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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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sharing Our Stories With Young People

A new writer friend of mine, Tamara Palmer, has a terrific idea for a book called My First: A Collection of Real Life Stories From Real Life Women Who Were Once Your Age Too. She's designing it as a gift book for mom's to give to their 11-15 year old daughters, aunts to give to their nieces or gramas to give to their granddaughters. She envisions girls reading it together at slumber parties, and finding out that the things they're going through are normal and have been happening throughout the ages of women.

Tamara’s idea will stick to the safer topics like “first period,” “first bra,” “first kiss,” “first trip away from home,” but I love the concept. It’s empowering and anti-adultist when adults share their personal stories with younger people in a loving, human-to-human way, so the youth can extract the “takeaway message” on their own. The tone of personal story is so different than typical adult lectures, which often sound like the adult has done no wrong, has never succumbed to risky activities, and knows everything there is to know about living life the “right way.” It also builds a bond: “Here’s an adult I can trust because they understand what I’m going through from their own experience.”

In the research my co-author, Rhonda Richardson, conducted that led to our book, What Kids REALLY Want To Ask: Using Movies to Start Meaningful Conversations, she went right to 10-14 year olds to find out what topics were on their minds that they wished they could talk to their parents about. Her research posed the following to over 1200 middle schoolers: “If you could ask your mom or your dad one question and know you would get an honest answer, what question would you ask?” Many of their questions asked about a parent’s life experience when they were young. In the research done by the Search Institute on Developmental Assets with hundreds of thousands of young people in grades 6 through 12, only 1 in 4 said they have Asset #2: Positive Family Communication: “Kids turn to their parents for advice and support. They have frequent, in-depth conversations with each other on a variety of topics. Parents are approachable and available when kids want to talk.” I tuned out my mom when I was about 12, right when I needed her most, because I did not believe she had ever gone through what I was going through, and had nothing of value to communicate.

I’ve talked to parents who feel strongly that they shouldn’t share about their drug/alcohol use or their early sexual experiences with their teenagers, because it might come across as a license to repeat parental mistakes. I believe not sharing is adultist and a missed opportunity to demystify, normalize and illuminate a child’s path to adulthood.

Read more about Tamara’s project and find out how to share your own “firsts” by going to: and click on Call for Submissions.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Anti-Adultist Authors and Schools

One of the institutions most in need of raised awareness about adultism is our traditional public school system. And one of my favorite writers in that arena is John Taylor Gatto, teacher of the year in NYC and author of “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling” (1992). I remember how grateful I was when I first read his book many years ago for his clear articulation of how public schools fail our kids from his very personal, insider perspective. In his essay, “The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher,” he talks about how he was forced to teach confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and that one can’t hide (children are always watched)…all aspects of adultism.

Another writer who changed my life and my thinking profoundly around the same time as Gatto was Grace Llewellyn, who wrote “The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How To Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education.” Llewellyn’s book is written for teenagers to help them discover what they want to learn and how they can go about learning it away from school. She, standing on the shoulders of John Holt of the Unschooling movement, inspired me to find a way to stop supporting a system that was so damaging to my children (I was raising four teenagers at the time), and get behind them to help them pursue their own, unique and authentic vision for their lives.

If I could choose a school to propagate everywhere in the world, it would be Summerhill, established in 1921. Recently, Adam Fletcher wrote about this school on his blog. Summerhill has recently released a movie dramatization of how the students, teachers and staff took the British government to court to save their unique brand of education and won! You can watch all 12 episodes on YouTube. At Summerhill, children are allowed to choose what they learn, when they learn it and how they define success. The school is run democratically by thrice weekly meetings in which all participants, adults and children, have an equal voice. Their website is terrific, so go check it out.

I see change in our public school system, but the change is coming way too slowly for my taste. This morning at the gym I heard an excited young mom tell another that her child had learned to speak in sentences by her 2nd birthday! I shudder when I remember that as soon as that child goes to school, she will be forced to focus her attention where adults have decided she should. Her natural curiosity, though resilient, will be dimmed, as she tries to fit into the arbitary and abstract world we call school. She will be taught how to regurgitate information for tests, how to be still and quiet; subduing all that comes easily, and struggling with what comes hard. I look forward to the day when we can look back in horror at our current school system, and breathe a sigh of relief that we finally found the will to change it.

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