A Few Thoughts On Adultism.

28 Aug

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!

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10 Responses to “A Few Thoughts On Adultism.”

  1. Samia August 28, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    Thank you for your insight concerning children of color and the white-centeredness of anti-adultism. I would very much like to read more on that subject.

    When anti-adultism theories claim that adultism is the structure that sexism and racism are built upon, because this is where children would learn that treating other unfairly was OK, and because children had an ingrained, developed sense of justice and social competence

    Nobody has an ingrained sense of anything, that’s bs. I still think children learn that inequality is okay via adultism – among other things. I don’t agree to the hierarchy / chronology though, a child might experience racism, sexism, ableism.. just as early.

    Isn’t it justified [...] 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?

    Depends on the reason. The child might happen to have a very good one you might not be aware of – at least check first. Pacifists make me fucking angry, anyway. To me, beating someone can be just another way of “intervening when discrimination happens”.

    Adultism seems to be more of a subset of ableism, it seems to me, as it focuses on the prerogatives and alleged superiority in experiences of abled-bodied, white cis-men as the center of the universe, yet again.

    So why is it a subset of ableism then and not, say, racism, sexism or cis-sexism? I don’t like the idea, feels minimizing.

    I have a real problem with the expectancy, again primarily towards women*, to be particularly sensitive towards every need of a child [...]

    Yeah, but that’s it: “primarily towards women*”. That’s the problem, not the “being sensitive” part. If you don’t like being sensitive and have a choice: Don’t make babies! Can’t be that hard. That said, I’m not so sure about the whole AP thing. I fear it might not see children as people either, as it seems to undervalue independence. But I haven’t really read up on that.

  2. Chesh August 28, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    Regarding point 3.: In my opinion to act non adultist does not mean to deny one’s own needs, but to be clear about them. If a child cries and you are (for any reason) not able to caress hir and calm hir down, don’t make excuses like “s_he needs to learn to calm down alone”, “s_he was an attention-seeking mess today and needs to be punished for that” etc. Be honest to yourself about your needs and don’t make them the child’s fault. And explain them to the child. The better s_he can handle communication-stuff, the better this will work and the more you talk to hir the more you add to that. Every person, mothers included, has boundaries and they need to be respected. Children just can’t guess them as easy as more experienced adults (who are often not as good at that, as one would hope) and need them to be explained.
    And don’d do stuff to children. Like (simple example) clean their dirty face without asking (you would never do that to an adult). Better tell them something like “There is ice-cream all over your face. If you are ok with that, I would like to go with you to the bathroom and wash it off. What do you think?”.
    That’s basically what I learned from my mother, when she interacts with me, my younger siblings and the children, she works with.

  3. anna August 28, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

    If you don’t like being sensitive and have a choice: Don’t make babies! Can’t be that hard.

    Seriously??! Sorry for not having any more substantial stuff to add right now (although I’m glad the discussion continues), but this approach of self-righteous simplification leaves me rather baffled and also angry.

  4. accalmie August 28, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments and insights!

    @Samia:

    Nobody has an ingrained sense of anything, that’s bs. I still think children learn that inequality is okay via adultism – among other things. I don’t agree to the hierarchy / chronology though, a child might experience racism, sexism, ableism.. just as early.

    Thank you for clarifying that, it really confused me. As to the hierarchy: exactly, that is what I mean in the post. It follows that children also experience certain systematic oppression such as sexism/racism/ableism…, but they are also already part of an oppressive structure that offers some of them privileges. In the anti-adultism texts I read, people often alluded to the alleged freedom of such privileges due to adultism, and this connects with the other example I mentioned when people find it adultist to intervene when a child acts discriminatorily towards another child (I used the “hitting” example because it was mentioned in that post). That I find both untrue and extremely troubling. I agree that, of course, you should ask your child what happened, but every other person involved in such spats is just as note-worthy, and while I agree that pacifism isn’t the absolute solution to everything, I find it equally troubling to not teach children that the impulse of hitting someone might not be the best first reaction.

    So why is it a subset of ableism then and not, say, racism, sexism or cis-sexism? I don’t like the idea, feels minimizing.

    I understand your criticism and it’s not a completely valid point, but let me try to clarify what I am struggling with here: adultism, from what I have understood, seems to at times underestimate the effects of ageism, and that adultism and ageism both are intrinsically linked to ableism, because people are treated as inferiors because of physical limits and capabilities some of them have (or are thought of as having).

    Yeah, but that’s it: “primarily towards women*”. That’s the problem, not the “being sensitive” part. If you don’t like being sensitive and have a choice: Don’t make babies! Can’t be that hard. That said, I’m not so sure about the whole AP thing. I fear it might not see children as people either, as it seems to undervalue independence. But I haven’t really read up on that.

    Here I fundamentally disagree with you. Firstly, although I agree that gender is a prime problem here, I think it would be just as bad to expect personal sacrifice from men* in these terms; or asking of any parent to sacrifice their personal needs and well-being to a concept of parenthood that is stylized as the only “sensitive” one. Not being able or willing to sacrifice your whole being to raising children has, in my view, nothing to do with a lack of “being sensitive,” and all sorts of situations develop for adults, from suddenly being a single parent to depression to whathaveyou, that have impacts on said “sensitivity,” and yet, do not justify claiming that if you’re incapable of staying up all night to soothe a screaming baby, you should not have children. As a personal example: my mother was very upset as she told me a year ago that at times, she just couldn’t do it and let me cry as a baby, and that she’s extremely sorry about that. Firstly, I have no recollection of that whatsover (which doesn’t mean that none of the babies have, but in terms of memory, most people do forget what happened in the first months of their lives), and second, what actually upset me, is that more than twenty-five years later, my mother is still angry with herself for not being able to adhere to a standard of parenting that, in my view, is not more indicative of love and caring than others, but ingrains a deep sense of regret and failure in parents, most of them mothers. Particularly from a feminist point of view, claiming that if you can’t be “sensitive” according to this particular definition it follows that you should not be a parent, is simply wrong.

    Secondly, children of a young age *are* dependent. I think it is important and perfectly valid to criticize certain forced dependencies, but others are due to the inability to care for themselves yet, to eat independently, to clean themselves, to provide themselves with basic amenities and to choose which relationships they would like to enter and with whom – therefore, I believe, parents do have certain superior rights in deciding what is best for children when they’re very little, and I am honestly baffled by some anti-adultist claims that children are “independent.” It also opens the door, as a fellow feminist has written, and I partially agree, to abuse of an alleged fully formed agency, and potentially subverts the need for protection.

    @Chesh:

    I think you are spot-on when emphasizing the need to explain your actions to a child and actually enter a conversation with him_her, and I think that is the corner stone of every form of decent adult-child relation (that is what I meant when writing that “engaging with the child and taking the child seriously as a human being with rights and needs” is paramount). [edited for clarity]

    I also think you are right when you say that it is important to not place the blame on the child when you’re unable to react to constant crying in a way that is deemed “worthy” anymore and that communication is important, but I think it implicitly harbors a problem that I tried to stress in that paragraph. It is partially one’s fault that you’re unable to react in your ideal way, but it is also circumstantial. It isn’t only your fault. If you were dealing with an adult human being who would behave like that constantly, you would perhaps walk away and, most likely, no one would blame you. But because you are in a situation where it is your responsibility to take care of a child, you are (rightly so) held to different standards. It is an interaction, however – you respond to a certain behavior, and if you can’t do it adequately anymore, it isn’t solely your fault. Neither is it the kid’s fault. But it is a clash of personal needs and differences in communicative ability. So I think that “being honest to yourself” and others that it’s your fault or your boundaries are set more narrow than the alleged ideal comes dangerously close to the self-reproaches of “You failed as a parent” or as a “communicator” when (temporarily) letting your child scream, because you can’t explain to a baby that s_he’s overstepping some boundaries here, but thus, you behave adultist, from what I understand.

  5. naxum August 28, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    I find it hard to connect adultism with sexism and racism in such a way that it does not undermine its own origins. The main problem seems that a statement containing adultism may still be fundamentally true. When I tell a child “You’re too young to drive” I’m certainly commiting to adultism, but that does not invalidate my statement, because it might still apply (depending upon the person/age of course).

    Generally a statement like “Don’t do X or Y might happen” is also an exchange of learned experience. When it comes to learning, the roles are of course defined in an oppresive situation; one side tells the other what not to do. As a parent you need to use a very opressive stance since you do not want your child to try some things (like crossing streets unattended etc.). In some cases, you do not have the luxury of letting them try dangerous activities on their own, you indeed have to rely upon your opressive role as a parent in order to protect your own child. As a parent I might very well have access to some bits of knowledge a child cannot possibly know. A child may of course ask why it is not allowed to do X, but you still have to assert your dominace in the end, else you might end up in a siuation you do not want. Long story short; when it comes to sharing experiences, the sides are clearly defined, else the mechanism won’t work. This means that some statements containing adultism are possibly in the best interest of the child, even if they’re voiced in an inherently unfair, opressive manner. This also means that sometimes parents should indeed coerce a child into beahaving in a certain way – in order to minimise harm for the child.

    On the other hand there are many statements containing adultism that are simply that – statements that perpetuate the notion that children are worth less than adults i.e. exactly the kind of statements presented by the sites you posted. They do not contain information and do not faciliate the exchange of experiences, but solely reproduce the already existing stereotypes (I know better than you, you are not in a position to argue, my opinion is valid, yours isn’t) already present in society.

    Separating the two seems impossible; especially because the first kind of statement does still contain adultism, because it needs the privileges of adults being adults in order to work at all. But the bottom line should be that sometimes Parents do indeed know what’s best for their children and sometimes they most definitely do not. The first part of this statement is more or less forced by the way humans interact when sharing knowledge and the second part is evident, as there are many parents that have mistreated their children by giving false/dangerous/unmoral input.

    Racism and Sexism however are not about sharing experience needed in order to survive without harm in our world (Some would disagree, but in a very different context). Also, if adultism is the “primer” for this kind of behaviour (possible, the adult-child relation is the first relation someone experiences in their lives and possibly shapes the model of a “successful” relation as inherently unfair and onesided) it will be very hard to dislodge such a learning mechanism. I hope that made some sense ;).

  6. anna August 28, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    While I really think it’s important to think and talk about the ways children are oppressed/devaluated by adults and how these dynamics can be exposed and counteracted, I am not sure in what ways the concept of adultism can be useful in this processes. It sometimes even seems to be potentially dangerous, to be honest, since, as already pointed out, it often does not seem to be discussed in connection with other axes of oppression and societal (power) structures and their historical context – which tends to bring a rather reactionist twist to discussions about oppression, power and their criticism. Even more so when adultism is being referred to in a rather simplistic way or from a privileged perspective. I also find it quite telling that the way adults treat other adults (as if there were no major complexities at work here, not only according to personal differences but also in connection with [hetero]sexism, racism, classism, ableism…) is sometimes referred to as the go-to rule when looking for orientation on how to interact with children. I totally see the point in using certain heuristics for checking my own day-to-day behavior towards a child, like for example asking myself “Would you do the same to your friend?” – in certain situations this can surely help to recognize my own intrusive behavior. Then again, in some situations the answer to this question might be “No” and it still would be valid behavior. I wonder how one can really deem it an appropriate solution to oppression to take the needs of the dominant group as proper reference for the way you interact with members of the marginalised group. Actually, even if this is a somewhat flawed analogy for different reasons, this reminds me of the not-so-feminist claim that women should act “more like men” to elevate emancipation or the claim that, as a feminist, I should treat men and women totally alike. In fact, I shudder to think that there really might be people who treat the children they live with “like adults” which, in my point of view, totally brings about the danger of denying these children some of their children-specific needs. – Just one of several points going through my mind when thinking of the – admittedly rather few – discussions on adultism I have experienced so far.

  7. Chesh August 28, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    @accalmie: thank you. I totally agree with you, that a mother-child-conflict ought not to be seen as someones fault. When one person (more or less, depending on age) fully depends on another, conflicts are inevitable.
    I think that our society has a lot of absurdly unrealistic expectations towards mothers and how they should behave. It feels like a mother has to live up to this standard or she fails completely. She is shamed and belittled when she shows an (understandable) inability to be a perfect mommy. To avoid this treatment, many mother make the conflicts their children’s responsibility and pass down the oppressive behavior towards them.
    There is a major problem in how patriarchal society treats mothers and shames them instead of offering help, when a conflict emerges. If a mother in a conflict with her child could get help (like taking care of the child, while she kicks the wall, works, eats, whatever she likes more than being perfect right now) instead of being looked down upon, the thought of it being someones “fault” would not be coming up.
    Adultism is not a problem of mothers only. It happens everywhere where children are, from almost every adult almost every day. If we make it a problem of mothers (or parents) we make it their responsibility to solve it, which is not possible, since they are just a part (and suffering from oppression themselves) of the adultist behaving society.

  8. accalmie August 29, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    Thanks for adding your points of view, everyone!

    @Naxum:

    This means that some statements containing adultism are possibly in the best interest of the child, even if they’re voiced in an inherently unfair, opressive manner. This also means that sometimes parents should indeed coerce a child into beahaving in a certain way – in order to minimise harm for the child.

    Honestly, this raises all sorts of red flags… I agree that while statements like "Don't use that nailgun, you are too young!" might be adultist, they are also necessary; but I think that they need not be "oppressive" or "coercive" statements or actions (and that makes parents' education sound inherently wrong…). As Chesh has written, the key of anti-adultism would be to actually explain to the child why s_he cannot use the nailgun, and not silently manipulate or yell at the kid or just tell them what to do without saying why not using a nailgun at the age of 4 is important… I think it would be a step too far, in any case, to label every sort of education and protective gestures as "adultism;" I think it's about the way you convey them.

    Racism and Sexism however are not about sharing experience needed in order to survive without harm in our world (Some would disagree, but in a very different context). Also, if adultism is the “primer” for this kind of behaviour (possible, the adult-child relation is the first relation someone experiences in their lives and possibly shapes the model of a “successful” relation as inherently unfair and onesided) it will be very hard to dislodge such a learning mechanism.

    I think that a whole lot of anti-adultism theory claims that adultism is the foundation of every other sort of oppresion, because it starts with day 1 of a child’s life, and children learn from their parents that treating people (i.e., in this case, children) differently than others because of their age and physical traits shows that it’s generally OK to treat people differently (also because of random physical traits?). That mere statement seems so ridiculously oversimplified and wrong, I can’t even… What starts on day 1, too, are sexism and racism, etc. Do people honestly claim that we’re all the same in raising our children, and that adultism is the foundation of racism, for white and parents of color alike? The longer I think about it, the more annoyed I get about a claim like that, because it seems to deny every sort of structural basis for systematic oppression and puts the reasons and blame solely into (adult-child) human interactions; even worse, it constructs an artificial commonality of all parents, with no regard for their individual and situational differences. And those differences do not only affect individuals in various aspects of their lives, they affect people’s ways and capabilities in terms of parenting styles. I haven’t just read that once, I have read that theory all over the place when trying to educate myself on adultism. The same goes for the complete ignorance towards society’s explicit not-childlike treatment for children of color; and that’s just basic history.

    @anna: thank you for also pointing out the lack of (and that literally fits every anti-adultism page I have read) anti-adultist theorists taking other axes of oppression into account.

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