Moving Beyond “Adultism” & Disrespect of Youth

It is stunning to me the “adultism” demonstrated by the disrespectful ways many adults still treat children and youth, particularly their own kids. I think it is one of the last vestiges in our society of pure patriarchal “power-over” protocol that is still considered acceptable by many adults in dealing with their children and youth. That protocol involves the assumption that the “superior” adult/parent has the absolute command and control over the “inferior” young person/child, such that any inappropriate behavior by the “inferior” reflects on and is highly disrespectful to the reputation of their “superior” and must be forcibly modified to save face.

My daughter Emma shared an incident with us yesterday that occurred at a family gathering of one of her friends that Emma had attended. One of her friend’s young cousins was bored and began literally climbing the wall by where Emma was seated. Emma told the young boy politely that he really shouldn’t be doing that, concerned mostly that he might fall and hurt himself.

The kid’s mom saw this happening, came into the room and grabbed her son, and in front of everyone dressed him down, saying that he should have listened to what the nice young lady had told him and that he should now go back over to her, smile, and apologize. When he resisted, she marched him over to Emma and again told him to smile and apologize.

Emma was mortified by the mom’s behavior, but being a guest at a friend’s family gathering, was not sure what to do other than do nothing. The mom continued to scold her son until he finally apologized to Emma.

I’m sure that same woman would never have done this to an adult, even one she was responsible for or somehow supervising. But she felt it was appropriate and even demanded by the situation because this was “her” child and his behavior was profoundly disrespectful and cast aspersions on her and the entire family in front of an honored guest. As I said, it was very patriarchal and “adultist”, even though it was a woman enforcing the “code”.

In case you are not familiar with term “adultism”, it is defined as 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. (See my posts on “Defining Adultism” and “The Dimensions of Adultism”.)

It is also a perfect example of the sort of power-over command and control of patriarchal practice, which remains strong in many families, particularly in the political dynamics of the relationships between adults and children. (See my posts on this topic starting with “Defining Patriarchy”.) Our civilization has come along way to move away from treating other adults as slaves or chattel, but the way we treat our youth may be the last bastion of this 5000-year-old social order of hierarchy, domination and control.

Even though the kid’s behavior was inappropriate, the mom should have showed this younger human being some basic human respect. If he had been an adult, she most likely would have talked to him in private and not humiliated him in front of Emma and everyone else within earshot. But in this incident the parent felt it was appropriate and even necessary to subject him to this ordeal.

What we are talking about here is a different definition of “respect” than the patriarchal one, which is automatic respect for your “superiors”, while having to gain their respect through your appropriate behavior. What does a non-hierarchical “mutual respect” between adult and child really mean or look like?

If I were this child’s parent in this situation, I would probably physically get down on the child’s level so I could look straight into his eyes rather than looking down on him. I would explain that we had guests in the house and that what he was doing was dangerous and also making our guests uncomfortable. I would ask him if he was doing this because he was bored, and if so would acknowledge that boredom, and I would ask what could possibly be done to address it. I would ask him if he would like to apologize, and if not, I would apologize to my guest and explain that my son was the only young child at the party and was bored.

It is interesting how these patriarchal customs perpetuate through hundreds of generations from their roots in militaristic pastoralist tribes that invaded “Old Europe” from the Eastern periphery, several thousand years before the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) emerged. (This is at least as it is theorized by archeologist Marija Gimbutas and documented in Riane Eisler’s book, The Chalice and the Blade.)

200 years ago these protocols were still considered appropriate by white Europeans for dealing with their adult chattel, including their wives and black slaves. Two centuries of struggling for racial and gender equality have challenged and invalidated the concept of adult chattel, at least from Western civilization, though remnants of this form of patriarchal control certainly still remain in continuing racial and gender bias.

But it is still considered okay for parents to treat their children as chattel, within certain legal limits enacted during the 20th Century for child protection. It is still built into our laws that parents (or their surrogates, like school teachers) are considered completely responsible for children under their charge. And though corporal punishment is no longer legal in schools, last I heard it is still legal at home, as long as it doesn’t cross the legal line of “child abuse”.

So how much longer before this archaic power-over protocol is finally and completely driven from our egalitarian culture? How long before it is generally accepted that the relationships between adults and children can be mutually respectful, and based on the partnership protocols of power-with facilitation rather than patriarchal power-over command and control?

I have to acknowledge that redefining the political dynamics of the relationship between adults and youth is difficult. Within the concepts of liberty, justice and equality that our contemporary Western society was founded on, complete adult equality is the obvious progression. But adults have a legitimate role of stewardship vis-à-vis young people, and youth aren’t considered capable of full citizenship, so isn’t “youth equality” (with adults) an oxymoron?

This seems to me to be one of the major challenges of this new century. To create new generally accepted protocols for relationships between adults and youth that are based on liberty and mutual respect, but acknowledge the legitimate stewardship role adults play assisting youth with coming of age.

I think it can start with dialog between parents and children, teachers and students, counselors and campers, etc about the dynamics of the relationship and each party’s stake in that relationship.

As to existing models of this approach, I believe the greatest aspect of the Unitarian-Universalism that I embrace and my own kids have grown up within is the way that UU camps, conferences and other events for older youth are almost completely youth led, with adults playing as minimal a role as is legally possible (See my piece “Camps, Cons & Compasses”). In my opinion, this governance model could be applied to many more of the institutions in our society where adults as stewards work with youth, including our schools.

If these ideas seem like the path forward to you as well, you might check out the website of the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), an organization recently established by people I know that is trying to bring the principles of democracy and youth empowerment to our education system.

7 replies on “Moving Beyond “Adultism” & Disrespect of Youth”

  1. I have an interesting take on this… Part of the notion of treating others as chattel is to define them as not being responsible for themselves. I guess that would be obvious. To assume this is wrong, you have to assume that they are responsible and in fact want to be. It is however possible to imagine scenarios in the past where there were people who did not want to be responsible for themselves, or were told they did not have to be (thus defining them in a type of servitude) or they could simply not be.

    My point is, coming back to the present, that there are families who raise their children to not have a sense of their own responsibility. They define responsibility from the outside in. That is, they take the classical dictum of institutions modifying behavior and the abusive behavior noted by Emma is a result of that. It’s not defined as abuse by them, it’s simply their take on how you institute responsibility. You embarrass it into someone since they are not inwardly capable of enjoying it. No one is by their dictum. Or there is no inner necessity for it beyond simply NOT suffering as that kid ultimately suffered.

    That’s the “spare the rod” mentality. It’s still very prevalent and really, in my mind, goes beyond all concepts of “adultism” or what-have-you. It’s is classic vs. romantic or conservative vs. liberal. It gets defined in those terms anyway, but it’s really ultimately inner vs. outer. Are we inherently flawed? Fallen from Grace? Yadda yadda. I think the concept is utterly ludicrous and damaging, but it has been damned prevalent for millenia so you can’t just step on it and expect it to go away. Adults treating children like this will continue as long as people feel no inner sense of their own course in life and a feeling of purpose. It’s still so completely ubiquitous in our world to have adults and children wandering around from moment to moment with no real clue how to satisfy themselves and thinking ultimately, breaking rules, being bad, being dangerous and acting in some way that interferes with others is simply how things HAVE to be. There is no choice.

  2. Peter… I appreciate the extensive comment full of lots of good stuff. I hope you don’t mind that I broke it into three paragraphs to make it more readable for me (and others?).

  3. Peter… I agree with you that a lot of people, “define responsibility from the outside in”. In the way I look at things, those people are still only comfortable slotting themselves within a hierarchy of control with “superiors” that are responsible for them and give them marching orders. They in turn play the “superior” role to those (like children) that they understand to be slotted “inferior” to them and therefore their responsibility.

    Within such hierarchies, not everyone necessarily agrees to their slotting (particularly who claims to be their “superiors”), which brings in the use of violence and coercion, the metaphorical “rod” to keep them “in their place”. I would expect that the mom in the incident Emma related was employing the coercion out of her concern (fear) that she would be judged harshly for her charge’s behavior, but much less so for her use of bald-faced coercion, which is understood to be part of what you do if you buy the whole hierarchical model of patriarchy.

    As you say, its all a matter of where authority for one’s actions come from. Is it basically coming from you or from some “superior” person or deity that gives you your marching orders? And as you say, it’s all about the mythology we choose to view ourselves as either divine or fallen.

    In a partnership world view, everyone has their own authority, though people can freely choose to surrender some of it certain situations to facilitate a functioning community at whatever scope (up to a national or a world governing body). In the hierarchical/patriarchal model, your authority is dependent on your slot in the hierarchy.

    But when you say, “It’s still so completely ubiquitous in our world to have adults and children wandering around from moment to moment with no real clue how to satisfy themselves and thinking ultimately, breaking rules, being bad, being dangerous and acting in some way that interferes with others is simply how things HAVE to be”, I am not sure what you mean and would like you to elaborate. For the kid in the inferior position, breaking rules etc is maybe a natural reaction. But for the mom in the superior position, it is not about challenging authority, but about being the appropriate authority. So say more if you would.

  4. What I mean is there is an understanding in these people that the only real pleasure in life is to break rules, to “be bad”. While their institutions tell them that’s forbiddon they sill DO it and then find their institutions (the church) allow them to beg forgiveness. I believe for many it’s literally impossible to conceive of any pleasure that’s not at least tinged with the evil.

  5. My son Eric’s version of this is to “stick it to the Man”. I guess in a hierarchical, top-down, power-over structure, if you are at the bottom, one of the ways of feeling you have some at least illusion of power is to be some sort of monkey wrench in the gears of external power or ghost in the machine, or otherwise “be bad”.

    In a situation of relative powerlessness there are some who play it as victims while others play it as rebels, in an attempt to exercise some agency, if only negative agency.

    That said, it seems to come down to agency.

  6. Some valid points were made here. My view is that bullies come in all shapes, sizes, ages, children and parents. My job as a parent is to think for my son until he can think for himself. Some kids are stubborn and insist on infringing on others. I intervene when he crosses that line.

  7. Melissa… I appreciate what you are saying, taking your role seriously as a parent. But I think we all get on dangerous ground when we try to “think for” other people, even when those people are kids. Better IMO to let kids think for themselves with your thoughtful and caring input as a mentor hopefully that they respect.

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