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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Academic misconceptions of youth, supported by bad research
Ongoing commericalization of the culture young people partake in
Mass marketing of pre-packaged youth culture to youth and adults
Political and sociological scapegoating of youth
Stereotypes about youth subcultures
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.
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:
Access to contraceptives
Legalized corporal punishment
Anti-youth loitering policies
Criminalization and demonization of youth via media
Age of candidacy
Access to healthcare
Typecasting of youth by police
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.
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
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.