Adultism and Youth Voice

Any honest conversation about Youth Voice must address the challenges that young people and adult allies face when they work to engage children and youth throughout our communities. By their very existence, Youth Voice programs are made to respond to these challenges; ignoring them is not being honest about the purpose of Youth Voice.

Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia… the list of challenges facing young people is enormous. However, one of the core challenges is a common experience that all people face early in their
lives. That challenge is discrimination against children and youth.

Many young people have tried to be heard in adult-led systems only to be turned away. School boards, nonprofit leaders, politicians, and teachers are notorious for actively silencing Youth Voice. The historical structures of many American institutions actually work against engaging
young people. What is the solution? Many adults respond well to the ethical dilemma Youth Voice presents: By stifling young peoples’ contributions adults are being anti-democratic. However, this argument bounces off many adults as well. This makes it necessary for youth and their adult allies to learn about the many different ways to leverage Youth Voice.

Discrimination against children and youth is the unique bias that many adults have towards other adults. Because of that, they often discriminate against young people. That bias towards adults is why discrimination against youth is often called adultism. Adultism - discrimination against children and youth - is a premise of every Youth Voice activity, whether or not we acknowledge it. By saying we want to engage Youth Voice we are also saying that Youth Voice is
not being engaged otherwise. The absence of that engagement is caused by adultism.

The words we use, the programs we design, the ways we teach, and the relationships we have with children and youth are all influenced by adultism. Even the most “youth-friendly” adult practices adultism, usually unconsciously, be assuming that youth need them –which, while it may be true, is still discrimination. While that shows that discrimination is not always harmful, it also shows that adultism is real.

There are many reasons why discrimination against children and youth exists, particularly from the perspectives of adults. Regardless of these reasons, discrimination against children and youth presents a set of double standards that consistently challenges Youth Voice. Following are some of the ways that happens.

Examples of Adultism

Adultism in Language
These are ways discrimination against young people is shown through the words we use.

* "“Act your age.”"
* "“Why can’t you be more like your older brother?”"
* "Children should be seen and not heard.”"
* "What do you know, you’re just a kid!”"
* "“Do as I say, not as I do.”"

Adultism in Youth Work
These are ways discrimination against youth is shown through the programs operated for youth.

* Programs designed by adults for youth without youth
* Systemic isolation of children and youth from adults
* Professional language does not allow youth to easily understand what is being done to them
* Evaluations engage adult staff and not youth participants

Adultism in School
These are ways discrimination against young people is shown in schools.

* Students are forced by law to attend schools that may not be effective
* Classroom learning relies on adults as sole-holders of knowledge
* Decisions about students are routinely made without students
* Classroom grades giving equal weight to adults’ judgment and performance while neglecting the students’ perspectives
* When teachers yell at students, they are controlling classrooms; when students yell at teachers, they are creating unsafe learning environments

Adultism in Communities
These are ways discrimination against young people is shown throughout communities.
* Non-citizen status for people under 18-years-old: no voting, no financial rights, etc.
* Community problem-solving routinely neglects youth members
* Businesses prohibiting children under 18 from entering the store unless accompanied by adults.”
* Anti-cruising laws
* Media bias against youth that alternatively portrays youth as apathetic super-predators who are obese, stuck on computers, gang members.

Challenging the Challenges

There are many ways that young people and their adult allies can go about challenging discrimination against children and youth. Addressing the discrimination
against Youth Voice is a challenge that many young people and adult allies take whole-heartedly, particularly when they are informed by powerful knowledge and engaged in powerful action.

- Taken from the Washington Youth Voice Handbook, copyright 2006 Adam Fletcher.