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Addressing Adultism: A form of Ageism in Empowering Youth

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

man smiling while helping young boy with homework

Adultism is an aspect of ageism that refers to behaviors and attitudes towards young people that are based on the assumption that adults know better than young people. Adultism is often seen in decision making. Young people are told what to do and what is best for them, often without getting a say in the matter. Adults don’t have complete trust that children, youth, and adolescents are able to make decisions for themselves. When young people make choices or do things adults don’t like, they’re often disciplined and have “privileges” taken away. Young people’s feelings and emotions are invalidated and dismissed because of the belief that they are overreacting or too young to know what they’re talking about. Adults also touch, pick up, hug, and kiss children, often without considering if the child is comfortable with that. It gives others access to their bodies whether or not the child is ok with that. This idea that adults are better than young people continues to be perpetuated because there’s a cultural belief that that’s just how things are. We’ve all likely experienced it at some point, but we don’t challenge it because it seems normal. However, this doesn’t have to be how we raise children. Raising children from a lens of adultism can have lifelong negative consequences for their mental, physical, and relational wellbeing. Instead, we can guide and empower children to make decisions for themselves and have a say in how they are treated. Because adultism is so ingrained in our culture and how we ourselves were raised, it can be difficult to distinguish what the consequences of adultist behaviors are. Believing that adults are better than young people leads to young people being mistreated and met with disrespect. Their autonomy and control of their own lives is undermined. These experiences contribute to future challenges in a young person’s life because their thoughts, actions, choices, and feelings are invalidated or directed by others. This teaches young people to accept mistreatment and having others make decisions for them in adulthood. Being forced to go through unwanted physical contact like hugging and kissing teaches young people that others can have access to their bodies whether they are comfortable with it or not. This creates later challenges in recognizing boundaries. Adultist behaviors can also have some of the following effects on young people (Bell, 2003)

  • Increased feelings of anger

  • Increased feelings of insecurity

  • Depression

  • Undermined self-confidence and self-esteem

  • Increased sense of worthlessness

  • Increased feelings of powerlessness

  • Diminished ability to function well in the world

  • Negative self-concept

  • Increased destructive acting out and self-destructive behaviors

  • Feelings of being unloved or unwanted

  • Decreased feelings of self-respect

It can be really challenging to consider what parenting and mentorship looks like without the lens of adultism. For many of us, adultism is a familiar framework for raising children. However, in order to best support children’s health and wellbeing, we need to break free of this mold and tradition. A starting point is to find ways that feel comfortable to you to let your child know that they are valued and worthy of dignity and respect at every age. You have to be consistent in how you talk to, teach, treat, and behave around your child. Set an example for them to follow. Your actions should live up to what you tell your child. For example, if you tell your child not to yell when they’re angry, don’t then go and yell when you’re upset. This sends mixed signals about what is appropriate. Involve your child in the decision making process. When creating rules, talk to them about why you’re making those rules. Get their feedback about how those rules make them feel. When they make decisions for themselves, hear them out. Support them as they try different things. They may still mess up or make mistakes but they need the space in order to do so and learn from it.

You also must listen to what your child has to say when they are expressing their emotions, feelings, and opinions; what your child is expressing is always important. Dismissing their emotions and feelings impedes the development of their emotional intelligence. Trust them to know what feels right to them. Ask them how they feel or think about everything. This opens up your relationship with your child to more collaboration. They will feel more comfortable understanding what’s going on inside of themselves and they’ll be better able to advocate for their rights. You also need the emotional intelligence and coping skills required to manage your own feelings. You cannot take your anger or other feelings out on your child. Even just one encounter where you respond with anger or shut them down can have lasting harmful effects and create barriers between you and your child. (learn more about emotional intelligence here [link to post])

Have conversations about consent with your child starting early on. Make sure they know that no one can touch them or make them do anything they are uncomfortable with. Don’t contribute to mixed messages- if your child says they don’t want people to hug them, pick them up, or touch them, then don’t force them to do those things with anyone- including family, friends, and other loved ones. Your child is capable of setting personal boundaries and it is your responsibility to support and respect those boundaries. In addition, make it known that you expect them to show the same respect for others’ boundaries.

All of this considered, it is still true that children need guidance, boundaries, and rules. There may be times when it is appropriate to discipline your child. That being said, discipline in the form of corporal punishment is harmful and damaging to children. The percentage of children subjected to psychological or physical punishment is as high as 50%, with children living with disabilities being particularly vulnerable (UN Human Rights, 2013). A total of 61 countries, including Japan, France, Spain, New Zealand, and Germany, prohibit all corporal punishment in the home. The US does not prohibit corporal punishment. The UN has outlawed corporal punishment, reporting that is is a means of violating the rights of children, it causes physical, mental, and/or sexual harm or suffering, and it endangers children’s health, survival, and development (UN Human Rights, 2013). The American Psychological Association (APA) has also publicly opposed corporal punishment in all institutions where children are cared for and educated (APA, 2008). Corporal punishment often does not provide an explanation for why a behavior is unwanted and it doesn’t provide an alternative, desired beahvior to replace the unwanted one with. According to the American Psychological Association, children may generalize from “undesirable responses'' to feeling like they themselves are undesirable (APA, 2008). Corporal punishment teaches children that their behaviors and actions and the behaviors and actions of others can be controlled with violence. The guidance you give your child should not be in the form of corporal punishment.

chart showing how many children globally are protected by law from corporal punishment

If you disapprove of something your child does or there are things you don’t want them to do, talk to your child about it. You should still have boundaries and expectations for your child. The goal is not to let them run the show or do whatever they want. The goal is to empower them to be able to make decisions on their own, critically think about if something feels right to them, and communicate any frustrations or confusions they have. Talk about why you’re setting boundaries or why you have certain expectations for them. Give them the reason and give them a chance to respond.

You have expertise in living life and you’re a mentor for your child. Your role entails a responsibility to ensure their wellbeing and support their development into happy, compassionate, confident, and inclusive adults. Children, young people, and adolescents may be engrossed in their brain development and the development of their decision making skills, but they still have valuable insight and perspectives. Reflect on your role as an adult as it relates to the life of your child. Ask yourself if the way you treat your child is the way you would treat another adult. There are situations where you may have good reason for treating your child differently. For example, you can tell your young child to put on floaties before getting into a pool or the ocean, but you might not tell an adult the same thing. At the same time, your actions should take into account that a child’s input, beliefs, emotions, and opinions are just as valuable as an adult’s. The demands and needs of your child will look different at each developmental stage. You have to continue to ask yourself if what you’re doing is making your child feel empowered or diminished. As children get older, they tend to take on more responsibility for themselves, others, and their actions. If you can trust your child with that responsibility, then you should trust them to also be able to make decisions for themselves. It’s absolutely ok for you to encourage your child to move out of their comfort zone, but it’s not ok to force your child into situations or activities that make them feel as though what they want and what they’re comfortable with don’t matter. You are responsible for your child and their development, but they are not your property to do whatever you want with. They are their own people and part of your role is to empower them to see that.

chart that shows four key point to parenting success

Further Resources

How Spanking Affects Later Relationships

Disrupting Adultism | Heather Kennedy | TEDxCrestmoorParkWomen

Youth On Board is an organization working to involve youth in projects and decision making. They have resources for young people and adults on adultism and empowering youth.

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