Traits of Adult Allies

Seattle students in a Freechild workshop discuss issues with an adult ally

There are a lot of adults who want to make a difference in the world by becoming an adult ally to young people. However, many get frustrated because they don’t know what it takes. This article is about the traits of adult allies.

After more than a 20 years of teaching people around the world how to do it, I’ve developed the following list of what adults need to have within them in order to be an adult ally. This list is grounded in my experience talking with thousands of young people about what matters most to them. I also pulled from a variety of research and proved these traits in the fires of more than 50 projects over the years. The following traits make the difference between adults who talk about being adult allies and those who are actually adult allies.

These traits of adult allies determine what we can do, who we can be, and where we are with young people. If it helps you understand them better, think of this as a list of capacities, skills, dispositions and abilities.

Please leave your questions, comments, concerns, considerations and critiques at the bottom.


Traits of Adult Allies

  1. Change Management—Adult allies can successfully move young people, adults, leadership, and constituents through transitions and times of change.
  2. Humility—Adults develop and maintain a modest view of their own importance in public and personal perspectives regarding our efforts. Learn more about adults being humble »
  3. Collaboration & Teamwork—Adult allies build and sustain the necessary group and cross-group cohesion and operations needed to maintain success.
  4. Learner Mind: Adult allies work to S-T-R-E-T-C-H themselves both personally and professionally. Learn more about adults with learner mind »
  5. Conflict Management—Adult allies identify and successfully navigate conflicts and problems with youth as partners from an operational, day-to-day perspective as well as in the big picture.
  6. Transparency: Adult allies are open and honest with young people. They are appropriately available and vulnerable with children and youth, and work to create strong relationships built on trust and courage. Adult allies foster strong and appropriate relationships with young people to accomplish so much more than adults can on their own, and recognize that it’s not easy getting there! Striving to always act with integrity, be compassionate and loyal, and try to be a good listener. At the end of the day it’s not what we say or do, but how we make people feel that matters the most. We care about others, both personally and professionally. Peeling away the layers, we work to be open.
  7. Passion: What keeps us going? It’s passion for engaging people. We’re inspired because we believe in what we are doing and where we’re going – even when we don’t know where that is! We don’t take “that’ll never work” for an answer. A lot of people tell me that the Engagement Revolution will never happen; imagine if we had listened to them so far! We have positive and optimistic attitudes because we have open eyes and are inspired by everyone around us. We are passionate.
  8. Decision-Making—We discern how, when, where, and why to make decisions, and how to help others make decisions, both on a micro- and meta-level scale.
  9. Community: We want to build community, not just colleagues. We serve children, youth, adults, and organizations by removing obstacles and enabling people to succeed on their own terms. The best decisions and ideas are made by people who take action, and we want to foster action among people. We collaborate with people and organizations to address the challenges in their worlds. Beyond that, we watch out for our community and care for others. We work together and play together with our community because our bonds go beyond the typical consultant/coach/trainer/speaker relationship. We work to build community.
  10. Diversity & Cultural Competency—We acknowledge, embrace, and enable all sorts of differences as powerful motivators and assets.
  11. Amazement: We seek amazement in this work, and we seek to amaze others when it happens. To amaze, we differentiate myself by doing things in an unconventional and innovative way. We go above and beyond the average level of action to create an emotional impact on people and organizations and to give them a positive story they can take with them the rest of their lives. We seek to amaze.
  12. Coaching—We guide, transition, and mentor others through their daily professional and personal challenges without attempting to teach or lead them.
  13. Boldness: We are bold and try not to be reckless. We aren’t afraid to make mistakes because that’s one way we learn. We take appropriate risks and we encourage others to take risks too, and we use risks to make better decisions. We believe gut feelings, and we know everyone can develop gut feelings about decisions as long as they are open to new ideas and can allow failure to happen.
  14. Motivating & Empowering—We constantly seek to engage others in consistent, substantive, and sustainable ways that are motivating, empowering and sustainable.
  15. Drivenness: We constantly change and embrace it with open arms. We never accept status quo and I’m always thinking of ways to change processes, perspectives, and opinions, hopefully for the better. Without change, we can’t continue to be useful to myself or other people. We are driven.
  16. Personal &  Professional Goal Development—We recognize our own goals and their relevance to our position, as well as help others do the same.
  17. Open-Heartedness: Help is a key word for us. We offer it and ask for it often. Often, we can’t do everything required in a project, so in a large part, part of our livelihood is helping others do their projects successfully. We are not expected to know all the answers, but we know where we can go to find them, and we share that with others. We help myself help others.
  18. Knowledge Management—Using diverse ways of identifying, developing, sharing, and effectively using the knowledge of communities, we work to expand the knowledge of individuals and organizations.
  19. Humor: We have a sense of humor, and we know it’s good to laugh at ourselves frequently. Living shouldn’t be drudgery or toil. We have fun and can be goofy even when there’s work to get done, and we get lots done. Being a little goofy requires being a little innovative, and we are always looking for a chance to fully engage in life by bringing out the fun and goofy side of it.
  20. Problem-Solving—We effectively, consistently and realistically identify, address, critique, and re-imagine challenges.
  21. Action Orientation: We avoid the risk of not trying and the regret of wishing we had done something. When we were young, we knew that it would be far more haunting to live with the regret of having not followed our instincts than to have followed our gut and failed. We have lived in action and done risky things. We see our ideas when we have them and make note of them. That’s why we always have a notepad. If we think an idea is compelling, we go after it. We live life only once, and we all die too soon. We always try. We take action.
  22. Training & Facilitation—We successfully identify and meet the needs of people through group training and individual learning.
  23. Simplicity: More and more, we realize the power of simplicity. Since we are in the business of ideas in action, we want to share them as effectively as we can in our complex world. We do that by being simple. It takes more mental space for me to create something simple or communicate something complicated in basic terms, but ultimately, that’s what people want. We don’t need to explain everything the first time around. WE need to facilitate the best tailored learning experience ourselves and our organization or community. We always need to break down knowledge into easily digestible, clear statements and actions. We work hard for simplicity.
  24. Listening: Engaging with young people in meaningful ways starts with listening to youth voice. This means not interpreting, translating or bastardizing youth voice; it means taking action, reflecting, and authorizing youth voice. Learn more about listening to young people »
  25. Release: We have to release everything we do when it’s done, and just let it go. Instead of trying to figure it out, we just let it be and accept that it is what it is, nothing more or less. It doesn’t determine our worth, others don’t validate our choices, and our contributions never go unnoticed, even if it seems like it. We release what we do when it’s done.
  26. Personal Engagement: We foster our own connection to the work you’re doing, maintain that connection, and sustain the relevance of the work you’re doing throughout our own life, as well as help others do the same.
  27. Focus: We work to transform the lives of youth, no matter what I’m doing. We do not look for fame or fortune, and we reject greed and deceit. Instead, we constantly look for opportunities to serve others, and we share our energy and efforts as often as we can. We see the ripple effect in everything we do, not just the flashy or huge things. If we don’t see the ripples, we trust the waves work. We know every action in our lives sets off an entire cascade of responses whose overall impact is huge, and we know this is true for others, too. We are focused.
  28. Compassion—We develop our ability to establish and foster empathy with people and places outside of our own personal or professional sphere.
  29. Listening: We speak by listening. Instead of rushing to come up with a quick reaction to what someone has said or done, we listen to them. When the time is right, we respond with knowledge. When we were younger, we assumed that the world was more interested in us than we were in it, so we spent most of our time talking. We were generally under-informed, we shared whatever we thought, we tried to be clever, and we thought about what we were going to say instead of listening to what someone else was saying to me. We have learned to slow ourselves down and engage rather than debate. We take time to really listen to what people say, and we try to learn from everything we hear. We listen to people.
  30. Systems Thinking—We see how small things that seem separated can create big things through complicated interactions.
  31. Facilitation: We provide appropriate support to learners. We do not train people, because we don’t do tricks or routine work. Instead, we adapt and contrast, modify and transform. We encourage learners through questions and activities that build confidence, stretch understanding, and foster engagement in learning. We facilitate learning.
  32. Deliberation: We regularly stop to check our intentions and affirm our actions, so that what I’m doing actually reflects who we are. If I’m not aware of why we do what we do, we are disconnected from what matters to me. If I’m disconnected, I’m ineffective. Staying aware of our intentions and being deliberate allows me to guide our work with purpose, and challenge myself when its time. We are deliberate.
  33. Challenge: When a we get too attached to the way things are, we lose the the greatest freedom of all: the freedom to fail. Without feeling like a failure, we don’t have to assume that a slight misstep is a deep plunge into the abyss. Instead, we step forward to challenges and see them each as an opportunity to innovate using a smart idea or strategic thinking. When I’m stepping up to challenges, we accept that failure is going to happen while I’m growing. Ultimately, we won’t become a better person because of how we respond to success, but instead, what we do with failure. We accept the challenge.
  34. Mindfulness: Adult allies strive to develop and maintain the constant conscious awareness and acceptance of our imperfections and inabilities, as well as our abilities and responsibilities to the young people, families and communities we strive to serve.

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Adultism exists. Let's deal with it. Freechild Institute, freechild.org

Adults With Learner Mind

Freechild Project youth and adult workshop participants

Learner mind is the experience of staying open, honest, humble and accepting of opportunities to learn, examine, critique and explore who we are, how we are and what we do in life. Adults with learner mind are committed to learning from young people as well as other adults.

Adult allies work to stretch themselves both personally and professionally. Whether you are a parent, teacher, youth worker or other adult who supports young people, you have to risk embarrassment, misunderstanding and even failure in order learn as much as you can from the people you serve. Having a learner’s mind helps us do that

Seeing through the differences between being stuck in a rut and moving through a groove, adult allies know every youth and every adult has more potential than they ever realize. Adult allies work to constantly unlock that potential, both in themselves and the young people we work with.

Adult allies know they will never “get it right,” and that’s a reality we gladly accept. The only way young people and adults can address new challenges that arise is by learning and growing ourselves to meet them head-on.

Ask Yourself…

  • Do I judge young people too quickly?
  • Do I assume things about young people without evidence, proof or experience?
  • Is it okay for me to become overwhelmed?
  • Do I ask young people for help when I need to?
  • What do young people teach me unexpectedly?
  • Can other adults teach me about myself?

Adult allies strive to keep learning, especially from young people themselves.

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Adults Being Humble

Freechild Project youth in a summer camp session

It is important for adult allies of young people to have humility. Humility is a modest view of your own importance. It means adults see who we really are and what we actually do with young people.

Whether adults are parents, youth workers, teachers or otherwise, being humble can improve relationships, foster partnerships and transform lives.

Adult allies of young people develop and maintain a modest view of their own importance in public and personal perspectives regarding our efforts. Despite all the things they may have accomplished in the past, adult allies will always be challenges ahead.

When adults are not humble, they can show arrogance, which is the opposite of humility. When we work with children and youth, this is shown as adultism and adultcentrism. It diminishes the ability to connect with young people and takes away the effectiveness of every activity we try to do with youth. Adult allies remain committed to challenging their own adultism as well as others because we all struggle with the arrogance instilled in adults simply because of our age–not because we deserve it, earn it or otherwise should have it.

No matter what happens, adult allies want to always respectful towards everyone. Adult allies love to celebrate youth successes, but not in an arrogant or boastful way; instead, adult allies have a quiet confidence because in the long run their character will speak to young people.

Ask Yourself…

  • Am I willing to listen to young people?
  • Am I willing to be wrong?
  • Am I willing to get over myself?
  • Can I let go of my adult power?

Adult allies strive for humility.

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Adultism exists. Let's deal with it. Freechild Institute, freechild.org

Adultism in the Law

Terms related to adultism

After a decade of research focusing on United States and international laws, the Freechild Institute has found there are many laws that both enshrine and combat adultism. Many of these try to protect youth from discrimination.

Issues Addressed By Laws

These laws prohibit or ban things that are done to youth or things that youth are excluded from, including:

  • Discrimination against youth by physical, sexual, and/or psychological maltreatment or neglect
  • Discrimination against youth through illegal labor, endangerment and infanticide
  • Discrimination against youth through parental actions including youth maltreatment
  • Discrimination against youth because of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation
  • Discrimination against youth through sexual abuse/exploitation
  • Discrimination against youth through neglect or abuse
  • Discrimination against youth through sexual or labor trafficking
  • Discrimination against youth with disabilities
  • Discrimination against youth through familial migration
  • Discrimination against youth through unaccompanied children in a situation of migration
  • Discrimination against youth without parental care or who are in alternative care
  • Discrimination against youth in police custody or detention
  • Discrimination against homeless youth
  • Discrimination against youth with parents in prison or custody
  • Discrimination against youth in court or other judicial proceedings
  • Discrimination against youth in custody disputes, including parental child abduction
  • Discrimination against youth because of their race
  • Discrimination against youth in minority ethnic groups
  • Discrimination against youth through female genital mutilation or forced marriage
  • Discrimination against youth through who are not in compulsory education or training or working children below the legal age for work
  • Discrimination against bullying or cyberbullying against youth

Who Is Affected?

Stakeholders in these issues space all the areas touched upon, including youth, parents, law enforcement, teachers, community educators, public health workers, social workers, government officials, school leaders, elected representatives, youth workers, business owners, medical doctors, NGO leaders, community advocates, mental health counselors, and many, many others.

Lawmakers who could make laws to further prevent youth discrimination include local elected officials include mayors, members of a county commission, city counsel, school board, utility or hospital district; a judge, a justice of the peace, a county or city attorney, a marshal, a sheriff, a constable and a registrar of deeds; tax collectors and assessors; and members of advisory boards and committees.

These individuals control, have power over, legislate or otherwise represent all people in democratic societies, including youth. They can make, enforce, modify or otherwise affect youth in countless ways, and are essential all elected officials who can prevent youth discrimination.

Similarly, in many countries a president and the vice president or another democratically elected official on the national level can prevent youth discrimination. In many states, a governor, a secretary of state, or a member of a legislative body such as the Congress or a state legislature can affect youth discrimination.

How To Change Laws

Organize and mobilize youth to speak up, take action and advocate for change! You can change laws to stop adultism even more effectively. Here are some steps you can take.

  1. Invite policymakers to freechild.org to learn about adultism. Educate legislators by providing them with data, research, stories and general information about adultism. They might not know what it is, what it does, who it affects and what the outcomes are. Share us!
  2. Meet with policymakers in person while they are at their in-district offices during congressional recess. Make appointments and go to meetings and share data and research that highlights adultism in your community.
  3. Call your elected officials’ offices to weigh in on specific adultism-related issues. Host educational meetings and trainings to gather, network and share information on adultism in policies, rules and laws.
  4. Share stories, data and resources with elected officials to illustrate how their decisions promote adultism. Educate the public about the policymaking process and how it promotes adultism. Introduce youth and their adult allies to elected officials who represent them, and talk about adultism.
  5. Participate in lobbying visits or hold anti-adultism advocacy days to advocate for or against specific legislation. Build public awareness by educating community members on adultism in specific laws that impact young people and their communities.
  6. Draft a petition or sign-on letter to express views about adultism and recruit youth and/or adults to sign on.
  7. Organize a rally, town hall or press conference to build public awareness about adultism and to hold policymakers accountable.
  8. Write an op-ed or letter to the editor to share your expertise on adultism in laws that recently became important in your school or community.
  9. Participate in a town hall and ask your elected officials questions about their position on adultism overall and in specific laws.
  10. Encourage citizens to vote (through nonpartisan voter mobilization efforts).
  11. Submit comments or feedback on policies affecting children and youth as they are being developed.
  12. Use social media like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to educate the public and lawmakers about adultism. Don’t forget to tag them and include #facingadultism hashtags!

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Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how The Freechild Project can help face adultism in your community or organization, contact us.

Facing Adultism by Adam Fletcher

Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1517641233/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1517641233&linkCode=as2&tag=thefreechildp-20&linkId=43XBKODOPHWZ46XW
The cover of Facing Adultism by Adam Fletcher
This is the cover of Facing Adultism by Adam Fletcher (2015).

Discover a grim reality facing all children and youth today called adultism.

Do you feel like society treats young people poorly?

Does youth empowerment appeal to you?

In Facing Adultism, renowned educator Adam Fletcher talks straight about discrimination against young people, and pulls no punches as he lays out the realities of adultism today.

Originally published as Ending Discrimination Against Young People, in this book Fletcher lays out the details of adultism in all of its forms. Showing how adultism affects everyone, he shows the way for anyone who wants to defeat discrimination against young people. In these pages, you’ll learn what adultism is; where adultism happens; and how YOU can make a difference.

It can be rough out there for children and youth, and the ways we’re young shape our whole lives. You don’t have to be blind about adultism anymore, as this book shines the light like no other.

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Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at http://amzn.to/29Rflw2
Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

Defeating Adultism

Our society is deeply entrenched in adultism, which is bias towards adults and consequently, discrimination against young people. It is prevalent throughout the institutions of our society. In order to re-negotiate adultism, we have to identify what support has to exist throughout society. I call this support “scaffolding”. I call this re-negotiating “youth integration”.

Youth integration will occur in two steps:

  1. The first step is desegregation of youth, which is deliberately ending the segregation of young people throughout society. Today, segregation happens implicitly and explicitly throughout society, including schools, at home, in commerce, and in law-making, enforcement, and courts. Desegregation will address the tools of segregation, including policies and practices, as well as the attitudes and opinions that reinforce them.
  2. The second step is integration of youth. When young people are re-established in equitable relationships throughout society, including their relationships with parents, teachers, youth workers, police, and others, integration is present. It is a deliberate step meant to stop and reverse segregation.
IfightAdultism

Scaffolding Against Adultism

Supporting young people as adultism is defeated  throughout society has to be done with deliberation and determination. Challenging adultism and fighting discrimination against youth must be situated in the larger struggle for nonviolence and social justice across our society. Awareness of these struggles and attuning with great legacies of transformation positions young people as the substantive leaders in social change they have been for more than 100 years.

Following are three central elements in the scaffolding.

Element One: Culture

The first column of scaffolding for youth integration is Culture. Culture is made of the beliefs, habits values, visions, norms, systems, and symbols within a specific and definable community. Adultism is made in the fiery furnace of culture, as groups of people work together to define and reinforce stringent perspectives that re-enforce adultism. In the same way, culture can help examine those assumptions and redefine them in line with social justice through youth integration.  

adultismaffectsprogramoutcomes

Element Two: Structure

The named activities, policies, strategies, processes, allocation, coordination, and supervision of people throughout a community happens through the structure of a definable group of people. In schools, structure includes school rules and curriculum; in society, it includes laws and policing. Structure makes things happen, enforces those things, and encourages them. Structural change promoting youth integration requires deliberate action for transformation. It should actively engage young people in equitable relationships while establishing and maintaining adult allyships.

adultismaffectsadultattitudes

Element Three: Attitude

Where culture and structure belong to a group, attitude belongs to individuals. “Your attitude determines your altitude” applies to adult understandings of youth: “Adult attitude determines youth altitude.” In our adult-dominated, adult-driven society, young people are subject to and subjugated by adult opinions, actions, attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs. This is the full effect of adultism. In order to counter this effect, we must change our own attitudes and provide opportunities for the people around us to change theirs, including youth and adults. This takes new ways of communicating, interacting, and being. It takes personal engagement within our selves and throughout the worlds around us.

adultismaffectsyouthprogramdesign

We must address each of these elements when we seek to integrate young people in any part of society. Each is present throughout all the formal and informal institutions throughout our society. You can find culture, structure, and attitude in individual homes, schools, governments, and other places. By creating scaffolding for youth integration, we can re-negotiate adultism throughout our lives.

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Elsewhere Online

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Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

Cultural Adultism

Cultural adultism is a very ambiguous, yet very prevalent, form of discrimination and intolerance towards youth.

Any restriction or exploitation of people because of their young age, as opposed to their ability, comprehension, or capacity, may be said to be adultist. These restrictions are often attributed to “better judgment”, the “wisdom of age”, or other popular age-related euphemism that is afforded to adults simply because of their age. Examples of where this plays out include:

  • Portrayal of youth as apathetic by media
  • Anti-youth store rules
  • Child abuse
  • Academic misconceptions of youth, supported by bad research
  • Ongoing commericalization of the culture young people partake in
  • Online filters
  • Corporal punishment
  • Literature
  • Child labor
  • Mass marketing of pre-packaged youth culture to youth and adults
  • Peer pressure
  • Child prostitution
  • Fashion controversies
  • Political and sociological scapegoating of youth
  • Stereotypes about youth subcultures
  • Teen sex
Time Magazine Cover
A very adultist magazine cover reflecting cultural bias towards adults, and discrimination against young people.

Causes of Cultural Adultism

Adultism is bias towards adults. Bias towards adults happens anytime the opinions, ideas, knowledge, beliefs, abilities, attitudes, or cultures of adults are held above those of people who aren’t considered adults because they’re not considered adults. Because of this, our very conception of childhood itself is adultism at work. Anyone who works professionally or lives in society with young people as an adult is inherently adultist.

Our adultist attitudes are primarily demonstrated as discrimination against children and youth. This comes across in our national, state, and local laws; educational, health, nutritional, and social policies; family norms; religious and spiritual beliefs; and social customs. Everything from the height of dinner tables to compulsory education passively and actively reflects adultism. Seeking to make the world into our vision of things, adults invented the phenomenon of childhood to ensure that kids were comprehensible and controllable. Because of that, the status of children has become passive, static, and predictable.

Does that make adults wrong or bad? Not all the time and not everywhere. There are times when, as an adult, I am discriminated against. Legally, I cannot go into a hospital and operate on someone, nor can I drive an 18-wheel semi-truck. Culturally, it is inappropriate for me to use a women’s changing room at a store or attend a self-help group for narcotics. None of those examples are inherently bad or wrong. They are intended to keep myself or others safe. Its the same with much well-meaning adultism that is intended to keep young people or others safe. If a building is burning down, as an adult I feel its my responsibility to grab everyone and make sure they’re out of the building, regardless of age.

However, in our society adults always act like the building is burning down. That’s what must change. People who want to change the miserable state of affairs facing the world must take action to stop adultism now. We must challenge the ineptitude of adults and their intransigence towards the changing abilities and roles of young people throughout society. We must push back against age-based assumptions that have nothing to do with the capacity of young people.

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Elsewhere Online

Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1517641233/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1517641233&linkCode=as2&tag=thefreechildp-20&linkId=43XBKODOPHWZ46XW
Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

Institutional Adultism

Freechild Project youth at a summer camp in Seattle

Institutional adultism may be apparent in any instance of systemic bias where formalized limitations or demands are placed on people simply because of their young age. These limitations are often reinforced through physical force or police actions. This is increasingly seen as a form of gerontocracy, explained by James Carville when he wrote,

“This is not class warfare, this is generational warfare. This administration and old wealthy people have declared war on young people. That is the real war that is going on here. And that is the war we’ve got to talk about.”

From every report I have read, institutional adultism rages across our communities, and includes banks, courts, police, schools, nonprofits, churches, mosques, synagogues, and all levels of governments. I would summarize the effects of institutional adultism as:

  • Compulsory education
  • Access to contraceptives
  • Legalized corporal punishment
  • Curfew laws
  • Anti-youth loitering policies
  • Criminalization and demonization of youth via media
  • Voting age
  • Age of candidacy
  • Access to healthcare
  • Typecasting of youth by police
  • The Draft

Total institutions, which are the organizations in our society which dominate the entire being of a person, include the military, prisons, schools, and hospitals. Young people are affected by total institutions more than any other social group.

Ultimately, the normalization and legitimization of historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal dynamics that routinely advantage adults while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for young people is best summarized as institutional adultism.

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Elsewhere Online

Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1517641233/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1517641233&linkCode=as2&tag=thefreechildp-20&linkId=43XBKODOPHWZ46XW
Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

Internalized Adultism

Students in the SoundOut Summer Camp in Seattle

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 internalized 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 enying 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
Adultism is 1) Bias towards adults; 2) Addiction to adults; 3) Discrimination against youth

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.

ALL Adults Are Adultist.

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.

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Introduction to Adultism

Adultism is 1) Bias towards adults; 2) Addiction to adults; 3) Discrimination against youth

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.
ALL Adults Are Adultist.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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