Adultism vs Legitimate Adult Stewardship of Youth

Following up on my pieces “Young People – The World’s Last Chattel?”, and “Looking at the Concept of Adultism”, I continue to try to wrestle with the “meta” level of adult-youth interactions and institutions that are the greater context beyond conventional inside-the-box thinking on “public education” and “parenting”. The question is, what represents a legitimate exercise of stewardship by adults of youth and what crosses the line into adultism, representing a corrupt exercise of adult privilege mis-justified as stewardship?

Time was that in many if not most cultures, women were essentially owned by their husbands and children were owned (particularly the female ones) by their fathers. Even today in some traditional cultures around the world the protocols of women and children as “chattel” still hold the force of tradition or even law. But for the most part human culture has transitioned away from the idea of adult ownership of children to something closer to the broader meaning of “stewardship”.

The Concept of Stewardship

From the Wikipedia article on “stewardship”

Stewardship is an ethic that embodies responsible planning and management of resources. The concept of stewardship has been applied in diverse realms, including with respect to environment, economics, health, property, information, and religion, and is linked to the concept of sustainability. Historically, stewardship was the responsibility given to household servants to bring food and drinks to a castle dining hall. The term was then expanded to indicate a household employee’s responsibility for managing household or domestic affairs. Stewardship later became the responsibility for taking care of passengers’ domestic needs on a ship, train and airplane, or managing the service provided to diners in a restaurant. The term continues to be used in these specific ways, but it is also used in a more general way to refer to a responsibility to take care of something belonging to someone else.

It’s that last general meaning that speaks to the way the relationships between custodial adults and the youth in their custody are framed today in cultures like ours that have moved beyond the concept of children as chattel. Parents and guardians do not own their children, but do have a responsibility to care for them and not mistreat them (however “mistreat” is defined in that cultural or societal context). Other adults with more temporary custody of young people – including teachers, counselors, child care workers or babysitters – are deputized to assume a comparable stewardship role in lieu of the parents.

Stewardship & Adult Privilege

In order for these custodial adults to exercise that stewardship they are granted a certain degree of privilege by law and by convention, to make decisions on behalf of youth, including decisions contrary to what the young person might decide for themselves.

From the Wikipedia article on the “law of privilege”

A privilege is a special entitlement to immunity granted by the state or another authority to a restricted group, either by birth or on a conditional basis. It can be revoked in certain circumstances. In modern democratic states, a privilege is conditional and granted only after birth. By contrast, a right is an inherent, irrevocable entitlement held by all citizens or all human beings from the moment of birth.

In practice much of the privilege given to custodial adults by convention (beyond what is explicitly given by law) is extended to (or at least assumed by) adults generally in respect to all youth, whether or not the adult is a legitimate custodian and performing that custodial role. There is a general assumption that “age has its privileges” and adults tend to back each other up in this regard relative to young people.

Adults as “Superiors”

As I see it, the basic convention is that children should treat adults as “superiors” in every sense, deferring to them, minding them, obeying them, and accepting the punishment meted out by the adult if they fail to obey. Traditionally, that deference included young people not speaking to adults unless invited to do so first. Also traditionally, punishment followed the conventional wisdom of “spare the rod and spoil the child”, based on the belief that children lacked a moral sense and could only develop that sense by being physically punished when they misbehaved.

Though corporal punishment is practiced by a diminishing number of families and is no longer allowed in most schools, still custodial adults are allowed and even expected to exercise authority over young people without the advice and consent of those young people, as long as those adults stay within parameters that don’t cross the line into what is considered abuse.

I have not been in a classroom in a few years, but my understanding is that the protocol is still generally practiced that young people raise their hands and are called on by and adult before they are allowed to speak. Some adult gatherings also follow this protocol, particularly the larger or more formal ones. But that said, most less formal adult groups, even the size of a typical school class, can operate perfectly well by just speaking when one has something to say, as long as you are not interrupting someone else.

Certainly a facilitator or moderator of any group is granted the privilege and is given deference to call on people before they speak. But in a group of adults, that facilitator or moderator has generally been granted that privilege by the consent of the group.

Exercising Stewardship without Abusing Privilege

So getting back to the original point of this piece, the challenge for adults – as parents, teachers, etc. – is to exercise their legitimate role as stewards without crossing the line into a kind of corruption of privilege that I and others are describing by the term “adultism”. Adults mostly exercise their stewardship under conventions that generally allow them to act in an authoritarian manner, not requiring them to get the consent or even take the advice of the youth under their custody. And as we know from looking at human history and the exercise of authority without advice or consent, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

How can adults as a privileged group police themselves as stewards of youth, without sufficient advice or consent, when the overwhelming evidence of history is that unchecked privilege invariably leads to corruption? Am I violating some code of adult solidarity by even asking the question?

Two hundred years ago perhaps excessive adult privilege was not such a big deal, since the world was awash with the exercise of all sorts of privilege – including race, gender, class and economic. But now that all those forms of privilege are at least being called into question if not ended, the remaining mostly unexamined adult privilege and its excesses as “adultism” are still mostly unexamined.

A Needed Dialogue between Adults & Youth

I think it is a very interesting and needed discussion between all groupings of adults and youth. What is the appropriate stewardship role for adults in respect to youth and what kind of privilege is it appropriate to give to adults so they can effectively exercise that stewardship? What then crosses the line into “adultism” and abuse of that privilege? I’m sure young people in a family, classroom or other entity would have a lot to say on these questions though they might be a bit shocked to be asked!

I think it is a profound source of misunderstanding and mistrust between adults and youth that this question is not put forward more often and fully discussed. It seems to me it is so often the elephant in the room where young people and older people interact with each other. Again, is there some fundamental violation of adult sovereignty and solidarity to even ask?

In my thinking, as the abuses of privilege have been challenged in so many other areas, in the name of fairness and shared human development, is not now the time that we challenge “adultism” and the abuses of adult privilege in this new Information Era when our youth have the tools of ubiquitous and far-reaching electronic media to develop a level of personal and cultural sophistication perhaps more quickly than they have in prior eras?

3 replies on “Adultism vs Legitimate Adult Stewardship of Youth”

  1. Reflecting on it more, I want to reiterate that I think the dilemma with your assessment is the subjective nature of “stewardship”: Who chooses when someone needs stewarded? Does this perspective rationalize paternalism, allowing for adults to decide what is best for young people without regard for young people’s own perceptions of their well-being or capabilities?

    Further, what I stumbled upon in my thinking after we talked is the prospect that even the perspective what you wrote about here perpetuates a further social stigmatization of young people by continuing to perpetuate adultcentrism.

    Perhaps what we really need are new models of how young people and adults can and/or should relate to each other. What are the unspoken farthest reaches of acceptability, and the steps beyond them? That’s where Ivan Illich’s conceptualizations of people in society become relevant, as they challenge the inherent relationship the individual has to the broader society. I believe that’s what we need to do with young people. Your analysis seems to do that to a point, and then stops at the subjective point of acceptability.

    What do you think?

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