So I’m continuing to explore youth-worker John Bell’s article "Understanding Adultism: A Key to Developing Positive Youth-Adult Relationships". According to Bell most young people experience adultism from the day they are born until the day the world around them recognizes them as an adults. It is part of the structure of society and its institutions, including families, schools, churches and government. (If you did not read my first piece introducing the concept of adultism, you can read it by clicking this link.)
The essence of adultism is when a person treats a child or youth disrespectfully in a way that they would not treat an adult in similar circumstances. This mistreatment is reinforced by social institutions, laws, customs, and attitudes and can include:
- Assuming that adults are superior and more important than young people
- Assuming that adults are entitled to act upon young people without their agreement
- Assuming that young people are not as intelligent and their feelings are not as important as adults
- Not taking young people seriously, including not giving them significant participation in decisions that impact them
- Being physically, verbally, or otherwise psychologically abusive to young people
Bell says that 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 most adults were treated in much the same way when they were young, and internalized the idea that "that’s the way you treat kids."
According to Bell, adultism appears in abnormal and normal behavior towards young people in a broad spectrum of societal activities, institutions and issues. Here is an overview of the scope of what he cites...
Physical, Sexual or Psychological Abuse
Much abusive behavior by adults toward young people can be attributed to adultism, to the extent that the adult would not treat another adult in this way. These would be cases where adults feel they can "get away with" expressing their own anger or frustration in the form of abuse because the object of that abuse is "only a child", an "inferior" in patriarchal "pecking order" terms, and does not merit the level of respect they would give another adult.
Punishment and Threats
There is also a whole range of nonphysical punishments or threats that can be considered adultism, that adults would not inflict on other adults but are comfortable doing so with young people, including...
- Routinely criticizing, yelling at, invalidating, insulting, intimidating, or making them feel guilty
- Arbitrarily or unfairly "grounding" or denying "privileges"
- Doling out additional punishment when young people protest against what they legitimately consider mistreatment, simply because they are questioning what the adult considers to be their absolute authority
Young people are denied control and even influence over most of the decisions that affect their bodies, their space, their possessions and even their self-definition. For example, most adults think they can pick up little children or kiss them or pull their cheeks or touch their hair without asking or without it being mutual. Adults can often be seen grabbing things out of children’s hands without asking.
Adultism can be found in many verbal interactions between adults and youth where adults:
- Talk down to children, as if children could not understand them
- Talk about a young person with the young person present as if they were not there
- Give young people orders to do things or lay down rules with no explanation
- Not really listen to young people, but demand young people listen to them all the time
- Not take the concerns of a young person as seriously as they would an adult’s
- Not appreciate the thinking of young people as worthy of adult respect, let alone on a par with the quality of adult thinking
- Automatically side with other adults when they have a disagreement with a youth
Any community or institution needs rules to live by, but the rules in most schools are imposed on young people without their consent and represent a high level of control, the severity of which exhibiting adultism, including:
- Hall passes and detention
- Occasions where teachers yell at students with impunity, but students are disciplined if they yell back at those teachers
- Occasions where students are punished unfairly because adults feel frustrated.
- Students being continuously evaluated, graded and ranked - to the point of internalizing a view of themselves as either "smart", "average" or "dumb" — with profound impact on many aspects of their lives
- Students generally not being given the corresponding opportunity to evaluate their teachers
- Young people having no real power in the important decisions that affect their lives in school
Throughout their education, most students have no voice, no power, and no decision-making avenues to make significant changes to an institution where they are one of the significant stakeholders. While society's motivation of providing education for all it’s young people is laudable, the school system as an institution perpetuates adultism.
In the Law
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 their life and liberty, including:
- Some curfew ordinances unduly restricting young people beyond considerations for their safety
- Treating young people as adults when they commit serious crimes but not when they behave appropriately
- In divorce cases, until a recent landmark custody case, not permitting young people to have a voice in deciding which parent, if either, they wished to live with
I will be interested in any feedback you have to give me on this. This is an entirely new way at looking at the relationships between adults, youth and children and may go against deep-seated conventions that we adults have taken for granted growing up in a culture still laced with 5000-year-old patriarchal ideas and ethics.