Adults Fighting Adultism Part Three

Adultism is often a major problem in schools and youth programs. Young people often hear hurtful remarks about their age, and adult allies often have to go on defence when their peers are adultist. Keep in mind these are two different approaches: when children and youth hear hurtful remarks from their peers it can be parroting; when they hear it from adults it can obviously or inadvertently be meant to encourage young people to internalize adultism. When adults hear it from other adults it reinforces the cultural and social constructs that impose adultism on young people in the first place.
These are some tips for adults to fight adultism throughout society:
  • Get Honest With Yourself. From childhood onward adults in our society are compelled to value their dominance, power and control over children and youth. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, adults in our society are being conditioned to one-up young people in countless ways, everyday. 
  • Change Your Mind. Stop thinking of children and youth as incapable. Catch yourself thinking about young people as lesser-than simply because of their age, and stop thinking of adults as able to do anything just because they are old enough. 
  • Broaden Your Perspective. Watch a movie that you like that doesn’t have adults as all the main characters, or a token youth in adult clothes, or where a youth doesn’t have to act weak. Imagine what TV shows or movies would be like if all the young people were treated as full humans instead of as lesser-than-human. Attend programs; take courses, watch films, and read articles and books by young people and about youth voice or involvement and exploring the roots of youth action. Educate yourself and others about how larger social forces affect the conflicts between young people and adults.
  • Learn To Identify And Oppose Adultism. Don’t let comments or actions slide with your friends or co-workers when they make adultist comments or think of young people solely in terms of their age or how much “trouble” they will be. Examples are myriad. You can oppose adultism by naming it and making clear your expectation that it stop: “We are discriminating against young people and I expect us to stop.” Adultism in the workplace or school violates the basic human rights of children and youth, and it is our responsibility to bring it to the attention of supervisors at work, administration in schools, and politicians in the public sphere and parents at home.
  • Let Young People Speak. Don’t interrupt young people when they speak – you may miss something important.  Numerically, people under 21 comprise more than half of the human population. Yet our adultist culture teaches us to believe that young peoples’ voices shouldn’t be listened to as seriously adults’. Young people and adults all have contributions to make to the world; we must listen and learn from each other in order to do that.
  • Its Not Either/Or. Don’t assume that youth activists hate adults, and try not to be defensive when a young person tries to open a conversation about “youth issues.” Issues concerning adultism are not something that can be relegated to a day or an article in a newspaper – they should be addressed everyday.
  • Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. “Youth issues” don’t belong to youth alone – they belong to everyone. Don’t fund adultism. Refuse to purchase any magazine, rent any video, subscribe to any website, or buy any music that portrays young people in a adultist, degrading or abusive manner. Protest adultism in the media. As an adult, boycott companies that discriminate against young people – there are a lot! Become aware of adultism in commercials and as a selling point. Seek youth-led businesses online or in your local community. 
  • Communicate About Age. We have a cultural myth that “good youth work/teaching/parenting is intuitive.” The reality is that any good relationships with young people are based on communication, and that is a learned practice. Stop assuming young people are less able just because of their age. Our culture pressures young people to think, behave and treat their peers, younger people and adults certain ways simply because of their identities as young people. Listen to children and youth and engage them in powerful communitcation.
  • Stop Tokenism. Try to stop objectifying or tokenizing young people throughout our society. This is hard because it’s so ingrained – but being aware is the first step we can take.
  • Speak By Listening. Know that language is powerful. Words that dehumanize young people are common. When we describe someone as an object meant to be acted upon, then discarded, it gets easier to treat her that way. Constantly refering to young people as kids or children, despite their age or capability, objectifies them. Use humane and respectful language, and challenge the people around you to do the same. Talk with young people you and learn what it feels like to be a young person in their shoes today. Find out how young people around you like to be supported. Ask what they would like you to do to challenge adultism. Really listen. Talk with adults and find out how adultism has impacted their lives. Find out how much adults lose by being seen as potential adversaries to young people. Find out what other adults have to say about how to change that reality. Find out how to support young people. Really listen.
  • Take Action. Join or work with young people to start a group that is fighting to end adultism. Choose this group wisely, and support it as much as you can. Create a adult movement against adultism: start a dialogue group to examine cultural attitudes about young people, start an adults’ anti-adultism group, bring workshops and trainings into schools and workplaces throughout your community. Check in with your local youth center for resources and support.
  • Explore Youth Studies. Explore how adultism-free societies have worked (pre-Victorian Europe).
  • Recognize That Adultism Affects Everyone. Adultism is culture’s insistence that people have to follow certain “rules” about how they should act, based on their age. (Children are “supposed” be ignorant about politics and youth are “supposed” to act “rebellious.”) Adultism also tells us how both young people and adults should think and feel.
  • Give Your Time. Volunteer for organizations working to adultism. Get further training on how to be an effective adult ally. Know that most youth centers and community organizations are funded exclusively through grants and donations. Support their work in whatever ways you can. 
  • Be An Ally. Don’t be afraid to call yourself ally of youth – but let them call you that first. We are all adultist (and sexist and racist and homophobic) even if we are oppressed. If you think your colleagues or friends will ridicule you for saying that you are a youth ally then maybe you should educate them next. 
  • Stop Your Discrimination. Don’t listen to adultist music or read adultist literature anymore – its just not okay. If you’re not sure if the words are adultist or think that maybe it is “just a joke” try imagining that all the references to age are references to race or gender, and see if the song would be racist or sexist, or try imagining the age roles reversed in the lyrics.
  • Look In The Mirror. Realize that if you are an adult you have privilege in this society. All of your opinions are based on the life you have lived as an adult. Young people do not have the privileges we do. Approach adultism as an adult issue involving adults of all ages and socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds. View adults as empowered bystanders who can confront adultist peers. Have the courage to look inward. Question your own attitudes. Don’t be defensive when something you do or say ends up hurting a young person. Try hard to understand how your own attitudes and actions might inadvertently perpetuate adultism and work toward changing them.
  • Acknowledge Your Role. Say you’re sorry when you realize that you’ve been acting adultist. Be sensitive to young people when they tell you that they is afraid or hurt or enraged because of all the adultism in the world. Don’t tell them that they are acting like victims or just “looking for it.” Young people know when they are the object of hate or ridicule because of their age – they aren’t stupid. Assume the best of young people.
  • Speak out. You may or may not ever have noticed adultism in progress before, but now you will. There are many, many opportunities to challenge the attitudes and behaviors that are part of the larger adultist culture. When you see discrimination, intervene. When you hear jokes about adultism don’t laugh, and explain why it’s not funny. Write letters to magazines that promote images of young people as incapable or less-than-human objects. Support laws that protect young people from discrimination and help them successfully address adultism. If a co-worker, friend, classmate, or teammate is adultist don’t look the other way. If you feel comfortable doing so, try to talk to her about it. Or if you don’t know what to do, consult a friend, a parent, a professor, or a counselor. Silence = Complicity.
  • Challenge and Interrupt Adultist Remarks and Jokes. Simply saying, “That’s adultist and I don’t think it’s funny,” or, “I think those words are really hurtful,” or not laughing when we’re “expected” to, are both effective confrontations. Daring to speak out takes courage and becomes easier with practice. 
  • Work Against All Forms of Oppression. Adultism, discrimination against women, sexism, racism, heterosexism, and homophobia – all forms of oppression are linked, and we cannot end one without challenging them all. Challenge yourself to grow every day, and know that every prejudice we hold injures others and limits our experience.
  • Create A New Adulthood. Be brave enough to openly value equity between young people and adults. Use your strength and privilege in the service of justice. Live your potential without harming others. Celebrate the construction of a new adulthood that does not depend on the dehumanization of young people. Find others who share your vision. You are not alone.
  • Teach Your Children Well. Mentor and teach children and youth about how adults can behave in ways that don’t involve discriminating against or degrading young people. Lead by example.
  • Organize Or Join A Group Of Adults Fighting Adultism. Organize or join a group of adults dedicated to the above. One adult, alone, won’t end the adultism that permeates our society. But there is strength in numbers, and when we put our voices and energies together, we become a group truly able to make change.
These are just the first steps that I have identified tonight. What would you add to this list?

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker, writer, trainer, researcher and advocate who researches, writes and shares about education, youth, and history.

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