Looking at the Concept of Adultism

[FYI… for those of you who have been reading my blog for a while, you may recognize this piece as the combining of three pieces I wrote previously on this subject.]

So 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 look at 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 (Freechild.org) 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.

Defining Adultism

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.”

The Dimensions of Adultism

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 Schools

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

Moving Beyond Adultism & Disrespect for 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 a while back 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.

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.

Tags: adultism, privilege, education, family, youth rights

5 replies on “Looking at the Concept of Adultism”

  1. […] I’ve seen what Idzie is talking about, here. Social justice tweeps who claim a need for intersectionality are often ignoring the needs of the child class. Worse, they often react in a hostile fashion when called out on adultist behaviors, or they suddenly lose their passion, fervor, curiosity and interest with regards to human rights and will hand wave with a, “Well that’s too bad for kids but that’s just how it is” mindset! It can be very disheartening to observe, to say the least. That apathy for the child and teen class – that apathy regardless of school choice – is a bigger problem for educational opportunity inequalities than those who home/un-school. Here is what I’d call a true minority, and what we need more of – social justice activists dedicated to the rights of the child class. […]

  2. Great post, and I completely agree. Of course children are a unique case because they are given to us in trust, and we do have to keep them from killing themselves while they’re small! But that doesn’t give us the right to sideline them. And I definitely feel that the automatic response to discount what children say is a major reason why child abusers don’t get caught. Kids instinctively know that what they say is likely to be disbelieved.

    I hate to bring it up, but actually corporal punishment is legal in schools in many states. It’s scary how many parents are actually okay with their kids being paddled in schools. But even if they are not okay with it, their kids may be physically punished by teachers while they are at school.

  3. Sheila… Thanks for your comment. As we evolve as a species I hope we can get more nuanced in our rules of engagement with our young people, instead of this black and white, “you’re a dependent with no rights” until boom, your a full-blown adult with every right. I hope we can learn that each individual consciousness is on a continuum of development throughout a lifetime, and letting that individual direct as much as possible that development greatly enhances the process.

    As to corporal punishment, I was not aware that any public schools in any state still practice it. I have certainly seen nothing in “Education Week” addressing such punishment as an ongoing issue. Can you cite a particular piece documenting that it is practiced in public schools somewhere in our country?

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