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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Friday, December 3, 2010

Invading the Personal Space of Young People

The following was submitted to my website by Jessica M. from Ireland. I have a space there for people to share their stories of adultism. (please visit it at:

An example of adultism I experienced and still feel strongly about is physical touch. As a child I remember adults seemed to think it was okay to openly touch me, hug me, or play with my hair, even if I didn't know them. I think the assumption was that if you're young, you don't understand boundaries, so they don't have to worry about overstepping boundaries with a young person. I have mild Asperger's symptoms and one of them is a strong aversion to touch. Being a child at the time, I didn't really know how to handle the behaviour except by recoiling or saying loudly and defiantly "I don't like being touched!" I was called "rude" and told they were just being friendly; that the appropriate response was to smile politely. I find that ironic, since if anyone behaved like that to an adult, it would be the person doing the touching who would be called rude and the adult would be quite within their rights to refuse the unwanted touch. Yet because I was a child I was expected to tolerate the behaviour and smile about it. My mother, to her credit, explained that it was okay to refuse physical touch but that I should do it in a calm and polite way, such as "Excuse me but I don't like being touched unless it's by someone I know well."

I also had teachers at school behave in this overly familiar way. They would casually take hold of my arm or even mess with my hair, and would act very shocked and concerned when I refused their touching. At one school there was actually a list of students' rights, one of them being "to refuse unwanted touches." Yet they didn't like it if I said I didn't like being touched and acted as if I were being rude just for asserting basic boundaries.

I still feel angry when recalling these incidents. They were the adults, I was the child, yet I was the one expected to tolerate their inappropriate behaviour, because they were adults therefore it was okay.

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Anonymous Gail Storey said...

Margaret, what a thoughtful post,and one I take to heart. I notice that many adults bring their children to gatherings, and the kids send out varied signals about the degree to which they want to relate to the friends of their parents. Thank for raising our consciousness about this.

December 3, 2010 at 8:21 PM  
Anonymous jerrie hurd said...

Took a moment--actually several reads of the blog--to get with the idea of ADULTISM. Got it. I think you're onto something here. I'm learning. Thanks.

December 12, 2010 at 4:53 PM  
Blogger Margaret Pevec. MA said...

Adultism is insidious, and, since adults rule the world, goes largely unnoticed. But young people are getting wiser and wiser, and I expect a revolution soon. The bottom line is that age does not necessarily equal wisdom.

December 13, 2010 at 10:37 AM  
Anonymous Melanie Mulhall said...


Yikes! This is a good reminder to be respectful of everyone--regardless of age or any other characteristic. Innocent behavior is not disrespectful but adult behavior can be.

Thanks for the post.

Melanie Mulhall

February 8, 2011 at 3:24 PM  

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