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.”

My Photo
Location: Boulder, CO, United States

see my blog entries

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Practicing Humility

Adults should have a whole lot more humility than they commonly display when dealing with young people, especially teenagers. The reason I’m thinking about this is that I’m reading “Name All the Animals” by Alison Smith. It’s a memoir about her experiences as a teenager after her brother died in a car accident in 1983. She lived in a Catholic community, her parents were Catholic and she went to a Catholic girls school. And, she got a modicum of support from the adults around her. In the first 2 years post tragedy, there were several instances in which an adult reached out to her or noticed that she was grieving. But mostly she was alone with her grief.

I was 16 when my brother died (he was 21, it was a suicide), I don’t recall any adult making an attempt to speak to me or to let me talk about the grief that I held inside. Like Allison, I walked around in a daze. I was the “girl who’s brother died” for awhile at school, a bit of notoriety which soon faded. I remember giving an oral report about mental illness in my health class…the teacher may have asked me how I was doing. But, my “okay” satisfied him that all was well. It wasn’t. My mother and stepfather were caught in the web of their own grief, I had no connection with any of my teachers. Grief counseling was unheard of. I was on my own.

As adults, many of us, especially those in authority over young people, go around acting like we have it all together. And we carefully nurture that idea when we’re with teenagers. They know it’s not true. They can see us leaking our griefs, our fears and uncertainties all over the place. They know that when we’re getting angry at them it has something to do with our insecurities about ourselves. But, we keep up the ruse…gamely pretending that adulthood confers wisdom. The only thing that adulthood confers is experience…more time in the trenches as a human being. How we use the experience and learn from it is up to each individual.

In my experience as a 16-year old I found few wise and kind adults. I had one teacher in four years of high school that seemed like a human being with desires and frailties like me. He had left his wife (rare in those days) in order to marry another woman. Somehow I knew he was in love…perhaps he shared a poem he had written, I don’t recall. But, he came to my house to offer his condolences after my brother died. He stood at the door and told me how sorry he was, that’s all. I was touched by that and I’ve never forgotten it.

The fact is, the majority of adults don’t know how to deal with hard stuff that happens or how to be helpful to teenagers who are going through something hard. And that’s why we should be humble and not act like we do.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Infiltrating the status quo with adultism

A high school student from South Dakota is sneaking the topic of adultism into a creative writing assignment! I heartily recommend this method of infiltrating the status quo. He asked the following questions and I (briefly) answered them. I don't have a lot of time because I'm currently in Ohio helping my mom pack up to move to Colorado with me.

Is adultism a problem in today’s society and why or why not?

Adultism is the next step in consciousness raising, treating young people as valued and important members of society and welcoming their ideas and perspectives. I think many young people are underchallenged because we do not value their input. Our schools are outmoded institutions that still replicate a method of learning that was suitable for producing the factory workers of the 20th century. This has to change. Especially since the world is becoming so complex and we need all the creative ideas we can get.

Why do so many people not know about adultism?

Because it is so generally practiced, it is the air we breathe, the paradigm of our life, it has always been thus... Most adults think it their right to treat young people disrespectfully; to treat them differently than they would other adults. Also, adults control all research. What adult is going to cop to the idea that they oppress young people and find ways to do the research and publish the articles that will make it clear to others? I did it, but it was a drop in the bucket. But I hope others will follow my lead and make adultism a common theme in social science research.

Where is adultism most prominent?

It is ubiquitous, but of course, since home and schools are the primary points of adult/youth interaction, these are places where adultism is most prevalent. In the home it is a tricky situation to educate about adultism, because parents do have a responsibility to support and protect their children. It requires a highly conscious individual to make sure their parenting is responsive to the child's growing sense of self mastery, and to respect the child to make decisions for him/herself, and support those decisions. There is a growing movement of consciousness in this area, but of course, change is slow.

Are there any people who are unaffected by adultism?

It is the earliest oppression and perpetrated on all. Some parents and some schools have found ways to make children equal partners in life and again, I think this is a growing trend.

Who is most likely to be affected by adultism?

We all are. Children are not supported and respected to contribute to adult society. Adults miss out on the unique perspectives and understandings of youth. Our societies suffer from this lack. For example, young people are natural, "out of the box" thinkers. They are not so hampered by habitual ways of seeing the world. However, their sometimes fantastic ideas are often dismissed by adults.

Can anything be done to get rid of adultism?

The more people who know about it, the more they can teach about it, the more it will change. Having one word to describe youth oppression is a big step forward. Getting more and more people aware of this will also make change.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, April 3, 2009

Your Invitation to Be Heard About Adultism

The following is a personal experience of adultism that was submitted recently on my website. I invite anyone who has a story from their current life or their past to submit your story or stories. They will eventually be published in a book about adultism. It is up to you whether you include your name or any identifying details. Your privacy, if you want it, will be totally respected and protected.

I am in my senior year of high school in South Dakota. One of my teachers, I’ll call her Mrs. X, recently accused me and my girlfriend of cheating on an essay test because we used our own paper instead hers. We were given the questions ahead of time, and we were accused of writing our answers together and bringing them to class. We explained that we did not cheat in any way, and told the teacher that we had gone to another teacher for advice on how to write a good essay on the upcoming test, and used that teacher’s advice. There was no way we could have written 2 essay answers in the 5 minutes we had after speaking to the other teacher. Mrs. X and two other teachers sat us down and said that our evidence didn’t matter, and that we were going to be punished. We went to our principal, and he became angry that we went to him. He had a discussion with Mrs. X, and we were later told that we weren't being accused of cheating but were being punished because we didn't follow directions and use Mrs. X's paper. When we said she never told us to use her paper, we were ignored and we had to take the test again or take a large point deduction on our first test. Our school record has a cheating incident on it with Mrs. X.

Have you ever been accused of cheating with no opportunity to be taken seriously when you denied it? Have you ever expected to be supported by an adult, and found out that in the case of adult vs. youth, the adult wins? Share your story here in comments or on my website.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, April 2, 2009

"Ageism" is not "Adultism"

I think it's really interesting that the word “ageism” is thought to mean any oppression based on age, and indeed, that may be the official definition of the term. I recently heard this perspective in a workshop I attended as we were brainstorming all the oppressions we knew. As usual, none of the adults present had ever heard the word “adultism” and thought “ageism” addressed all age-based oppressions. When I was doing research for my thesis in Family Studies in 2005, I checked through much of the “ageism” literature and found only a few cases where the word was used to include youth oppression. Doing a Google search on “ageism” also results in lots of articles about elder oppression. I’m glad we acknowledge that elders are disrespected, ignored, patronized…that is certainly true. However, we fail to acknowledge that young people are treated like this as well, and that a separate word has been coined and is being widely used to connote youth oppression.

My initial take on this is that all adults are anticipating ageism because we’re all aging and will reach a point in time where we too will be its victim. So, perhaps we are more sensitive to an oppression that we know is coming. However, our time as children and adolescents and our experience of adultism, since has not been named, may get buried as we get on with our lives.

I had a recent correspondence with a high school student who shared a personal story of adultism with me. When he asked some friends if they felt oppressed by adults, they said no. I suggested to him that talking about his recent experience and giving the oppression a name might change that. Once something is named, it is so much easier to talk about. Think about the term “sexism.” I’m quite sure I didn’t hear that word until I was well out of high school. Now, however, it is widely understood to mean the oppression of women by men. If I say, “that was a sexist remark,” most people would immediately understand what I mean. I think the word “adultism” needs to gain wide usage, so young people can use it to point out to each other and to the adults they interact with, their own experiences of oppression.

Why do you think adultism is such a well-kept secret?

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Sexting" Exposes Adultism

I started catching up with the teen “sexting” brouhaha today. One role of teenagers in a society is to shake up adult complacency and to test the limits of social behavior. This latest has certainly captured media attention. Nothing sells quite so well as teenagers and sex, does it? But you’ll never hear an adult commentator admitting that he wishes he were 16 again with a cell phone. Adults have a tendency to act as if young people live in a parallel universe that has nothing to do with them. We pretend to hold all the moral cards and pass judgment on the young from our ivory towers, even as we produce movies, TV shows and advertisements that expose our penchant for exploiting young, beautiful and sexy women.

Teens of all eras have been creative and innovative in tweaking adult sensibilities. In my high school and young adult years, free love was just getting started, pot was coming back from Viet Nam with young vets and making the rounds of ordinary kids, and music was starting to be more edgy than in previous generations. Heck, even Beatle haircuts were causing family feuds. The current “sexting” incidents are a spit in the eye to adults: you’ve created this technology, now we’re going to take it to the limit, push it in your face, see how far we can go.

I would feel a lot more comfortable about it if I knew that schools were providing comprehensive sexuality education to every teenager in the U.S., from 7th grade on and Sex Ed classes included lots and lots of discussion about relationships, identifying personal values and the sexual exploitation of girls in our culture. Since I know that our adultist society, by and large, feels compelled to withhold honest and thorough sexuality information from teenagers (we can't even talk openly about it ourselves), the idea of young high school girls sending nude photos of themselves to older teen boys is distressing because I don’t know if they understand the personal ramifications of their actions. For heaven sakes, they just need to know why sending a nude picture might come back to bite them later, and what adults who are into pornography might do with such a picture.

But, as usual, we are blaming the victims of our outdated ideas. I think it’s ridiculous to prosecute these young people as pornographers. If I were a prosecutor involved in one of these cases, I would indict the federal and local policies that prohibit comprehensive sexuality education about such an important and life-changing topic for human beings, a topic that adults need to become more comfortable in addressing.

Labels: , , , , ,