By Adam Fletcher
honest conversation about Youth Voice must address
the challenges that young people and adult allies
face when they work to engage children and youth
throughout our communities. By their very existence,
Youth Voice programs are made to respond to these
challenges; ignoring them is not being honest about
the purpose of Youth Voice. Racism, sexism,
classism, homophobia… the list of challenges facing
young people is enormous. However, one of the core
challenges is a common experience that all
people face early in their lives. That challenge is
discrimination against children and youth.
Discrimination occurs anytime one thing is chosen
before something else. That is often a good thing
– otherwise, why wouldn’t we all steal our food
instead of growing it or buying it? We all
discriminate everyday. However, discrimination often
excludes people because of false bias or prejudice.
Discrimination against children and youth is caused
by the bias adults have for other adults that
causes them to discriminate against young
people. Bias for adults is called adultism.
When something is based on adultism, it is called
adultcentrism. While adultism is sometimes
appropriate, adultcentrism is often inappropriate.
Compulsory education can force students to disengage
from the love of learning. Youth development
programs can force youth to disconnect from adults.
Almost every activity that is for young
people is decided upon, developed, assessed and
redeveloped without young people. That is
Language, programs, teaching styles, and all
relationships between young people and adults are
adultcentric. The most “youth-friendly” adults are
often adultist, assuming that youth need them
– which, while it may be true, is still centered on
adult perspectives. Adultism is not always harmful –
but adultism is always real.
Adultism leads to a phenomenon of “little adults” –
young people who are “adults-in-the-making”, rather
than children and youth today. Adultcentrism leads
to manipulating and tokenizing young people through
Youth Voice activities. Despite the intention, that
process often further disengages young
Adultism exists for a lot of reasons, including
beliefs about the abilities of young people, roles
of different people throughout society, and the
nature of society. Those beliefs have sometimes lead
to the fear of children, called pedophobia,
and the fear of youth, called ephebiphobia.
These fears drive much of society to segregate young
people from adults, demonize youth in the media, and
ostracize children from elders. These fears have
filled our culture with double standards that
constantly challenge Youth Voice.
Identifying different forms of discrimination
against young people throughout our society is
important. Following are some of those forms.
Young People in Language
against Young People in Youth Work
- “Act your
should be seen and not heard.”
- “What do you
know, you’re just a kid!”
- “Do as I say,
not as I do.”
understand it someday, just you wait.”
Discrimination against Young
People in School
designed by adults for youth without
- Isolation of
children and youth from adults
language does not allow youth to easily
understand what is being done to them
engage adult staff and not youth participants
Discrimination against Young
People in Communities
- Students are
forced by law to attend schools that may not be
learning relies on adults as sole-holders of
about students, including learning topics,
activities, punishments, budgeting and teaching
methods are routinely made without students
routinely grade students without giving equal
weight to students’ perspectives on their own
Double-standards in treatment, including when
the belief that when teachers yell at students,
they are controlling classrooms; when students
yell at teachers, they are creating unsafe
- People under
18-years-old are virtual non-citizens without
the right to vote or any tangible political
representation and minimal influence
problem-solving that routinely neglects youth
policies that allow for discrimination, such as
“Under-14s must be accompanied by adults,” and
“Under-18s cannot be managers.”
- Local laws
that target youth, including anti-cruising and
- Media bias
against youth that alternatively portrays youth
as apathetic super-predators who are obese,
stuck on computers, gang members.
How YOU Can Resist
Discrimination Against Young People
There are many ways that young people and their
adult allies can challenge adultism. Addressing
discrimination against Youth Voice is a challenge
that many young people and adult allies should take
personally, especially when armed with meaningful
strategies for powerful action. Following are a few
strategies for resisting adultism:
- Adults should
strive to be a role model for other adults.
Demonstrate in your own conduct and the way you
talk that you oppose attitudes and behavior that
debase, degrade, inflict injury on or promote
animosity against young people of all ages.
- Youth should
get to know your adults, no matter where they
are – school, youth programs, the library,
everywhere. Support those who actually show they
care above all about young people, that they
have integrity and that they can be objective.
- Insist that
your youth program/classroom/religious
community/organization sets high goals and
expectations for adults, no matter what
positions they are in, where they come from or
how much education they have.
examine the media in your community. See if it
is realistic, democratic, and free of adultist
biases. If they are not, demand coverage that
- Insist that
youth development, educational, and behavior
management practices be reviewed for
effectiveness. These practices reveal what
adults do not know, not what they do.
- Volunteer as
an adult ally for a youth program or school.
- Talk with
young people you know. Listen to them. Engage
yourself in their lives as appropriate, and as
you are capable.
literature and resources about Youth Voice to
young people themselves.
Tips for Addressing Discrimination Against Young
Advocating for and sharing Youth Voice throughout a
community often means being prepared for just about
anything – on a moment’s notice. When facing
adultism head-on, it can be important to be
intentional in your efforts. Following are some tips
when addressing adultism:
understanding by encouraging adults
to examine adultism. Explore the feelings adults
have about young people. Youth and adults should
work together to find the source of frustration,
resentment or treatment towards youth.
anger and let youth and adults know that it
is okay to feel anger – but remind them they do
not need to act out their anger towards young
allies by asking an adult ally to address
and explore adultism with other adults. If you
are an adult trying to reach another adult, it
can be powerful to bring young people directly
into the picture.
that Youth Voice is for everyone, and that
in easy times and struggling times, Youth Voice
should be hard. There will always be adults and
behaviors that discriminate against youth, and
working against that resistance is challenging
- You are not
alone, and there are other people advocating
for Youth Voice and struggling against adultism.
Connect with others in your town, across
Washington, and around the world – because they
are out there!
focused, no matter how pointed the adultism
might seem. Stay calm and try not to take it
personally. Address behaviors, structures, and
other things that can be changed.
community by talking with others who
challenge adultism, especially youth, even if it
is just a brief comment or casual conversation.
Adultism affects or has affected every single
person in our society, and it takes persistence
and teamwork to resist it.
2008. Adam Fletcher owns the copyright
for this material on behalf of The Freechild
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