Adultism: The Missing Link

When I was about 11 years old, I decided to form a club with my friends.  It was one of many clubs, and I don’t remember what it was called, but the premise of it revolved around kids having rights. That we should be given more autonomy over our lives and be able to make more choices, instead of having adults dictating our every move.  I don’t think I used those exact words, but that’s what it was about. Several of my friends joined this club, but a few did not. One even gave me a strange look saying she didn’t think it was a good idea. The next day this friend told me her mother didn’t want her being friends with me anymore. I don’t remember being too hurt by that…I remember thinking this friend was brainwashed by yet another adult. Haha… maybe I was a bit of a rebel as a kid.

As I grew up I lost this idea that kids should have rights. I became a teenager and started babysitting and fell into the ‘normal’ thinking that children should obey their elders. It’s for their own good, after all. They should ask permission before they do things. Like get a snack, pick up the phone to call a friend, to go downstairs to their playroom. Because they are not wise enough to make their own decisions. They are not capable of doing those things without first asking if they are allowed to.

I even felt that parents should spank their children when they were out of line. In fact, I once argued with a professor of mine in a parenting/psychology class as an undergrad. He challenged the class on the idea of spanking, and I was of the camp that agreed it was necessary. I thought that because I had already spent the better part of ten years babysitting regularly by that point, I had a pretty good handle on childcare and development, and spanking was necessary to teach proper manners, punish them for not doing what they were told, keep a kid from running in the road… Though I never would lay a hand on a child while I was babysitting (to which my professor then asked, “So since you don’t rely on spanking as a caretaker, you’ve obviously found alternative ways to handling issues that arise”). In the years following that argument I started to see the error in my thinking. Why would we harm another human to get them to do (or not do) something? It’s domestic abuse when a person harms their significant other. Lawsuits can be filed for assault if someone harms another person on the street. But what defense do children have? What do we call it when an adult hits a child? Discipline. Punishment. Consequences. Children have no voice when it comes to being spanked/hit/physically assaulted. By the time I finished grad school and started my career my mind had completely changed regarding spanking and physical punishment, and by the time I had my daughter my husband and I had already discussed and agreed that hitting our children would not be something we would do. Ever. After all, we wouldn’t hit each other, would we? No. No one in our home was going to be hit by either of us.

About the same time I started learning there were names to the way we were parenting (attachment, gentle, positive…), I also started remembering my club from when I was 11 years old.  I started remembering that once, as a child, I briefly ‘fought’ for children’s rights. I had even gone home and declared to my mother my plans and what the club stood for. My mom always seemed to be supportive of *nearly* anything I did and this time was no different. Though I’m sure she was just exhausted and trying to make dinner and now that I think back to that time about 20 years ago her replies to me probably consisted of, “Uh huh, that’s great, Kris.”

Tonight, a member of the Gentle Parenting of WNY Facebook group shared an article titled “Adultism: The Hidden Toxin Poisoning Our Relationships with Children” by Teresa Graham Brett. I didn’t even get through half of the article before it fully hit me that this is what I had been talking about as an 11-year-old child. I just didn’t have the words. Even as an adult, even starting a Facebook group for gentle parenting and reading multiple parenting books and blogs and arguing that we should be treating children better, even then I didn’t have the words. A name for it. Now I do. It’s adultism. It means (and this is a quote by Dr. Barry Checkoway that was included in this article): “…all of the behaviors and attitudes that flow from the assumption that adults are better than young people, and are entitled to act upon young people in many ways without their agreement.” Adultism is the foundation upon which all other forms of discrimination and oppression build. The most basic of the power-over paradigm in which the more powerful has and maintains control over the less powerful. Children are, when you think about it, the most controlled and oppressed group in the world.

How often, as parents, do we seek advice on how to control our children’s behavior? How to get them to do something the way we want them to do it? Do we even realize what we’re asking? How many of us would seek advice on how to control our spouse’s behavior? People may look for ways on how to help change a certain behavior of their significant other. But not control. We only seem to use that terminology with our children, and it speaks volumes to how we view our authority over them.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be parenting our children, that they should be left without supervision. Understanding adultism, instead, should help us in our journey of learning about our children as the human beings they are, and guiding them, not controlling them and conforming them, into the adults they are going to become. It’s understanding that even though our children have less power over their world, they still deserve our respect. This is the basis of gentle parenting.

Here’s the article, please take a chance to read it: Adultism: The Hidden Toxin Poisoning Our Relationships with Children by Teresa Graham Brett.

Thank you so much, Cameron, for posting this to the page!! It was one of those “AHA” moments for me when I read it!

If you don’t get a chance to read the article, these are some highlights, and what I consider some of the most important parts from the article:

“…adults reserve the right to punish, threaten, hit, take away ‘privileges,’ and ostracize young people when they consider it beneficial in controlling them or “disciplining” them.  If this were a description of the way a group of adults were treated, society would quickly recognize it as a form of oppression.

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.

The essence of adultism is that young people are not respected. Instead, they are less important and, in a sense, inferior to adults. They cannot be trusted to develop correctly, so they must be taught, disciplined, harnessed, punished, and guided into the adult world. The liberation of young people will require the active participation of adults. A good starting place is to consider and understand how we – today’s adults – were mistreated and devalued when we were children and youth, and how we consequently act in adultist ways now. (1)

Adultism impacts all relationships between adults and children in our culture. It impacts how we view children. It impacts how we treat them and what we feel we have the right to do as parents. It is institutionalized in schools, churches, and our legal and medical systems.”

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