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, 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.



Blogger Shari said...

My 21-year-old nephew recently joined the military and is now stationed in Iraq. While he is luckily assigned to medical supply, he is definitely getting some harsh lessons in reality. He's also been using Facebook to let his friends and family know all about those lessons. I confess, I've been pretty condescending and jaded about the "revelations" he's had (not that I've told him that mind you) - feeling a bit smug with my I-remember-when-I-thought-I-knew-it-all attitude. Thanks for the reminder to get off my high horse and have some compassion for what he's doing through. He may not be a teenager anymore, but he's still grappling with a lot of new life experiences.

May 15, 2009 at 9:48 PM  
Anonymous Deanna said...

I know just what you mean. My mother died suddenly the day before I turned 16 and the thing I remember most is hearing people say how 'well I was taking it' when I was dying inside myself.

June 2, 2009 at 2:58 AM  
Blogger Margaret Pevec. MA said...

We know so much...and so little as adults. Things slip out of our mouths, even when we have the best intentions of checking our adultism at the door. Humility is a great thing to keep in mind. I think if an adult had said something like, "You must be devastated by your brother's there anything I can do?" I probably would have broken down into great sobbing tears, which is just what I needed to do. But, so often, adults sit atop their high horses, just as Shari mentioned. Our society prepares us that way. Once childhood is behind us we are quite happy to leave it there.

June 2, 2009 at 7:33 AM  
Anonymous TeenMama said...

This is a beautiful post. It also points out a real irony: the adults who don't try to cover up their frailties, the ones who teens identify with and see like themselves, are the ones teens are most likely to listen to.

May 24, 2010 at 8:15 PM  
Blogger Margaret Pevec. MA said...

I agree. I never knew any adults who shared their honesty about life with me, but I think that's what teens want most from adults, and don't get. I turned off everything my mom had to say at about age 13 because all she could manage was to express her fears about me. I think it would have been so much more effective if she had shared her experiences.

May 25, 2010 at 1:17 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

I know the attitude. I get so sick of it. Thanks for documenting this.

So many times I made the utmost effort to be calm, reasonable, and make well thought points with an adult only to hear 'shut up, you're (insert age here), what do you know?'

November 26, 2010 at 6:05 AM  

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