Adultism: A Well-Kept Secret

Adultism is the term used to describe the oppression of young people by adults. An article by John Bell included this definition: “…adultism refers to behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon young people without their agreement. This mistreatment is reinforced by social institutions, laws, customs, and attitudes.”

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Mothering Teens

Along with my personal experience as a teenager, I have also raised four teens, who are now between the ages of 27 and 34. I got a few things right, mostly on the "responsiveness" end of things. I never could see my children as possessions, probably because of the Kahlil Gibran poem from "The Prophet" which went straight to my heart the first time I heard it. Here it is:

On Children

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which
you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves
also the bow that is stable.

This poem, to me, epitomizes the role of parent to teenagers, and warns against adultism. It is not our job to mold children. It is our job to nurture, provide emotional and material support and to share our experiences when asked. They have their own journeys to take, their own mistakes to make, their own challenges to overcome.

At no other time in history has the line, "For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams" been more true. Children today inhabit a world that is changing so rapidly that adults can't keep up. Since ancient times adults have bemoaned the young, expecting disaster at each turning. But, generation after generation finds their way.

When I was in the thick of mothering my children as teenagers, this line always made me cry, "Let your bending in the Archer's hand be for gladness; For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable." I felt pretty bent, and really afraid, but I also had a lot of faith that my resilient children would find their way with or without me. They have, and I learn and grow from their example every day.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My Story

Part of my passion about adultism comes from my own childhood. I was raised in rural NE Ohio, granddaughter of Slovenian immigrants. We lived on five acres, at least three of which were wooded and adjoining other undeveloped lands. My two older brothers and I (and other neighborhood kids) had tremendous freedom to roam and explore the natural world. I remember having my first picnic in the woods, sitting atop a huge rock with my best friend Tommy, sharing Kool Aid and sandwiches, when I was 5 years old. I’m sure our respective grandmothers were keeping an eye on us, but as far as I was concerned, we were alone. There was a silent message from those two grandmothers: we think you’re capable, we trust you.

My mom and I were always close, but sadly, by the time I reached junior high, I had already decided I couldn’t talk to her about the stressful things that were going on in my life: my developing body and budding sexuality, being overweight, hating to be naked for gym showers, the overwhelming changes of going from my small elementary school to the bigger junior high in town. I wanted to wear nylons and tennis shoes year round; she wanted me in sensible shoes and socks. I thought I needed a bra; she didn’t notice. I was in love with the sexy boy from the next township over. She thought he was a hoodlum (she was right).

Now I know my brain was taking it’s second growth spurt and that my thinking had become more complex. I could tell that my mom didn’t have the answers I needed. I knew her opinions were static, unyielding. Furthermore, no one talked to their parents in those days (the 60’s). The culture did not support closeness of the sort I had in my younger years with my mom. She and I lived in two separate worlds. Hers was the world of adults, the “know it all” beings who were in control and had all the answers. Mine was the world of young people, who didn’t. She was pretty much oblivious to what was happening in my life, and I liked it that way. Our patterns of non-relating lasted well into my adulthood.

Young people have a lot to teach adults, and adults have lots of experience to share with young people. But adults can’t know the truth of the younger generation, because it is always changing. The saddest result of adultism in my life, and the lives of many other teenagers, is that I didn’t have my mom as an ally when I needed her the most. I simply couldn’t trust her to respect me as an individual.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Why "Adultism"?

Usually when I mention the word adultism, the response is total surprise, "I've never heard that word before!" Several days ago someone then followed with, "Why adultism? Why not adolescentism?" That was off the top of her head. Adultism doesn't just refer to the oppression of adolescents, but of all young people solely due to their age. Her comment got me thinking again about the word itself.

I wrote my master's thesis on parent/adolescent communication through the lens of adultism in 2005. At that time I did an extensive literature review on adultism. Sadly, there was only one article that actually used the word itself. It was by Jack Flasher in 1978. [Flasher, J. (1978). Adultism. Adolescence, 13(51), 517-523.] I searched a number of academic databases and googled his name several times, but couldn't find any other work on adultism or any other subject by Jack Flasher. I'm wondering if he may have coined the term.

Three other academic authors used the word "childism" in their writings: one in 1975, one in 1988 and one in 2000. Apparently that term did not stick.

The first time I encountered the term "adultism" was in Re-evaluation Counseling (also known as RC or Co-Counseling:, where I received a solid grounding in the theory around youth oppression. RC is a grass roots, international organization that teaches an effective form of peer counseling. By inviting members to share their experiences in writing via published journals, RC has collected a body of information about adultism that, I'm guessing from my research, probably surpasses any in existence.

It continually amazes me that adultism is virtually unknown, although the tide of understanding is growing. When I did my thesis two years ago, a Google search on the word "adultism" resulted in 3000 hits. Earlier this year I did that search again and got 24,000; an increase of 800%. Wikipedia now has an extensive entry on adultism. Eventually it will become a household word.

One more thought: the "oppression" words, like classism, racism and sexism, all have as their root the word around which the oppression revolves. For example, racism is oppression based on race. "Ageism" is the word that is supposed to refer to any oppression based on age. However, in both popular and academic usage, ageism has come to mean the oppression of older adults. There seem to be another class of oppression words springing up that refer to the oppression of more specific groups of individuals. "Heterosexism." for example, refers to behaviors that belie the assumption that everyone is heterosexual. Similarly, adultism describes an attitude that adults are superior in all ways to young people. And that's why I think adultism is a good term.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

I'm back

I'm afraid I've been thinking about blogging like I think about polished article writing...hence the lack of entries on this blog. I'm going to make a concerted attempt to change that and just spend a little time, several times a week, writing here.

This summer, at the Boulder Farmer's Market, I was sitting on a bench, enjoying the day. The Balloon Man was there and I was watching him make balloons for the kids. A family came by: a mom, grandmother and two toddlers, obviously twins, in a double-stroller. The mom asked the Balloon Man to make an animal for each kid, it didn't matter what animal. The kids were silent, watching, no smiles, no obvious curiosity, not struggling to get out of the stroller, not looking around. As soon as the first animal was finished and delivered to one of the children, without a second's hesitation, both the mother and grandmother bent down near the stroller and said, "Say thank you." and they both said it again, at least twice, in rapid succession. Before this non-curious child, who had never asked or indicated in any way that he wanted a balloon animal had even a second to look at this toy, or to feel any sense of joy or appreciation, two adults were insisting he make the rote and automatic response we all expect, "Thank you."

I have thought a great deal about how adults stop children from feeling their anger, their sadness, and their unbridled joie d'vivre in inappropriate places and moments (in a library, a classroom, a museum, a grocery store...essentially anywhere except possibly a playground designed for children). But this is the first time I have thought about how we so quickly intervene before they have a chance to feel appreciation or gratitude.

A few minutes later a teenage boy, maybe 16, came up and said to the balloon man, with joy on his face, "I remember you! You made a balloon for me 7 or 8 years ago. I loved that balloon until it broke!!"

Feelings are an important part of being human, in fact, perhaps the most important part. Encouraging young people to feel their feelings and to express them is one way we allow their natural humanness to shine. Telling them how they should feel is adultism.

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