Most of us are youth workers because we care
about young people. Personally we want to both be
effective and have good relationships with young people.
We are satisfied when things go well. We feel bad when our
relationships sour. Sometimes we scratch our heads in dismay
when, despite our best efforts and concern, we find ourselves in
conflict with young people we work with. We sense that some
larger dynamics are at work that we can’t quiet see.
To be successful in
our work with young people, we must understand a particular
condition of youth: that young people are often mistreated and
disrespected simply because they are young. The word adultism
refers to behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that
adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon
young people without their agreement. This mistreatment is
reinforced by social institutions, laws, customs, and attitudes.
If you think about it, you will
realize that except for prisoners and a few other
institutionalized groups, young people are more controlled than
any other group in society. As children, most young people are
told what to eat, what to wear, when to go to bed, when they can
talk, that they will go to school, which friends are okay, and
when they are to be in the house. Even as they grow older, the
opinions of most young people are not valued; they are punished
at the will or whim of adults; their emotions are considered
“immature.” In addition, adults reserve the right to punish,
threaten, hit, take away “privileges,” and ostracize young
people when such actions are deemed to be instrumental in
controlling or disciplining them.
If this were a description of
the way a group of adults was treated, we would all agree that
their oppression was almost total. However, for the most part,
the adult world considers this treatment of young people as
acceptable because we were treated in much the same way, and
internalized the idea that “that’s the way you treat kids.” For
this reason we need to hold adultism up to a strong
The Heart of It
The essence of adultism
is disrespect of the young. Our society, for the most part,
considers young people to be less important than and inferior to
adults. It does not take young people seriously and does not
include them as decision makers in the broader life of their
Adults have enormous importance
in the lives of almost every young person. This fact may make
it difficult understand what I am calling adultism.
Not everything the adult world
does in relation to young people is adultist. It is
certainly true that children and young people need love,
guidance, rules, discipline, teaching, role modeling,
nurturance, protection. Childhood and adolescence are a steady
series of developmental stages, each of which has a different
set of needs, issues, and difficulties. For example, a three
year old needs a different amount of sleep than a 15 year old;
or, what works to physically restrain a seven year old will not
work with an 18 year old; or, how you explain conception and
birth to an inquisitive toddler will be quite different from how
you explain these to a sexually active teenager.
Differing cultural, ethnic,
gender, class, or religious approaches to these developmental
stages can further complicate the identification of adultism.
For example, what is considered "weak" in one gender, may be
considered "strong" in another; or, belching may considered rude
in one culture and an expression of appreciation in another; or,
childhood sex play may be condoned in one culture and condemned
The point is that no one act or
policy or custom or belief is in itself necessarily adultist.
Something can be labeled adultist if it involves a
consistent pattern of disrespect and mistreatment that has
any or all of the following affects on young people:
an undermining of self-confidence and
an increasing sense of worthlessness;
an increasing feeling of powerlessness;
a consistent experience of not being taken
a diminishing ability to function well in the
a growing negative self-concept;
increasing destructive acting out;
increasing self-destructive acting "in" (getting
developing health conditions, attempting suicide,
feeling unloved or unwanted.
Certainly these serious
conditions do not entirely stem from adultism. Other
factors like sexism, racism, poverty, physical or mental
disability, and so on, may also contribute to these results. But
systematic disrespect and mistreatment over years simply because
of being young are major sources of trouble.
Evidence That Adultism Exists
Other "isms" like racism and
sexism are well established and accepted as realities. They
each have a huge body of literature and research documenting the
effects and history of the oppression. There are novels,
movies, media presentations, political organizations, and social
movements devoted to illuminating and or eliminating the
existence of the “ism”.
The concept of adultism,
the systematic mistreatment and disrespect of young people, is
relatively new and has not been widely accepted as a reality.
There is certainly much research and literature on children and
youth, but very little that concludes that young people are an
oppressed group in our society, with parallels to other such
groups. Part of my effort in this article is to draw forth
enough examples, primarily from the United States, to point to
the reality of adultism.
Consider how the following
comments are essentially disrespectful. What are the assumptions
behind each of them? Do you remember having heard any of these
as a younger person?
and Sexual Abuse
There are numerous examples of
disrespect toward young people. Of course, there is the obvious
oppressive treatment: physical and sexual abuse of young people.
Official reports of child abuse reached 2.7 million in 1993.
Other Punishment and Threats
There is also a whole range of
nonphysical punishments or threats: being routinely criticized,
yelled at, invalidated, insulted, intimidated, or made to feel
guilty with the effect of undermining a child's self-respect;
being arbitrarily or unfairly “grounded” or denied
“privileges.” If young people protest against their
mistreatment, they are often subjected to more punishment.
Young people are denied control
and often even influence over most of the decisions that affect
their bodies, their space, and their possessions. For example,
most adults seem to think they can pick up little children or
kiss them or pull their cheeks or touch their hair without
asking or without its being mutual. Adults can often be seen
grabbing things out of children’s hands without asking.
Most young people know that in a
disagreement with an adult, their word will not be taken over
the adult’s. Most adults talk down to children, as if children
could not understand them. Adults often talk about a young
person with the young person present as if he or she were not
there. Many adults give young people orders to do things or lay
down rules with no explanation. Adults, in general, do not
really listen to young people, do not take the concerns of a
young person as seriously as they would an adult’s, and have a
hard time hearing the thinking of young people as worthy of
adult respect, let alone on a par with the quality of adult
thinking. Yet young people are expected to listen to adults all
Adolescent young people are
frequently followed by security guards in stores, passed over by
clerks who serve adults in line behind them, chased from parks
or gathering places for no good reason by police, assumed by
passing adults to "be up to no good". The media often promote
negative images and stereotypes of them, especially of urban
youth and black youth.
Schools subject students to
incredible control through the use of hall passes, detention,
suspension, expulsion, and other penalties. Any community
certainly needs rules to live by, but the rules in most school
communities are imposed on young people and enforced
by the adult staff.
Consider these examples:
There is a different set of laws
for young people. They do not have the same rights as adults. Of
course, some laws specifically protect young people from
mistreatment but other laws unduly restrict the life and freedom
of young people. Curfew ordinances that exist in many
communities apply to young people but not to adults. In divorce
cases, until a recent landmark custody case, young people were
not even permitted to have a voice in deciding which parent, if
either, they wished to live with.
Child Development Literature and
An institutional example of
adultism can be found in the literature of child
development, which is full of misinformation and unfounded
claims about young people that severely underestimates what
young people are capable of. For example, in one classic
textbook used by many students of child development, The
Magic Years by Selma Freiberg, the author states that the
only reason an infant before six months of age cries is because
of physical pain. An infant has no emotional pain before this
age, she says, because “an infant’s intelligence has not yet
developed the cognitive apparatus that gives rise to emotional
responses.” Many parents, including myself, in observing their
own infants closely, know that this is not true. Yet, young
child development professionals, often without children, are
taught a distorted view of infant functioning as if it were
The Effect of Cultural
Practices: An Interesting Example
Generations of young people in
western culture have grown up with their development limited by
vast cultural biases that consistently underestimate human
potential or misunderstand human development. For example,
Joseph Chilton Pierce, in his Crack in the Cosmic Egg,
found that in certain Ugandan cultures, infants reach the
milestones of sitting, walking, and talking in half the time it
takes for children in the United States. This seems to challenge
accepted western norms. Researchers hypothesized two reasons
for such seemingly accelerated development:
Researchers concluded that the
combinations of these two practices stimulate complex
neurological, motor, and hormonal systems of the infants to
speed sitting, walking, and talking compared to what is
considered "normal" in the West. The mere existence of such huge
differences in the rate of development raises large questions
about our assumptions about what is normal.
(The interesting back end of the
Ugandan example is that at age five, after this extremely
intimate early childhood experience, the children go through a
rite of passage that includes being sent alone into the forest
for several days, then being forced to leave their mother's home
and sent to live with another relative. This shock appears to
arrest the earlier rapid development, and maturation slows way
General Adult Attitudes
Many of us have heard older
people say to us or other young people something like, “Growing
up is giving up. You’d better get used to it.” It is the
accumulation of disappointments, losses, smashed dreams,
unaccepted love, and other such painful experiences that lead
adults to say things like that. This crippling attitude is
gradually forced upon young people. It is like a contagion, a
virus about aging.
Young people in this country are
forced to go to school for 12 years, whether school is an
effective learning environment for them or not. They are forced
by law and by parents (with the exception of those who exercise
the demanding option of home schooling). If their spirit,
energy, or learning style does not dovetail with the prevailing
teacher, school, or educational philosophy, they begin to
"fail", have "special needs", are "tracked", and may eventually
be labeled as a "dropout". Throughout the 12 years, students
have no voice, no power, no decision-making avenues to make
significant changes. A critique of our educational system is
beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say here that
while society's motivation of providing education for all its
young people is laudable, the school system as an institution
Another institutional example is
the absence of socially responsible, productive, and connected
roles for young people in most societies. Certainly in the
United States, young people find few jobs, no real policy-making
roles, no positions of political power, and no high expectations
of young people’s contributions to society.
On the other hand, the youth market is exploited
for profit as the manufacturing and entertainment industries
manipulate styles, fads, popularity, and all other aspects of
A handy mirror for reflecting
what may be adultist behavior is to ask oneself questions
like the following:
Sometimes the answer may be “no”
for good reason, depending on the circumstance. For example, I
insist that my six year old son hold my hand when crossing the
street, but not my 18 year old daughter. However, many times
there is no justifiable reason for treating a younger person
differently except habit and attitude. If your “no” sounds a
little hollow, it might be worth re-examining your reasons for
The Emotional Legacy
I hope this short list of examples begins to put
our work with young people in a larger context. Most of
the examples I used have been reported to me by young people.
They consistently report that the main message they get from the
adult world is that they are not as important as adults; they do
not feel that they are taken seriously; they have little or no
They say that the emotional
legacy of years of this kind of treatment is a heavy load, which
can include any or all of the following: anger, feelings of
powerless- ness, insecurity, depression, lack of
self-confidence, lack of self-respect, hopelessness, feeling
unloved and unwanted.
some possible results of such feelings on their behavior,
especially as they get into adolescence and early adulthood?
Some act "out" by bullying, being prone to
violence, rebelling against the "norm", leaving home early, and
Some act "in" by becoming self-destructive:
suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, depression, etc.
Some gain a sense of belonging or safety by
joining a gang, a clique, a club, teams
Some isolate themselves, being lonely, not asking
for help, not having any close relationships, not trusting.
Again, adultism is not
the only source of such behaviors, but it surely plays a major
A Link to Other Forms of Oppression
There is another important
reason for understanding and challenging adultism. The
various ways we were disrespected and mistreated have, over
time, robbed us of huge amounts of our human power, access to
our feelings, confidence in our thinking and ability to act, and
enjoyment of living. The pain we experience as young people
helps condition us, to play one of two roles as we get older: to
accept further mistreatment as women, as people of color, as
workers, etc., or to flip to the other side of the relationship
and act in oppressive ways toward others who are in relatively
less powerful positions than ours.
A simple illustration might help
make this clear. Picture this: a sixth grader is humiliated by
the teacher in front of the class for not doing the math problem
at the board correctly. The recess bell rings. He is fuming.
He feels disrespected. He goes outside and picks on someone to
get his feelings out. Whom does he pick on? Someone smaller
and often someone younger. And so it goes: the 6th grader picks
on the 5th grader. The 5th grader turns and knocks down the 3rd
grader. The 3rd grader hits the 1st grader. The 1st grader
goes home and picks on his little sister. The little sister
turns and kicks the cat.
We can observe among a group of
children the mistreatment being passed down among them. It is
being passed down the line of physical power, bigger to smaller,
and often older to younger.
The significance of this early
experience becomes clearer when it is generalized to other forms
of the abuse of power. Men, for example, who were routinely
beaten as little boys, grow up to be wife beaters. This is a
clinical truism. Similarly, white people, disrespected as
children, turn the same attitude, embellished with
misinformation, on people of color.
This is one of the pervasive and
lasting effects of the mistreatment of young people. Bullies
have been bullied. Abusers have been abused. People who have
been put down put others down. If a person had not been
disrespected and mistreated over and over again as a child and
young person, that person would not willingly accept being
treated that way as he got older, nor would he willingly heap
disrespect on others.
racism, sexism, and other “isms” all reinforce each other. The
particular ways young people are treated or mistreated are
inseparable from their class, gender, or ethnic background.
However, the phenomena of being disrespected simply because of
being young holds true across diverse backgrounds.
is a pervasive and difficult
form of mistreatment to identify, challenge, and eliminate
precisely because every human being has experienced adultism,
whatever the degree of severity or cultural variety, and because
much adultism is considered natural and normal by most
Implications for Our Work With Young
The set of behaviors, attitudes,
policies, and practices that we have labeled adultism
gets in the way of more effective youth-adult partnerships. It
is useful to reflect on our interactions with young people for
signs of unintended disrespect in tone, content, or unspoken
assumptions. For those of us who work in youth programs,
re-examine the program practices, policies, and power
relationships with the lens of adultism, and make
A few general guidelines might
improve our relationships with young people:
Listen attentively to young people. Listen when
they talk about their thoughts, experiences, and feelings about
Ask questions. Ask what they think about
Lie back. Curb the inclination to take over.
Support the initiatives of young people.
Validate their thinking. Welcome their ideas.
Be willing for them to make mistakes. Putting
their ideas into practice will bring mixed results. They will
learn. We need to learn to support the process of their taking
Change the power relationships wherever
appropriate. Consider when adults can refrain from using
authority, from making the final decision, from being the “real
power” behind youth leadership?
At the same time, do not thrust young people into
decision-making and leadership positions without training,
practice, and understanding of their responsibilities.
Otherwise, we set them up for frustration, confusion, possible
failure, and humiliation.
Always respect all young people, no matter what
their ages, and expect them to respect each other, at all ages.
This is the starting point for reversing the internalized
Have high expectations of their potentials, and
positively assess their current abilities. Never sell them short
and always be prepared to lend a hand with a difficulty.
Do not take out your anger about them on them.
They get this from adults all the time. It only adds more hurt.
We need to take care of our upsets about them some other way.
Give young people accurate
information about the way the world works, our experiences,
relationships and sex, the contributions of young people to
humankind, and other issues that interest them. Never lie to
Be patient with ourselves
when we unconsciously slip into our old adultist habits.
It will take time to undo them. Always appreciate how well we
In our efforts to create solid
relationships with young people we inevitably come up against
adultism: theirs, ours, or society's. Program staff in
youth programs need to avoid two extremes.
One is the permissive attitude
that says, “Anything the young people want is OK.” The
mistreatment of and disrespect for young people have left them,
to varying degrees, with irrational feelings, misinformation,
and tendencies to act out their hurts. Adult staff must not
abdicate their responsibility to provide effective leadership
and good policy.
The other extreme is the adult
authority running the show. Adults, likewise, have their share
of irrationality, which is often the legacy of the adultism
visited upon them as youth. The young people need policies that
protect them from adultist leadership.
A sound policy for behavior in
our work together needs to include mutual expectations that
apply to all people, regardless of age:
Envisioning a World Without Adultism:
A Final Comment
It has been inspiring and
sobering for me whenever I ask young people to imagine a world
in which young people were completely respected and never
suffered from mistreatment because they were young. Inspiring
because they talk about how education would be more related to
them as learners, how they would help hire teachers and develop
curriculum, how they would use schools as community centers to
provide services and opportunities for others, how they would
treat their siblings and friends with much more care, how they
would feel smart and effective, how they would feel part of
their community, how they would help decide how things got done,
how they would have numerous open and trusting relationships
with adult family members and others, how they would feel
confident and loved, how they would help end conflict between
racial and cultural groups, how they would be leaders.
Sobering because present reality
is so far from that. However, each of us, in our individual
relationships with young people, and in our programs, can help
create the conditions that help young people develop their
vision, practice decision making, exercise judgment, and grow in
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THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY
WRITTEN FOR YOUTHBUILD USA IN 1995. REPRINTED WITH AUTHOR'S
PERMISSION. DO NOT REPRINT WITHOUT PERMISSION.