Concerning structures of adultism, I am seriously lacking awareness. It’s particularly surprising, shocking even, since my teenage-years aren’t even that far off, and when I think back, I distinctly remember being angered and frustrated by what I can now define as adultism, namely “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.” [this is a definition by John Bell of YouthBuild, USA]. When Esme on High on Clichés recently published an article on adultism, she specifically asked to not derail the discussion with excuses for this kind of behavior, but the comment I initially made on her post was exactly that – so my first reaction to a discussion of adultism wasn’t helpful or insightful in the slightest. This is an attempt to enter a discussion with those interested and get a better awareness for adultism, but also a post that will express some of my scepticism towards the concept as I understand it.
I suppose that most people remember that being a child and a teenager entails all sorts of restrictions and expected subordination to adults’ views and rules, executed as, for example: being told to be quiet, to not do that, to stay in your room, to be grounded, to lose pocket money for what is considered by some parents as “bad behavior,” to not be taken seriously or being directly ridiculed when you have a suggestion for or try to enter an allegedly “adult” conversation or process, to not be able to learn and educate yourself in your actual areas of interest but in what adults have deemed areas worthy of education, to have a curfew, to not be able to vote and and to be constantly overlooked on every level of political decision making.
The thoughts underlying adultism seem to be prejudices towards young people and the power to execute them into action towards said young people who are dependent on adults in multiple ways, and the belief that adult “experiences” and “education” are superior to those of younger people. According to some adultism theories, from what I gather, the structure of adultism continues indefinitely, given that, for example, young people as work colleagues or social peers continue to be taken less seriously by older people. Adultism theories also seem to predominantly follow the premise that adultism is the basic structure of oppression that other forms of oppression, such as sexism or racism, are based on (see here and here for example). As I understand, anti-adultism seems to also be related to a revival of (certain aspects of ) attachment parenting.
My first reaction to coming across adultism was a defensive one. It seemed perfectly “normal” to me that adults make decisions for children, given that there is an actual difference in education and experience and cognitive abilities between an adult and a two-year-old, for example. As “kindred” states in their series on adultism, “adults, however, generally do not consider adultism to be oppressive, because this is the way they themselves were treated as youth; the process has been internalized.” That should probably give many people, including me, pause – because is it merely a learning process that I now think I acted “childish” or irrational in some circumstances during puberty, when being extremely angry at my mother, for example, or am I now belittling my 14-year-old self out of a position of independence that I just didn’t have back then, and was my anger not justified as a reaction to certain rules back then? Is it not incredibly unfair to claim, on the one hand, that children and teenagers are full human beings, which should inherently include full human rights, but some people think it is not that big of a deal to deny them essential ones (such as, as the worst example, the fundamental right to physical integrity – you can’t beat up your kid, but parents will certainly not get sued in this country for handing out a slap when a kid supposedly “acts up”, for example) and have accepted children’s legal and political status as “inferiors”?
Adultism is a particularly difficult issue when it comes to structures of oppression, to me, because it seems logical or at least understandable at first sight, in certain regards. Whereas sexism and racism, for example, are often and rightly criticized as systematic oppression of equal human beings who are being belittled because of random physical traits and alleged (in)abilities, adultism has the added component that there are actual differences in capabilities between children and adults. Adults do carry responsibility for children, and they do have the responsibility to make decisions on a child’s behalf to keep a child from harm, for example, even though 4-year-olds might think it really sucks they’re not allowed to jump from the roof with an umbrella, because it looked very easy in that movie. 30 year-olds usually do have considerably more education and training and experiences and political insights and communicative abilities than 4 year-olds, for example. But the key here seems to be that all that doesn’t excuse the discrimination of children, and brushing off children’s individually expressed needs and desires without engaging with the child and taking the child seriously as a human being with rights and needs just as every adult. At least this is what I take from anti-adultism.
Where anti-adultism loses me, however, is when I read of these three issues (and please let me know if I’m constructing straw men here because I misunderstood):
1. When anti-adultism theories claim that adultism is the structure that sexism and racism are built upon, because this is where children learned that treating other unfairly was OK, and because children had an ingrained, developed sense of justice and social competence (see this post’s third link, for example). I have read that several times, and I am seriously confused what to make of a line of argument that I think is very simplistic when it comes to socialization and education, especially for social justice issues. Children are full human beings, they are people. And exactly because children are people, they are not flawless, and even children profit from white and gender privilege, for example. That shit starts really early on, and it leads to the expectation of certain privileges. Doesn’t the claim that children have a developed sense of justice – even when being known for having pushed another kid to get to a cookie (*cough*) – severely underestimate the processes of education and personal experience people learn from, and how these processes shape social competence and a sense of justice? Isn’t it justified, despite being named in kindred’s anti-adultism-post as an example of adultism, to ask a child to apologize to another child when having beaten that child, even though s_he doesn’t want to and thinks s_he is within hir rights to have hit that child? Isn’t respect something you also have to teach (and I am aware of the irony that children aren’t respected in many circumstances, but can’t you teach respect towards others respectfully?), just as adults ideally intervene with each other when discrimination happens?
2. Isn’t claiming that adultism shapes our entire lives from the beginning to the end somewhat oversimplifying? Ageism is actually a big deal, and elderly people have to face a shockingly similar set of discrimination as young children. Adultism seems to be more of a subset of ableism, as it focuses on the prerogatives and alleged superiority in experiences of abled-bodied, white cis-men in their “formidable years” as the center of the universe, yet again. Moreover, adultism seems to, quite to the contrary of what I’ve read, not be shaping the lives of children of all “races”, for example, equally. It is no coincidence that before George Zimmerman murdered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, he had once before called the police on an 8-year-old African American child because the boy “looked suspicious” to him. Despite the fact that all children suffer from inferior status in many given societies, it seems to be inaccurate to claim that they’re all not taken seriously and treated “like children”; children of color have a long history of explicitly not being treated like children (read: white children) at all, but to be treated and put to work and being dehumanized and vilified just as adults of color, explicitly in contrast to white children who were allowed to play. This is where adultism seems to neglect the importance of intersectionality and explicit racism here with sweeping conclusions about age and its effects.
3. Especially in relation to some forms of attachment parenting, I am baffled by what, to me, seems to be again a neglect of intersectionality when it comes to gender and personal abilities. Whereas I absolutely agree that crying babies, for example, don’t cry out of spite, but have actual needs every time, anti-adultism at times seems to advocate stances that feminist theories of motherhood and parenting once half-successfully deconstructed as deeply gendered motherhood myths of sacrifice and unconditional love. I have a real problem with the expectancy, again primarily towards women*, to be particularly sensitive towards every need of a child, and to implicitly be labelled as an adultist/bad mother (or father) when s_he is not capable of instantly reacting to a baby who cries all night, for example. This is where, at times, it seems to me that anti-adultist attachment parenting falls into the trap of labelling people “monsters” for having own needs as parents, and where old demands towards mothers for perfection creep in through the back door of anti-adultist advocacy.
I think a discussion of adultism could be very interesting, so if you agree or disagree, I’d be happy to hear about it.
[Update] This bears repeating: you are of course most welcome to comment in german too (because some people seem to be afraid that that’s not possible – I am sorry about that, quite to the contrary :)! // Wer nicht auf Englisch schreiben möchte oder kann, der_die ist sehr herzlich willkommen, auch auf deutsch zu schreiben. Es tut mir leid, dass durch mich der Eindruck erweckt wird, dies sei nicht möglich – ganz im Gegenteil!