Defining Adultism

Childish BehaviorSo you have probably already been “ism’d” within an inch of your life and may be ready to roll your eyes if I attempt to direct your attention to another one! Seems the 20th Century was full of positive movements and negative systems being coined as “isms”, including “feminism”, “progressivism” and “environmentalism” on the one side and “sexism”, “racism” and “militarism” on the other. Some might make a good argument that we should leave all those “isms” behind with the last century and turn our focus forward and reframe the way we look at liberating movements and the restricting systems that hinder human development.

Given those disclaimers I want to alert you to one more “ism”, “adultism”, that has been defined by and comes out of the milieu of thoughtful people, youth and adults, working in the democratic education and youth empowerment movements. One of my colleagues in the newly formed Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), Adam Fletcher, has compiled information calling out this negative system on his website ( page titled “Challenging Adultism”.

On his site is a link to a very comprehensive piece defining adultism, “Understanding Adultism: A Key to Developing Positive Youth-Adult Relationships”, an article written by long-time youth worker John Bell of YouthBuild. Though I don’t agree with everything in Bell’s article, its definition of “adultism” does resonate with me as a useful calling out of a negative system that I would urge all progressive people to think twice about and keep in mind in our relationships (as adults) with youth.

So “adultism” is basically the disrespect and discrimination against young people (simply because they are not adults) that exists beyond the legitimate responsibility of adults – parents, teachers and others – to provide guidance and a developmentally appropriate environment for young people to mature to adulthood.

In the article Bell writes…

As children, most young people are told what to eat, what to wear, when to go to bed, when they can talk, that they will go to school, which friends are okay, and when they are to be in the house. Even as they grow older, the opinions of most young people are not valued; they are punished at the will or whim of adults; their emotions are considered “immature.” In addition, adults reserve the right to punish, threaten, hit, take away “privileges,” and ostracize young people when such actions are deemed to be instrumental in controlling or disciplining them.

So if you parse Bell’s paragraph, some of what he’s talking about is the legitimate role of parents, teachers and other adults to set limits and ensure kids take responsibility for their actions, have proper nutrition and an otherwise enriched environment to grow.

But like all human social endeavors, there are at least two profoundly different ways of doing things. One involves the “pecking order”, a hierarchy of acknowledged “superiors” using acceptable forms of coercion necessary to exercise power and control over acknowledged “inferiors”. The other involves a “circle of equals” (without categories of superiors and inferiors) where power is not defined as control over but facilitation of a group of people. To the extent that adults relate to young people (including exercising their legitimate responsibility towards them) within the “pecking order” paradigm; that is what is being defined as “adultism”.

The last 5000 years of human history is a parade of various “pecking order” forms of social organization – masters over slaves, lords over serfs, whites over people of color, Aryans over non-Aryans – all eventually repudiated (though not yet eliminated) by human culture as morally unsustainable and grave hindrances to human development. That these forms of social organization still exist, is a legacy of patriarchy, an ancient ideology of domination, which is still alive and well in the world.

Evidence that patriarchy is alive and well can be found in the fact the “pecking order” of men over women, though challenged by progressives throughout the world, is still conventional practice and official policy on much of our planet. The superior position of men over women is so fundamentally woven into much of human culture that the 19th and 20th Century efforts towards sexual equality have led, I believe, to much of the violent expressions of religious fundamentalism that many describe as the “ism” of “terror” today.

At the bottom of the patriarchal “pecking order”, still cloaked in general respectability and conventional wisdom, is the superiority of adults over young people. Just as for centuries feudal lords justified their indisputable authority over their serfs as necessary stewardship, adults today throughout the world justify their absolute authority over young people.

One justification of the “pecking order” of adults over youth is that it is transitory, that once young people are properly trained and come of age, they move from the inferior to the superior group (adults). But as Bell points out in his article, the impact of “adultism” is much more pervasive. Young people raised in a paradigm where they are the acknowledged “inferiors” and adults are the acknowledged “superiors” grow up to become adults themselves more willing to accept other “pecking orders” that still have power in the adult world, not the least of which are continuing racial, gender and sexual orientation inequality. Further, young people who internalize their inferiority to adults, can grow up to be adults who are more willing to participate in business paradigms of “superior” bosses and “inferior” worker bees.

We who believe in the progressive ideals of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being need to be cognizant of these vestiges of patriarchy and “pecking order” in the conventional wisdom of our relationships between adults and young people. If we adults continue to give ourselves near absolute power over youth, won’t this lead to increasing corruption and disrespect for our charges?

Think of some of the common statements that reflect the conventional wisdom of the superiority of adults, and when examined show that fundamental disrespect for youth and their developmental process…

* “You’re so smart for fifteen!”
* “When are you going to grow up?”
* “Don’t ever yell at your mother like that!” (yelling)
* “It’s just a stage. You’ll outgrow it.”

Most telling of all, in my opinion, is the oft hurled epithet, “You’re behaving like children.”

So this piece is just a brief introduction to the concept of “adultism”, that I believe is an important component of the remaining patriarchal infrastructure of our culture (and most others in the world). It is an infrastructure that I have made a continuing commitment to call out and urge all of us to move beyond so that we can all better go about our continuing effort towards the development of our species here on planet Earth.

See my next piece on Adultism at

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