Introduction to Adultism

Freechild Institute Facing Adultism Toolkit

Definition of Adultism

There are three parts to the complete definition of adultism, from Adam Fletcher’s book Facing Adultism:

  • Adultism is favoring adults by dismissing young people.
  • It is also the addiction to the attitudes, ideas, beliefs, and actions of adults.
  • Because adultism is bias towards adults, it inherently and obviously leads to discrimination against children and youth.
Adultism is 1) Bias towards adults; 2) Addiction to adults; 3) Discrimination against youth

Where Adultism Happens

It is a major factor in how society is organized: By assuming children and youth do not have anything of substance or value to add to the majority of social activities, adults keep their power intact. Adultism happens in government, education, social services, religious communities, and families. It is present in our laws, legal practices, economic activities, and the ways we share our cultures.


Why Adultism Happens

Adultism happens because adults think there is value to it. Adults believe adults sometimes act more responsibly and capably than young people. However, adults often act as if children and youth are never responsible and never capable. That is when adultism becomes a problem problem.


What Adultism Does

Adultism does many things:

  • Adultism ignores, silences, neglects, and punishes children and youth simply because they are not adults. Every young person experiences adultism from the day they are born until the day the world around them recognizes them as an adult. Every adult in our society today has experienced adultism.

Because of this unconscious sharing of the same experiences, adults often perpetuate adultism without knowing it. In some cases, young people themselves perpetuate adultism.


The Outcomes of Adultism

The outcomes of adultism are severe.

  • Seeing and treating young people as weak, helpless and less intelligent than adults impresses inability in the hearts and minds of youth into adulthood.
  • Adultism often makes verbal, physical, and emotional abuse towards young people seem “okay”.
  • Adultism can make other negative opinions about people seem okay, so that young people see racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination being “okay”.

Adultism is a major concept in the organization of society. Adultism prevails in every sector, including government, education, social services, and families. The defeat of adultism is often seen as a bad thing, as adults are mostly capable only of seeing their own abilities as those that are truly needed to the function and well-being of our world.

Because of the long history and broad realities of adultism and its pervasive nature in our societies, essentially all people are affected by adultism. The resulting internalized oppression and distress is severe. For example, adultism forces us to treat young people as weak, helpless and less intelligent than adults. For a lot of people, there is verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Adultism forces children and youth to accept all other oppressions that exist in the society.


Stopping Adultism

The most important thing anyone can do to stop adultism is to address how they perpetuate it, no matter whether they are an adult or a young person. Internalized adultism forces children and youth to unconsciously cause adultism to keep happening. External adultism is obvious throughout our society. Seeing our role in those internal and external things is a key to stopping adultism.

After we explore our personal attitudes and roles, we can face adultism in many other ways, too. There are three places adultism can show up throughout our lives:

If we are committed to facing adultism, we will look in those three areas of our own lives to see where adultism exists, what it does, how it appears, and why it matters. Then we can decide real, individualized steps each one of us can take to stop adultism.

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2 responses to “Introduction to Adultism”

  1. I’m an adult and I loathe adultism. I fail to see how thinking youth exist is adultist; there is such a thing as being under 30.

    1. To understand the adultism implicit in thinking youth exist, it is essential to understand my definition of adultism: Bias towards adults. Adults define terms; adults make language; adults assign categories; adults drive the market economy which necessitates labeling anyone between certain ages into specific categories. These behaviors very specifically embody adultism.

      As a category, “youth” didn’t exist before marketers embraced the non-adult, non-child space of human lifespans as a distinct phenomenon that could be profitized through targeted advertising. That doesn’t mean that the concept of youth didn’t exist before marketing; however, before it was an attitude and state of mind rather than a specific time of life. When marketers wanted to start selling music and other entertainment, clothes and other identifications, recreation and other fun to more people, they fostered the identity of an age category that was neither child or adult, and that embodied a certain joie de vivre that could be packaged, branded, priced, sold, and profited from.

      In turn, that marketing led to the establishment, identification, and then entrenchment of so-called youth culture and sub-cultures among youth. These cultures fostered particular behaviors and attitudes, which in turn necessitated certain intercessions into youthhood, including education, empowerment, recreation, prevention and intervention, and more. The rise of public education, public health, democratic institutions, athletic clubs and social groupings was all entwined with the development of NGOs, social services, government agencies, and other services which could deflect, protect, interject and otherwise counterbalance the effects of the marketplace on youth.

      All of this was prefaced, premised and projected into reality by adults for the benefit of adults. We created the market economy, we created the service sector, we established governments, we perpetuated academia, and we advocated for the establishment of everything that developed youth into a distinct, particular, defined time of life that everyone goes through.

      That makes thinking youth exist adulist.

      All adults perpetuate adultism, whether or not we loathe it and whether or not we intend to. Its true, there is such a thing as being under 30. However, there was a recent time—before the 1850s in western society—when that being under 30 was a barrier to engagement in the economy, a roadblock to civic engagement, a stranglehold on social influence, or a specifically labelled social phenomenon created to make some adults more wealthy while keep more young people disenfranchised. That was when the concept of youth as a particularly defined time of life didn’t exist.

      Thinking youth exist is adultist. The next question is whether that is “right” or “wrong,” but I won’t answer that unless you want me to…


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