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.
Cultural adultism is a very ambiguous, yet very prevalent, form of discrimination and intolerance towards youth. It is one of the pillars of adultism that informs our society’s conception of adulthood.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
Cultural adultism, which is the way all adults affect adultism, either consciously or otherwise.
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.
Many well-meaning adults who advocate for youth engagement too often consider only those elements of the younger population with which they are familiar. This is comfortable and convenient for adults, but it doesn’t fully address realities regarding young people today.
Identifying aspects of youth engagement as convenient or inconvenient doesn’t convey a value judgment; it simply acknowledges an existing condition.
Convenient Youth Engagement happens whenever adults know who is going to be engaged, what is going to happen, where and when it will happen, and what the outcomes will be. Adults might not have written the whole script for youth engagement, but what’s going to be said is no surprise to them.
Inconvenient Youth Engagement takes place when young people become engaged in ways that aren’t predictable. They share ideas, shout out thoughts, take action or critique harshly. They do things that adults don’t know, understand, approve of or otherwise predict.
The difference between these two situations depends on context, including location, position and circumstance. A young person’s race, socio-economic status, gender, educational attainment or other characteristics frequently determines how engagement is perceived. A particular instance of youth engagement may be heard or ignored, approved or disapproved, praised or penalized by older adults.
Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how The Freechild Project can help improve adult perceptions of youth in your community or organization, contact us.
Successful youth engagement depends on developing mature, respectful relationships between the generations. This model illustrates a continuum of adult perspectives of youth, starting at apathy and leading to the ideal of solidarity.
Apathy occurs when individuals or groups are indifferent towards youth and young adults. Apathy is obvious when an organization involved in civic life or community development doesn’t have outreach specifically for youth and young adults.
This perspective represents a completely top-down perspective by older adults toward youth and young adults. Pity takes away the ability of youth to change the world by erasing their self-esteem and their sense of urgency and purpose. Pity is apparent when programs present activities to youth and young adults with no consideration of whether they want or need those activities or whether they could provide them for themselves.
Sympathy is apparent when adults give youth what they apparently cannot acquire for themselves. These may be physical things, time or money, offered from a position of compassion. Sympathetic actions may make older adults feel better about themselves, but the process disengages youth from actively creating knowledge or resources. Sympathy is another topdown perspective, positioning adults to give without acknowledging the receipt of anything in return.
Reciprocity is at the core of an empathetic perspective of youth, which allows adults to see youth in a more equitable way. Each person acknowledges the other as a partner, and each is invested in the outcomes of the others’ perspective.
Solidarity allows for complete equity, fully recognizing the benefits and challenges in relationships between older adults and youth. Possibilities abound.
Adults can use this model to critically and creatively reflect on their own attitudes, behaviors and perspectives toward youth. As individuals and groups develop the skills and attitudes to achieve solidarity with youth, their efforts and programs will become more successful.
Growing up in small villages and towns or on farms and in other rural areas can present young people with considerable challenges. However, rural youth can be vital to transforming their communities, building ownership and engaging young people to stop the rural brain drain.
There’s no reason why children in inner cities or rural areas do not receive the same quality education or opportunities as those in suburbs or wealthy neighborhoods. If we truly believe in giving all citizens a chance to pursue happiness and pursue their goals, then we cannot continue to marginalize entire groups of people. — Al Sharpton
Ways Rural Youth are Changing the World
Youth as Recruiters — Building their own opportunities to transform their environments is essential to children and youth engagement. After they’ve planned engaging programs and activities, young people can recruit their peers, younger people and adults. As facilitators, evaluators and decision-makers throughout their communities, rural youth can change the world.
Youth as Mentors — Engaging youth as mentors can allow children, other youth and adults in rural to become meaningfully influential and purposeful. Substantive activities for rural youth can focus on fostering community, building youth/adult partnerships and transforming organizations, schools and rural areas.
Servant Leadership — Learning to lead others can mean learning to serve, too. Servant leadership can build the humility, empowerment and engagement of young people throughout rural areas in unique ways. They can become more capable and involved than before, and can develop the ability to meet the needs of their areas in unique and important ways.
Things Rural Youth Need to Change the World
Training — Learning practical skills and relevant knowledge they can apply to change rural communities is essential for children and youth. Whether focusing on communication, teambuilding, networking, problem-solving or change management, young people can be essential partners for community development in rural areas.
Technology — Weaving together the power and potential of young people in rural areas can be easier through technology. Cell phones, texting, social media and the Internet can be powerful tools to reach across broad distances and other barriers.
Inspiration — Discovering the roots of action and finding motivation to take action can move young people from being passive recipients of adult actions towards becoming active partners in social change.
Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how The Freechild Project can support rural youth engagement through your community or organization, contact us.
Despite how they’re often treated, young people in the foster care system are powerful beyond measure. Even though they rarely have significant and meaningful opportunities to share their concerns and ideas or make meaningful decisions about the systems that control their lives, youth and foster care often need each other. Transforming foster care by empowering children and youth in foster care is absolutely vital. Rather than focusing on speaking for children and youth or doing things to children and youth, the foster care system should take action with young people to improve the system and outcomes.
Don’t try to silence me or my thoughts on being adopted. I have a voice, and everything I say is the truth and valid. I have been through it, therefore, I know. This is my story. — Source unknown
Ways Youth can Change the World through Foster Care
Youth as Decision-Makers — Young people in foster care should have substantial opportunities to make decisions for themselves. Adults should teach children and youth healthy and successful decision-making skills, and facilitate decision-making for every children and youth in foster care to experience personal, group and systemic decision-making, too.
Youth Evaluation — Positioning youth as evaluators can provide meaningful, applicable and real ways to change the world through foster care. Whether evaluating their placements, support services, counselors or other individuals and activities that affect them directly, or integrating them throughout community-wide evaluation activities, young people in foster care can share powerful assessments of their world.
Community Youth Development — In addition to teaching foster youth independent living skills, it is essential they learn how to rely on others throughout their communities in healthy, supportive and empowering ways. Interdependent living skills can be learned through community youth development strategies that are designed to integrate foster children and foster youth throughout their communities, whether geographic, cultural or otherwise.
Things Youth Need to Change the World through Foster Care
Opportunities — Foster care is an adult-driven system with adult-determined goals operated by adults for the benefit of adults, all focused on children and youth. Young people need substantial, relevant and meaningful opportunities to affect the system. These should not be tokenistic, belittling, demeaning, manipulative or otherwise negative. Instead, they should be equitable, geared towards youth/adult partnerships and transformative for everyone involved, including children, youth and adults.
Training — Whether they’re learning how to transform foster care in group homes, in nonprofits, through government programs, with foundations, or through the media, children and youth in foster care should have significant training. Their skills should be developed to ensure successful action, while their knowledge should be shared to encourage meaningful personal development.
Technology — Using every technology available to them, children and youth in foster care can change the world. Texting can increase communication and community building among youth in foster care, while social media can help ensure that foster childrens’ voices are heard. Building websites and forming organizations online can further systemic goals focused on youth engagement, while access to the Internet can be a building block for further action.
Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how The Freechild Project can support youth engagement in foster care in your community or organization, contact us.
Democracy demands active, involved and engaged citizens taking almost-constant action to make societies better places. Counting as more than 25% of the human population, children and youth are routinely, consistently and constantly left out of governments at all levels today. However, growing numbers of local, state, national and international government bodies are engaging young people. Bringing together youth and government can transform societies and change the world in countless ways.
“Words like ”freedom,’ ‘justice,’ ‘democracy” are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.”— James Baldwin
Ways Youth can Change the World through the Government
Youth as Policy-Makers — Empowering young people to participate as full-fledged policy-makers includes providing educating nontraditional youth leaders, providing substantive opportunities for action, and training adults as allies throughout the process. Through meaningful youth involvement, young people can transform systems, empower communities and infuse adult-driven institutions with youth power.
Community Youth Development — When young people are systemically involved throughout their communities, applying powerful skills and knowledge along the way, they can shift governments into action and encourage powerful transformation. Community youth development can also build the capacities of children and youth, their peers, families and others to change the world, too!
Service Learning — Combining meaningful service with real classroom learning goals can give students substantive opportunities to improve government services, engage more people in democratic processes, and ensure people stay informed and empowered through action. Service learning can teach students vital knowledge and build their skills to change the world. When infused in government, it can be more real than ever!
Things Youth Need to Change the World through the Government
Opportunities — There must be substantial and inclusive opportunities for young people of all ages to affect governance. This can happen at the neighborhood level through community associations; at the village, town or city level by getting youth on board, creating positions for youth as city council members, or lowering the local voting age; at the county and parish level by creating youth action boards and lowering the voting age; at the state and provincial levels in many ways, including youth as staff and youth empowerment activities; and on the federal and international levels. These must be fully empowered, fully trained and focused on youth mainstreaming.
Training — Young people need high quality, practical training on the ways government operates, what difference it makes and why it matters to be involved. Focused on skill development, training can include communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking. Emphasizing knowledge-sharing, training can focus on democratic purpose, government functions and interacting with the public.
Inspiration — Young people need to know what government is, what government does and most importantly, how government operates. Without pedantic traditional classroom teaching styles, they should learn function, purpose, operation and outcomes, as well as how to successfully advocate for what matters most to them, their families and their communities.
Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how The Freechild Project can support youth engagement in government in your community or organization, contact us.
Youth and racism are wound together, depending on each other to unravel the pain, hurt and despicable enduring nature of racism. Being “against racism” is to be against any system based on some kind of supremacy, including white supremacy, racial supremacy of any kind, tribal supremacy, class supremacy, even male and female chauvinism. Young people are taking power action against racism and making their communities more powerful, empowering places for all people to live in.
Washing ones hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. — Paulo Freire
Ways Youth are Changing the World focusing on Racism
Youth-Led Activism — When adults won’t partner with young people or when young people want to take immediate action without permission, they can lead their own community organizing projects and rallying their peers to create change, or take action on their own. Picketing, sit-ins, boycotts and social media action are just some of the ways youth-led activism can affect racism.
Service Learning — Studying the social effects of racism, young people are building communities through service learning. Programs focused on white privilege, empowering communities of color and more can teach students about racism in distinctly effective ways. When facilitated effectively, service learning encourages students to apply their learning throughout their lives.
Youth and Incarceration— Young people are challenging the school-to-prison pipeline, long-term incarceration, incarcerating youth with adults, and solitary confinement within prisons, all wrapped together with analysis focused on the disproportionate incarceration of people of color. Youth and incarceration shouldn’t be synonymous, and youth can change the world when they focus on ending the racism which makes this happen.
Things Youth Need to Change the World focusing on Racism
Education — Learning about the history of racism isn’t enough. Young people need to understand their role in white privilege and racism, whether they’re people of color or white. Learning how to see privilege, dismantle white supremacy, overcome structural racism and fight against dominant cultural norms is essential, too.
Youth/Adult Partnerships — Creating intentional relationships designed to foster trust, communication, mutual investment and meaningful involvement can effectively engage youth in changing the world focused on racism. Young people can transform communities and organizations through youth/adult partnerships, increasing effective action and building support along the way.
Opportunities — Young people need substantive opportunities to take action against racism. Schools, neighborhood groups, nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations can create opportunities. Young people can create their own opportunities through youth-led community organizing and youth-led programs, too.
Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how The Freechild Project can support youth engagement in public health through your community or organization, contact us.