When Youth Internalize Adultism

“Respect: You give it, you get it.” While its not as easy as simply repeating old adages, respect boils down to a relationship built on mutuality, inter-reliance, and reciprocity. 

Looking for and getting the respect of adults oftentimes leads young people to become more like adults, assuming the mannerisms, appearance, and even the identity of adults. This happens in a few different ways, depending on which adults a young person is surrounded by. It may mean sex at a young age, drinking, drug use,  or other kinds of self-demeaning behavior. Other ways young people assume the identities of adults are through more “socially acceptable” behaviors, such as the clothes, apparent attitudes, and actions of adults. Joining the debate club or football team, driving in “just the right way,” and other self-sacrificial behavior are examples. This is not an indictment of those behaviors, necessarily; instead, its an observation that all of these activities are forms of internalized adultism. 

Trainer Paul Kivel explores this dynamic, writing, “There were lots of promises from adults. If you study hard, workhard, stay clean, stay safe, don’t have sex, don’t drink or smoke,don’t mess up, adults promised you a life filled with power and privileges. But the promise of power 10 or 20 years in the futurewas not inviting nor convincing.” So assuming the rights and privileges of adults when you’re young is self-perceived as a way to exert your power; unfortunately, the reality is that by doing these things you are actually giving up your power as a youth!

The alternative to internalized adultism isn’t obvious, because the traps are all around. You get good grades and you’re facetiously praised in a way no adult would praise another adult; you get bad grades and you’re punished for underperforming. As John Lennon said, “As soon as you’re born they make you feel small…”  

So what’s the different route? Well, for adults who don’t want to promote internalized adultism we must be our own most severe critic. Harder still, we must be aware of every criticism of children and youth, as they are almost always rooted in the oppressive behaviors of adults and related to adultism. It’s as simple as my daughter complaining she can’t reach the sink in our new house. Why do we constantly build sinks at “adult” height, despite the fact that homes are clearly built with kids and adults intended to live there? So listen for those criticisms, and make adjustments as necessary: a stool will help my daughter reach the sink, and I can leave a cup in the bathroom so she can help herself easily all the time.

For young people the route is more complicated, because once you are aware of the oppression of adultism and the addiction to adultism it is challenging to not see it everywhere all the time, because it is everywhere, all the time. And the real zinger is that in just a few years, you are going to be an adult, too! There is a particular type of compassion that I’ve experienced from the most conscious youth. They approach me with a kind open-mindedness, and urge me to a greater version of myself than I’d known before. This most recently happened to me in Connecticut, where the Manchester Youth Commission hosted me for a three-day retreat. The young people in who were there were determined to make wonderful meaning of the experiences they were having in their youth voice activities; however, the adults who were there were as ignorant as every adult – including me! Luckily, with the young people as our guides we started to see the world from new lenses, and the group grew because of it. 

Alternatively, there are young people who discover adultism, either consciously or unconsciously, and detach as a result. They step away, move away, and even run away in order to find safety, peace, and ease. While this happens in obvious ways, it also happens in more subtle ways: for every young person living on the streets tonight, there are 50 at home zoning out inside of video games. I believe this is a direct effect of internalized adultism, as are many of the behaviors I listed at the beginning. 

Children and youth routinely internalize adultism throughout our society; this is why we have a crisis of purpose throughout our society. The most responsible adults believe their responsibility is to steward young people towards a powerful, purposeful, and dynamic future; the most irresponsible believe they must control the uncontrolled and benefit from their so-called inabilities. The painful reality is that all adults are responsible for adultism, thus leading to the crisis. We must find a different way.


CommonAction staff is available to train on Adultism and much more. 
Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360)489-9680.





One comment

  1. I have just spent 10 days with 33 9th graders and 8 adults on a visit to share cultures with Hopi and Navajo youth and adults. Coming back I am overwhelmed with trying to sort out the adultism rampant on this otherwise awesome trip. But, as you say, it is everywhere. What's up for me is a deeper connection to my own wide spirit as a teenager and how that got stomped. Also, how hard it is to maintain an anti-adultism stance when adult expectations are that you will readily accept the typical adultist attitudes. I failed, but not entirely. One of the 9th graders thanked me for treating her differently. Perhaps not being as blatant. This is a good post. I doubt that I will be able to figure adultism in this lifetime, but I won't stop trying. And I appreciate your fine thoughts and writing on the subject.

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