Silencing Youth

One of the ways adultism affects young people is through silencing. Silencing youth happens when adults take away the ability of young people to speak. This happens directly, such as when adults tell youth to be quiet or take away their instruments for communication. It also happens indirectly, like when youth are seeking adult approval and adults don’t offer it.

As adults, we routinely abuse the trust, admiration, and acceptance young people bestow in us through silencing. Sometimes we consciously do this, and other times its by accident. In my many capacities working with youth over my 20+ year career, I often silenced youth inadvertently and on purpose. When I ran a youth center in a suburban American city in the late 1990s, a group of young teens asked if they could make a newspaper using the youth center’s resources. Without asking my boss or even taking stock of what they were asking for, I quickly dismissed them and said no. I automatically assumed there would be nothing good to come of their work, and didn’t value what they were going to say enough to investigate further.

All young people experience sincere silencing, simply because of their age. That is the effect of adultism in our society. However, its well documented that low-income youth and youth of color are disproportionately affected by silencing. Their voices are routinely and systematically eliminated from many conversations, frequently through the error of omission, but even more often through crass determination and blind segregation.

Sometimes activities that are intended to engage youth voice can have the reverse effect. Channeling the conversation and discourse young people naturally have into adult-approved topics with adult-approved youth can stifle, negate, or otherwise show disapproval of youth. This can have the effect of chilling or ending youth voice. This goes back to my earlier writing about convenient and inconvenient youth voice.

Suppose that adults in schools are led to believe that when students scrawl negative things about their teachers on lockers or desks, they don’t mean it. Young people, then, will not be understood by adults to be sharing feedback about teaching, even when they are. If certain types of feedback to adults in schools are acceptable when others are not, adults become the people who determine when youth voice is valid and when it is not. This silences youth and reinforces for them- and adults- that adults are the only worthy arbitrators of youth voice. Sharing feedback about the situations they’re in is a speech act, a way of doing something with words. Adults undermine youth voice when we take away the ability of young people to use their voices by calling them wrong, incorrect, or insincere. This is actively silencing youth.

We passively silence youth when we take away their access to the vocabulary to express their claims. This is done when adults (and youth) eschew the language of adultism, instead flattening the experience of youth and adults by addressing age discrimination against youth as ageism. It also happens when youth organizations don’t teach youth workers the language of youth voice. It may not be intentional or assertive, but its still has the effect of silencing youth.

Through this type of conditioning, and others, young people sometimes learn to embrace silencing and use it as a weapon to fight back at adultism and oppression in general. There’s a power in silence that we can call upon ourselves, within ourselves, and for ourselves. However, that same power cannot be forced onto another. When exerted with indiscretion, silencing youth is a tool of oppression that denies young people their natural abilities and takes away from them further developing their capabilities.

There are lots of purposes for silence in communication; if we want to be adult allies to young people we should be aware of what our intent, affect, and effect is when we’re quiet.

Here are some ways adults silence youth:

  • Ignoring youth voice that makes us uncomfortable 
  • Believing stereotypes of youth
  • The silent treatment
  • Censorship
  • Graffiti bans
  • Forced spiritual practices
  • Compulsory education
  • Taking away cell phones, iPods, and other handheld tech
  • Taking away computer use or the Internet
  • Rerouting youth conversations from topics adults are uncomfortable with back to familiar grounds
  • Stifling political speech
  • No votes under 18
  • No right to banking under 18
  • Stopping creative expression
  • Managing types of challenges presented by youth
  • Youth councils
  • Curfews
  • Traditional youth leadership activities
  • Punish political expression
  • Punishing student expression on the Internet
  • Telling kids not to tattle
  • Encouraging kids to tell us things they’ve heard
  • Ending cultural studies in a school district
  • Corporal punishment
  • Yelling at young people
Does youth voice make adults uncomfortable? Absolutely. Is it okay to silence youth, ever? No. Imagining a world with uninhibited youth voice makes many adults shudder. That’s not their problem- its ours. Adults need to deal with our limited capacity to listen to youth, and not expect young people to limit their capacity in order to appease us.

This list could become inexhaustibly long. Share your thoughts in the comments and add ways that adults silence youth! 

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