws, customs, and attitudes and can include:

1. Assuming that adults are superior and more important than young people

2. Assuming that adults are entitled to act upon young people without their agreement

3. Assuming that young people are not as intelligent and their feelings are not as important as adults

4. Not taking young people seriously, including not giving them significant participation in decisions that impact them

5. Being physically, verbally, or otherwise psychologically abusive to young people

Bell says that if this were a description of the way a group of adults was treated, we would all agree that their oppression was almost total. However, for the most part, the adult world considers this treatment of young people as acceptable because most adults were treated in much the same way when they were young, and internalized the idea that “that’s the way you treat kids.”

According to Bell, adultism appears in abnormal and normal behavior towards young people in a broad spectrum of societal activities, institutions and issues. Here is an overview of the scope of what he cites…

Physical, Sexual or Psychological Abuse

Much abusive behavior by adults toward young people can be attributed to adultism, to the extent that the adult would not treat another adult in this way. These would be cases where adults feel they can “get away with” expressing their own anger or frustration in the form of abuse because the object of that abuse is “only a child”, an “inferior” in patriarchal “pecking order” terms, and does not merit the level of respect they would give another adult.

Punishment and Threats

There is also a whole range of nonphysical punishments or threats that can be considered adultism, that adults would not inflict on other adults but are comfortable doing so with young people, including…

1. Routinely criticizing, yelling at, invalidating, insulting, intimidating, or making them feel guilty

2. Arbitrarily or unfairly “grounding” or denying “privileges”

3. Doling out additional punishment when young people protest against what they legitimately consider mistreatment, simply because they are questioning what the adult considers to be their absolute authority

Denied Control

Young people are denied control and even influence over most of the decisions that affect their bodies, their space, their possessions and even their self-definition. For example, most adults think they can pick up little children or kiss them or pull their cheeks or touch their hair without asking or without it being mutual. Adults can often be seen grabbing things out of children’s hands without asking.

Verbal Interactions

Adultism can be found in many verbal interactions between adults and youth where adults:

1. Talk down to children, as if children could not understand them

2. Talk about a young person with the young person present as if they were not there

3. Give young people orders to do things or lay down rules with no explanation

4. Not really listen to young people, but demand young people listen to them all the time

5. Not take the concerns of a young person as seriously as they would an adult’s

6. Not appreciate the thinking of young people as worthy of adult respect, let alone on a par with the quality of adult thinking

7. Automatically side with other adults when they have a disagreement with a youth

In School

Any community or institution needs rules to live by, but the rules in most schools are imposed on young people without their consent and represent a high level of control, the severity of which exhibiting adultism, including:

1. Hall passes and detention

2. Occasions where teachers yell at students with impunity, but students are disciplined if they yell back at those teachers

3. Occasions where students are punished unfairly because adults feel frustrated.

4. Students being continuously evaluated, graded and ranked – to the point of internalizing a view of themselves as either “smart”, “average” or “dumb” — with profound impact on many aspects of their lives

5. Students generally not being given the corresponding opportunity to evaluate their teachers

6. Young people having no real power in the important decisions that affect their lives in school

Throughout their education, most students have no voice, no power, and no decision-making avenues to make significant changes to an institution where they are one of the significant stakeholders. While society’s motivation of providing education for all it’s young people is laudable, the school system as an institution perpetuates adultism.

In the Law

There is a different set of laws for young people. They do not have the same rights as adults. Of course, some laws specifically protect young people from mistreatment but other laws unduly restrict their life and liberty, including:

1. Some curfew ordinances unduly restricting young people beyond considerations for their safety

2. Treating young people as adults when they commit serious crimes but not when they behave appropriately

3. In divorce cases, until a recent landmark custody case, not permitting young people to have a voice in deciding which parent, if either, they wished to live with

I will be interested in any feedback you have to give me on this. This is an entirely new way at looking at the relationships between adults, youth and children and may go against deep-seated conventions that we adults have taken for granted growing up in a culture still laced with 5000-year-old patriarchal ideas and ethics.

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4 replies on “The Dimensions of Adultism”

  1. Chalicechick says:

    (((Much abusive behavior by adults toward young people can be attributed to adultism, to the extent that the adult would not treat another adult in this way.)))

    That doesn’t make a lot of sense given that adults certainly do abuse each other sometimes.

    ((( Doling out additional punishment when young people protest against what they legitimately consider mistreatment, simply because they are questioning what the adult considers to be their absolute authority)))

    Again, there are plenty of places where this exists in the adult world and is considered perfectly reasonable. Soldiers and employees who disobey urgent instructions, for one example. Contempt of court for another.

    In most families, a kid is able to come to a parent later and say “Can we talk about the way you sent me to my room for breaking Jenny’s toy? It was an accident and I don’t think I should have been punished.” after Jenny has stopped crying. Similarly, apologies and discussions can go a long way with superior officers, bosses and judges at the proper time.

    I could go on with other examples, but you see my point. Many of the ways kids are treated are actually preparing them for the adult world. Adults are unfairly punished, not listened to, subject to laws that seem arbitrary, etc, sometimes and the younger kids are when they learn how to deal with this stuff, the better they will be at dealing with it productively for the rest of their lives. (IMHO, the kid who can calmly request a discussion with the parents post-punishment is well on his/her way to fewer punishments and a promising future in the adult world.)

    My best friend’s ten-year-old can be really caring and sweet at times, but like most kids he’s fundamentally pretty self-centered. If my friend has to yell at her son to get him put his shoes on because the he doesn’t see WHY the whole family can’t be late for church so he can get one more level in his video game, or miss church entirely so he can play video games all morning, I understand the yelling and don’t see it as “adultist” in the least. Unless every kid in the world becomes a self-employed person with no family and no other connection to society, they will have to live in a world where consideration for other people is important, and I think we learn that because our parents DO constantly point out and disincentivize inconsiderate behavior until we learn to recognize it in ourselves.

    CC

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Chalicechick… you make some very good points about that line between legitimate and not-legitimate parenting practice.

    But I don’t think it is every good practice to abuse someone with the idea that it is preparing them to be abused, or even worse, accept abuse from others. Abusive behavior by authority figures, “because they can”, is a hallmark of ancient patriarchal pecking order practices… imo… and not a cultural issue that I would like to see us perpetuate.

    And my experience is that 10-year-olds and other youth tend to get self-centered as a defense mechanism because they are not taken seriously and not given much opportunity to control their own destiny, within their ability to do so.

    Anyway… I would be interested in your further thoughts on these points! Thank you so much for commenting!

  3. Chalicechick says:

    (((But I don’t think it is every good practice to abuse someone with the idea that it is preparing them to be abused, or even worse, accept abuse from others)))

    I don’t think I described anything that could be reasonably termed abuse. The line between punishment and abuse is somewhat different for different people, but generally it is not a thin line but a pretty wide band.

    I’m willing to stick with my “analogue to punishments in the adult world” definition. In general, hitting someone with a belt is not a preparation for the real world as the average adult doesn’t face corporal punishment in the real world.

    Hearing a loud “Everyone else is waiting in the conference room. The staff meeting was supposed to start ten minutes ago. What are you doing that makes your time more valuable than everyone else’s? Time is money at this company and if you can’t respect that, maybe you should work someplace else!” from a boss is a potential real world consequence for the adult who is frequently unable to be ready on time, so I see a toned down parental version (sans the threat of firing naturally) as appropriate for a kid with the same problem, assuming the kid is mature enough to understand the infraction and the potential consequences. This ten year old is.

    (((And my experience is that 10-year-olds and other youth tend to get self-centered as a defense mechanism because they are not taken seriously and not given much opportunity to control their own destiny, within their ability to do so.)))

    My strong impression, particularly of this child, is that he’s not really defending against anything, he would just rather read his book or play his video game because it is fun and he is caught up in it. I can sympathize. I think if most people were truly given the option, they would rather read books and play video games than go to work or school. Rare is the job that is so much fun that the employee would rather go than do anything else.

    Someone who grows up feeling that they have a right to control their own destiny and thus should be allowed to read books and play video games rather than going to work or school if they so choose is in for a rough life.

    To me, teaching a kid that he or she has a huge amount of control over his or her life and doesn’t have to follow rules that seem arbitrary and that he or she is being abused anytime he or she is being disciplined is probably more abusive than hitting them with the belt. At least the kid who is hit with the belt will be somewhat ready for the adult world with some therapy. The kid who is raised to be completely unprepared to face adult responsibilities might not ever.

    CC
    who, when reading about kids who have total control over their lives, lots of freedom and no serious worry that they will face consequences for their actions, can’t help thinking of Lindsay Lohan’s near constant battles with drugs and alcohol, her reputed obnoxious attitude on movie sets, her wrecked cars and her brushes with the law. Drew Barrymore lived that sort of life and managed to turn it around and I hope Lindsay can too, but the lives movie star kids with financial control over their parents live is certainly no advertisement for giving kids more freedom than they can handle.

  4. […] towards the development of our species here on planet Earth. See my next piece on Adultism at http://www.leftyparent.com/blog/2009/10/25/the-dimensions-of-adultism/ […]

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