Adultism: The Training Ground for All Other Oppression

Born for Justice: How We Came Into the World

Nine months before Rosa Parks became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a White passenger on a bus in Jim Crow Alabama. Greta Thunberg initiated the School Strike for Climate, which eventually led to 4 million protesters, mostly school-age young people, participating in the largest climate strikes in world history. Autumn Peltier is the Chief Water Protector and “Water Warrior” of the Anishinabek Nation and addressed the United Nations on World Water Day in 2018. What do these leaders have in common? They were 15 or 16 years old when their leadership led to global, transformative social change.

Young people are and have been at the forefront of every social movement across the world. Why? Because young people recognize injustice, have the least investment in the current system, have been the least confused by the supposed “spoils” or “benefits” of the system, and are therefore willing to take bold, visible leadership for social justice. Young people don’t need to be taught this.

Injustice is irrational.

Young people see the irrationality of injustice. They know it. It’s clear to them and they act to change it. And before we became adults, we did, too.

We are all born with an inherent sense of fairness. As young people we each did our best to interrupt injustice around us. That is, until we didn’t. We spoke up until we were repeatedly silenced, regularly ignored, or internalized feeling insignificant. We stopped believing that our one voice could make a difference. We began to feel too small and too powerless to make the change happen. We spoke up until the layers of discouragement built up: condescended to for being earnest, naïve, and “cute;” lied to about our brilliance and significance; given little to no room to heal from oppression or further targeted when we dared to show our feelings; encouraged to distract or disengage by comfort-seeking and numbing.

So, what happens to us as we grow up? Why do we stop fighting for justice or believing in our significance?

Adultism: The Training Ground for Oppression

All adults share the experience of being targeted as people who were once young. This oppression is called young people’s oppression or adultism: the systemic and institutionalized mistreatment of young people and, in my view, the training ground for all other oppressions. Many of us have never heard of this oppression (unless we are connected to early childhood or youth leadership development fields). Some of you might even think I’m making up (yet another) oppression. I’m not.

Think back to your own childhood. Remember that time you were next in line at the grocery store and the clerk waited on the grown up behind you—and no one noticed. Or maybe that time you stood in a cross walk, waiting for your turn to cross, and the traffic didn’t stop. Or maybe when you would have happily offered your bed for a visiting adult relative, but no one asked you. Or when it was your word against an adult’s and simply because you were a child, and therefore not considered credible, they believed the adult.

So, what is adultism? Adultism is being pushed aside, neglected, mistreated, hovered over, not believed, second-guessed, pressured to be perfect, made to feel stupid, humiliated, ashamed, disrespected, mocked for being hopeful, called “naïve,” given responsibilities too early, diminished, silenced, ignored, demeaned, threatened with and/or experiencing physical and/or sexual violence, treated like adult, treated like a “child,” struck, grabbed, thrown, pinched, told your feelings don’t matter, told to “get over it,” labeled as “spoiled” or “manipulative,” incarcerated, drugged, and/or any other way made to feel anything less than the intelligent, good, curious, loving, zestful, and powerful human we each came into the world as.

Adultism assumes the superiority of adults and the inferiority of young people.

Because of adultism, young people are viewed as “not fully human.” Adultism assumes young people don’t have fully functioning minds, their own thoughts, their own dreams, their own autonomy, a sense of justice or that what they want is worthwhile. If being an adult defines what it means to be human, young people are less than that. 

Adultism is Systematic and Institutionalized: Not Individual, Yet Intimate

Like other forms of oppression, adultism is a set of beliefs and attitudes about young people that are woven into the fabric of every institution in our society, communicated through values, policies, institutions, and physical structures and reinforced through violence or the threat of violence, and, in the case of adultism, purportedly for the protection or benefit of children. Through adultism, our oppressive society justifies, we get “better” adults.

For example, our educational system is riddled with adultism: a set up for both the adults who have committed to educate young people and the young people themselves. Educators who support the youngest learners are also the least supported, compensated, trained, and valued by our society: the same way adultism treats young people. As the young person grows older and “advances” in the educational system, educators receive higher wages, greater job security, more training, better benefits, etc. If the young person reaches higher education, these educators have the highest status, level of and access to training, best pay and benefits, and most job security of all educators. Yet, even on a university or college campus, those with the even higher levels of job security, status, compensation, and recognition, are administrators and researchers who have the least contact with students. In fact, one’s value on campus inversely correlates to the level of one’s direct, day-to-day contact with students. The more contact, the less value. This is because of adultism.

As adults we dismiss most examples of adultism from our early life as “just childhood.” Childhood and adultism are not the same thing. Childhood is not oppressive. Childhood is benign. Adultism is not benign. Adultism is oppressive.

Nor is adultism about blaming our parents. No parent is a “bad” parent.  Remember parents didn’t get to heal from their own experiences with adultism. Without healing, parents, like all other adults, will pass on their hurts to young people. Thinking about adultism in terms of “good” and “bad” parents misunderstands how adultism is institutionalized and the role that every adult ends up playing as non-targets of adultism. Adultism is institutional, so it can’t be about an individual parent or adult.

All parents do the best they can. Frankly, it’s nothing short of miraculous what parents’ figure out and get right in the face of adultism and the many other systems of oppression they parent within. Despite the hurts of adultism, parents figure out how to pass on fewer hurts than their parents did. Yet, despite their best intentions, hard work, deep love, and care, no parent can individually eliminate adultism.

Nevertheless, adultism is intimately experienced.

As young people we counted on our parents to give us correct information, protect us, think well about us, care for us and meet our needs. Of course, they couldn’t do that all the time. At least not as fully as any young person needs. This doesn’t minimize everything our parents did do for us. Rather, by naming and recognizing the role of adultism, we are acknowledging how big, ubiquitous, and pervasive adultism is.

When our parents’ unhealed hurts from their own childhood (adultism) or many other oppressions that impacted their lives are passed on to us, it’s both hurtful and confusing. Young people internalize these hurts in a very personal way because these hurts are passed on in the most intimate and personal relationship we have as young people: with our parents or caregivers.

What do we do with these hurts and confusions?

Minimization: The Key Hurt of Adultism

In a society that interrupts or further targets us for trying to heal, young people will forget, minimize, or justify (defend) the hurts from adultism. How else can we stay in relationship where hurts are happening; we aren’t allowed to fully grieve, protest, and heal; and where we need to stay put (except in extreme cases) for our survival? You might be reading this and wondering why you don’t have any memories from chunks of your childhood. Forgetting is a powerful mechanism for surviving. Our brains tuck away painful experiences because there isn’t enough support to process them.

Or you might be wanting to disagree that you were “just lightly spanked” or “it wasn’t that bad.” These are the messages that young people receive from adults and society about the hurts from adultism. It makes sense that these same responses or recordings would play now when we go back to look at what happened to us. Minimization is what adultism does to every aspect of young people’s lives: their dreams, their relationships, their experiences—including their hurts.

Or maybe you are feeling a bit defensive or protective of your parents as you read this. “I deserved that spanking” or “It was good they punished me because it taught me character.” What if you were born with character? What if that punishment taught you nothing except fear and punishment?

“My parents worked hard. They overcame a lot to give me what I got.” Yes, I’m sure they did. That is not in question. The power of admitting the presence of adultism in our lives and their parenting and recognizing the systemic nature of this oppression means we can hold onto the gifts our parents gave us and the power of their love while at the same time acknowledging the hurts they passed onto us.

When we acknowledge the impacts of adultism: both in hurting us as young people and in preventing or interrupting our inherent capacity to heal, we begin to understand how good people perpetuate the cycle of oppression and have our best chance at interrupting it.

If not for the unhealed hurts of adultism that we carry into adulthood, we would know how to stand up against injustice elegantly and thoughtfully. We are that smart. We are that clear about our significance. We must be hurt into going quiet and staying small as young people. And we’ve been hurt badly, hurt systematically, hurt thoroughly enough that we struggle to hold onto a picture of our full, powerful selves. We’ve been hurt so much that we lose sight of our goodness, our inherent sense of justice, and our ability or own significance to stand up against the injustices of oppression.

We have legitimate reasons to be upset and even outraged about what happened to us as young people. When we don’t acknowledge those hurts or minimize them or even struggle to call them hurts, we don’t heal. But not acknowledging them or minimizing them doesn’t diminish the anger or hurt that was left behind. Instead, that anger and hurt leak out in ways that we don’t intend and often don’t notice now because it’s become, in our minds, “who we are.” It’s not who we are, though. It’s how we got hurt. It’s how we haven’t yet healed. 

To learn more about the LJIST Theory of Healing, read our blog post: Stopping the Cycle of Oppression: How Our Early Hurts Perpetuate Injustice.