Adultism teaches us from the youngest years that just because a person is young they must restrain, refrain and kowtow to older people around them. This is a taught relationship that is instilled by parents, reinforced by families and friends, and enforced by preschool and school, all the way through graduation. Customs, culture, tradition and heritage are passed between generations this way; the abuse of this norm is rampant though, with the legacies of corporal punishment, age discrimination and ineffectual parenting and educational techniques choking the joy, freedom and power out of children and youth before they ever have a chance to any to their fullest extent.
My six-year-old daughter is at the point in her life where she is reverential to older children. I have seen the third, forth and fifth graders she sees at her school fascinate her; her reactions to youth older than that as being similar to her reactions to adults. Without bowing in front of anyone, she defers to older kids’ opinions and beliefs oftentimes. I think there is an amount of this that is normal and even good; but somewhere along the way the practice goes awry. We are taught from a very young age that when it comes to age, respect means servility and obedience. There are a few of us who kick that, challenging the status quo with individual and social activism and trying to defeat the oppressive mechanisms throughout our lives. But in reality that is a very small percentage, and even the fighters are still entrapped and enmeshed, slowly perpetuating the negativity that we weren’t aware we were perpetuating in the first place. I don’t want that for my daughter, and I don’t want that for myself; in our society it feels like there is an amount of that that’s inevitable.
The myth of adult power is one that is reinforced throughout society. When I wrote about adultcentrism on Wikipedia a few years ago there were few references to the concept anywhere online. I had to constantly pull information from libraries and Google Books. Now the word is becoming more commonly used, and as I’ve written about before, it needs to go further. The awareness of the ever-present adult-driven decision-making throughout society – in homes, schools, places of worship, community agencies, youth-serving organizations – has led to a stagnation of purpose and belonging, and even a decline. We need young people to claim those spaces, not as their own but as members of the larger communities they belong to. Adultcentrism is the enemy of that concept.
Adultcentism relies on adultocracy – the rulership of adults based simply on age – to enforce it’s power. Adultocracy is expressed most overtly in the publicly elected officials and government supporting their activities; the police and judicial systems in place to enforce laws; and the military and public schools that imply authority and enforce common alignment with social, cultural and economic standards. It also glares in less formal institutions such as families and social structures like friendships. I’ve been in many conversations where people argue adultocracy is the outcome of a capitalist economy, and I don’t disagree with them many days. However, there are times when I believe that the myth of adult power, including adultism, adultcentricism and adultocracy, is perpetuated merely because of the fear of youth, or ephebiphobia.
Whatever the causes may be, I believe that as ethical youth and adults it’s our responsibility to be aware of how we perpetuate the myth of adult power. As an adult living intensely in our society, and with the intention of defeating adultism, I believe I have the ethical duty of sharing responsibility, power, knowledge, opportunity, resources, and anything else I can with young people. What is your charge?