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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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: http://www.rc.org/), 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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