Adultism: What Is It and How Do We Avoid It?

“If we are to be successful in our work with young people, we have to tackle the pervasive existence of adultism. We use the word adultism to mean all those behaviors and attitudes which flow from the assumption that adults are better than young people and entitled to act upon young people in a myriad of ways without their agreement.”

- John Bell, Co-founder of YouthBuild, USA

The Academy for Educational Development’s Center for Youth Development and Policy Research has assembled a basic primer that outlines some of the ways in which we understand adultism.

There are several basic assumptions that underlie adultism:

  • Youth are troublesome and hence adults need to deter and correct youth’s problems and stop youth from “acting out”
  • Youth are poor investments because they offer little to society
  • Youth do not desire to become contributing members of society
  • Youth do not care about their community

These assumptions have several effects on society:

  • We hold lower expectations for youth and expect them to fail or just subsist
  • We fail to provide youth with the resources and opportunities to participate
  • We fail to empower youth to make full use of their skills

Adultism can take several forms, independently or all at once, which are important to recognize as we try to achieve a positive developmental environment for youth. That is to say that in order to encourage youth we need to make sure that we are not subconsciously or overtly suppressing youth.

To combat all forms of adultism, youth workers and e-mentors can adopt a set of alternate “caring behaviors” which mitigate the impact of adultism in their interactions with youth:

Form of Adultism Alternate

Caring

Behavior

Alternate

Caring

Actions

Dysfunctional Rescuing:

Helping young people on the assumption that they cannot help themselves or helping youth in such a way that limits their ability to help themselves. The result is that young people are ultimately set up to fail.

Functional

Helping

- Resist doing things for youth that

they can do themselves

- Provide clear and constructive

feedback that notes positive

behaviors as well as areas for

improvement

- Engage youth as partners in

formulating plans to improve their

lives or behaviors

Blaming the Victim:

Attributing the behavioral problems of young people solely to the youth themselves, without considering that many young people have grown up in poverty, in dangerous neighborhoods, in inferior schools and among adults who don’t care about them. The result is that young people don’t get the adult support they need.

Taking

Responsibility

- Take responsibility for

determining how to judge youth

- Define how your own thoughts

and behaviors contribute to a

situation

- Do not degrade the concerns or

issues of youth

- Do not assess youth by using the

standards of your group

Avoiding Contact:

The lack or regular social or professional contact with young people and the lack of effort to learn about youth and the environments in which they live. The result is that adults create programs based on their own needs, and not the interests of young people.

Making Contact - Make an effort to learn about the

lives and concerns of youth

- Make an effort to get to know and

personally interact with youth

- Be willing to change your

perceptions to fit your new

experiences

Denial of Differences:

Age differences are assumed to be merely superficial. The consequence is that young people are denied the opportunity to bring their own beliefs, skills or lifestyles into settings.

Recognition and

Appreciation of

Differences

- Grant equal respect to youth, but

learn to distinguish differences in

their world views, communication

patterns, issues of concern, etc.

- Do not assess youth using the

standards of your group

- Do not assume you understand

youth; do not assume youth are like

you

Denial of

Oppression:

A lack of understanding or denial of the social, political and economic realities of young people. It also involves discounting the fact that young people are not treated “as equals” or “as real people” in many of the settings where they live on a daily basis.

Recognition

and

Understanding

of the

Significance

of Oppression

- Seek knowledge about the

political, social and economic

realities of youth

- Avoid depending on a sole or

select source(s) of information

- Develop critical thinking skills

- Recognize that the personal

experiences of youth constitute a

valid source of knowledge

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