Adultism

On January 20 TAG hosted a training entitled “Adultism Vs. Youth Voice” as  the first in a series of BIPOC youth led professional development workshops. The following is a reflection by one of the youth presenters.

by Maya Ashe

Before knowing anything about a person, it is almost a universal guarantee that adultism has played a role in their lives. “Adultism” isn’t a term we hear too often so how does one know whether or not they’ve been affected by this phenomenon? Adultism can be seen in situations ranging from a teacher demanding respect from a rowdy classroom to alienating coworkers based on their age or lack of experience. This article will cover a general overview of adultism and hopefully spark an interest to break down these prejudices in your own life.

What Exactly Is Adultism?

Adultism is the power adults hold over those younger than themselves— it is not always exclusive to children. But just how exactly does adultism take form? Adultism is a learned practice. It is passed down from generation to generation. The common saying “respect your elders” has taken root as a sacred tradition in families and social courtesy, but it also happens to serve as a foundation for adultism. 

The wisdom we carry has been used as a source of guidance for centuries. Now it’s adultist?”

The above statement was posed as a counterargument to the subject of adultism and its impact on youth voice. While adultism isn’t as extreme a systemic issue, it’s still a major problem that needs to be addressed. What adults deem as guidance often restricts a young person’s growth and creativity. 

Age equals wisdom. Wisdom requires the fee of respect. Children are taught this principle from a young age, and it takes form in their everyday lives. Common examples of this principle would be in children exerting their Age Acquired Wisdom onto younger siblings or even turning a blind eye to open discrimination by a teacher towards a student in a learning space because the adult’s word is law. So it doesn’t matter if you see a classmate as young as 9, being ridiculed and abused daily. A child has internalized the idea that while this behavior may be incorrect, so long as they aren’t the child on the receiving end of the abuse, then surely they must be doing something right.

Author Maya Ashe stands wearing a green graduation cap and gown and holds her diploma with National Honors Society recognition.

I think you’ve mistaken our desire to protect you for the idea of oppressive acts…

Here we have another byproduct of adultism— the need and expectation to be completely in charge. Let’s dissect the issues with that mindset.

While an adult’s intentions are, more often than not, pure, there is a real problem with this expectation. Adults strive to protect us as our guardians, but historically speaking, positions of power are most susceptible to corruption and being a parent, teacher, or mentor is no exception. 

A pile of embossed certificates and awards given to the author.

My own parents admitted to imbuing my sister and I with a “healthy fear” of their authority as we were growing up, implying that being terrified of bringing home marks less than the upper 90th percentile was something that was normal. I suppose, though, that this wasn’t something out of the ordinary back then. I was surrounded by peers whose parents had more or less of the same philosophy. 

What’s the product of this “healthy fear”, one might ask. At 12, even though I had more than a few gray hairs, I told myself that there was good method to the madness that was the system of healthy fear. Weighing my options, it seemed that I was a perfectly obedient child, and I was, but in reality, I was forced to perfection, spiraling when things didn’t go according to plan, working myself to an eventual burnout, both mentally and emotionally.

Recently I was accepted into Emory University but I wasn’t nearly as excited as my family was. In fact, I wasn’t excited at all to have gotten into my top choice. I was always told that because I was such a good student— one that had been forced to be perfect under threat of punishment— I could get into any school in the country. It hadn’t occurred to me until recently that these accomplishments will never truly feel like they belong to me. What other choice was presented to me other than straight As and a perfect resume?

My parents have always meant well, wanting to give me life experiences and the expectation to always succeed as a black girl in America— and I am grateful for that, but I am in no way, unscarred by my journey. Just as much as I am thankful I have been led down this path, I have to wonder what would have happened if my parents hadn’t pushed me down it so aggressively.

Is there a way to formally assess the adulist bias in programming and organization structure?

The short answer is no. There aren’t workshops that teachers can attend on the weekends or instruction manuals that parents can read. While this is a very serious issue, the only solution is to address the problem on a personal level. There are so many things that young people are going through and this system of adult’s being the all knowing figures in our lives only silences our voice, creating an environment where directives are given and the youth begrudgingly follows along whether it be damaging, or makes them uncomfortable, or whatever they may be feeling.

The first step is acknowledging the damage that has been done, while it in no way encapsulates all youth, I’ve determined that there are two categories in which our youth fall on this spectrum.

There’s the first category: the “good case.” I happen to fall into this group of young people who were entrusted with expectation by the adults in their lives and uplifted to fulfill said expectation. In short, these young people can be labeled as the “good” or “gifted” kids. They are often treated only as a statistic and their mentality will reflect that in various ways (burnout, mental health problems, issues with identity/individuality, etc.) And often, while caused by adults who perpetuated their lifestyles, often they are left to resolve these issues (or not) on their own. I was left in a dark place for a long time, and I was able to overcome my feelings of worthlessness but I don’t have the adults in my life to thank for that. It had been made clear to me and a lot of my peers that our voices would go unheard. We were only meant to succeed— to be perfect.

The children who weren’t didn’t fit into the mold of smartest or even just average fell into the “other” category.  Concepts in the classroom weren’t easy for them to grasp and it was at this point that there was a disconnect. It’s so easy to mistake a child’s genuine lack of understanding with trouble or unruliness, and it is through this way of thinking that we lose so many black and brown students.

These students of color are given up on early in life and they internalize this fact just as well as a gifted child internalizes their expectation. After one teacher writes them off as the “bad student,” this is the start of the toxic trend that is difficult to resolve and is the leading factor of the school to prison pipeline.

A blue Emory University packet and acceptance letter into Oxford College for the author.

What Can We Do to Combat This?

As an adult, it’s difficult to accept or even understand how common actions you take as an adult for the well-being of young people could be damaging. Establishing a mutual understanding and respect with your young people is one way to prevent a toxic environment. 

The range of its effects are far reaching and I only skimmed the surface. Even if the above scenarios don’t apply to you or other adults in your life, if you are in a position closely associated with young people, take care to make sure you are giving your youth a voice. More than anything, a young person wants their voice to be heard and acknowledged. We understand that adults are there to guide and protect us, but taking steps to treat us as people rather than children and there being a genuine desire to change are steps that can be taken to breaking down this barrier between young people and adults.

Please join us for the remainder of our sliding scale BIPOC youth led workshops here.

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