Attitudinal adultism, also called internalized adultism, is the deeply personal attitude of children, youth and adults that is biased towards adults.
In his booklet called, Adults as Allies, [PDF] Barry Checkoway of the University of Michigan School of Social Work writes that adultism causes youth to “question their own legitimacy, doubt their ability to make a difference…” and perpetuate a “culture of silence” among young people.
In his article called “Understanding Adultism A Key to Developing Positive Youth-Adult Relationships”, John Bell expands on that assessment, with a series of examples of what internalized adultism looks like. I summarize and expand on them as:
- Adults envying the “personhood” of young people
- Adults discounting or underestimating the ability of young people
- Young people seeking constant approval from adults
- Young people denying solidarity with their age-similar peers
- Peer-to-peer violence
- Corporal punishment
- Sexual abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Forced religious attendance
- Home curfew rules
Exploring Internalized Adultism
What makes internalized adultism so terrible is that it is so pervasive. Everywhere we look, every time we see adults and children and youth interacting, it is there. Stores, daycares, schools, restaurants, playgrounds, city halls… Internalized adultism is so pervasive that I often hear myself in the middle of saying something adultist to my own child before I catch myself and stop.
Unfortunately, adultism is supported by a scaffolding in our society that does nothing more than reinforce and extend the effects of adultism on children and youth. In workshops, The Freechild Project defines adultism as bias towards adults. This definition is supported by the attitudes, behaviors, and practices that many individuals – young and older – take against young people.
Internalized adultism is the way that children and youth use adultism against other children and youth. Being a “tattle tale” or a bully are obvious ways this happens; more subtle ways include what Alfie Kohn calls “parroting,” when young people repeat what adults say in their own language simply to gain that adults’ acceptance.
Another way is much more popular, and I believe, a lot more harmful. What students call “cliques” are social groups that form in community settings throughout young peoples’ lives, including schools and community centers. Sociologists sometimes call cliques “youth subcultures,” but I believe that labeling is adultist itself. Cliques are internalized adultism because they are prescribed to happen by adults through mass marketing and commercialism. Shortly thereafter, youth start to believe these negative stereotypes of themselves, suddenly joining through language, clothes, music, attitudes, and behaviors that were prescribed for them by whatever adult-driven mass media brought them there originally.
The reason I say cliques as a form of internalized adultism are so harmful are the social and economic impacts of cliques throughout society. In every community where I have worked intensively — including African American, middle class white, low-income Latino, rural, and urban — cliques have had their place among young people. In some areas they were gang-related; in others, popularity-driven; in still others, they were motivated by clubs or athletics or other stuff.
In sociology these are sometimes called “ingroups” and “outgroups.” Ingroup bias drives young people to oppress one another, both by alienating some at the expense of others, and reinforcing membership through clothing, music, and attitude. The first two suck, particularly because they support the last. It is that last affect – attitude – that is the kicker. The attitudes of ingroups inform how we behave all of our lives. Our consumer behaviors, our social norms, our cultural acceptance – those are all evidence of our attitudes when we are young. Even if our attitudes change drastically as we mature, they are still respondent to our exposures when we are young.
Ingroups also inform both why young people perpetuate adultism towards other children and youth, and why young people become adults who perpetuate adultism towards children and youth. What a vicious, ugly cycle.
(I will admit that in itself may be an adultist view, particularly because I allude to young people not making conscious decisions about joining cliques. However, that is not what I’m saying; instead, I am saying that what they are joining was prescribed by adults, and is not youth-driven itself. I do not believe that there is any “authentic” youth culture in America today. Instead, this country is so media saturated that we have lost authenticity, and any so-called youth-driven culture today is merely a response to some other adult-driven cultural assignment. That is a sucky situation.)
Adultism drives us to do many things. In order to stop it, we have to train adults to identify and fight their own behavior, and to challenge the adultist behavior of their peers. At the same time we need to facilitate learning experiences for young people to identify adultism, challenge it among their peers, and effectively challenge it among the adults in their lives. Only then will true social progress in the war against adultism (and ephebiphobia) be made.
Challenging Internalized Adultism
The tendency of being dismissive or disregarding of adultism by both young people and adults reflects one of the core, unspoken strategies inherent in the dominant relationships between children, youth and adults in our society.
Taking in that discrimination so deeply that it silences a child or youth is one effect; encouraging a young person to lambast themselves or their peers or younger people is another. This internalization disables young people from being able to form a positive identity based in their age, and further promotes the inability of young people to become effective agents for social change throughout our society.
Much needs to be written about identifying internalized adultism and drawing out its causes and effects on their lives of both young people and adults. I have found very little literature that does this in a sophisticated enough way to warrant response. In the meantime, I would suggest the following questions can be essential for challenging internalized adultism. They are good for any age, and only need to be adjusted for each individual’s usage.
- What has been or is good about being a young person?
- What makes me proud of being young?
- What are children and youth people really like?
- What has been difficult about being young?
- What do I want other young people to know about me?
- Specifically, how have I been hurt by other young people?
- When do I remember standing up against the mistreatment of one young person by another?
- When do I remember being strongly supported by another young person?
- When do I remember that another child or youth (unrelated) really stood up for me?
- When do I remember acting on some feeling of internalized adultism?
- When do I remember resisting and refusing to act on this basis?
We must examine these questions for their outcomes in our own lives and the lives of those around us, simply because they begin to allow us to go further. In order to effectively challenge adultism we each have to examine its effects throughout our own lives. This is one attempt to encourage each of us to do that.