“If we are to be successful in our work with young people, we have to tackle the pervasive existence of adultism. We use the word adultism to mean 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.”
– John Bell, Co-founder of YouthBuild, USA
The Academy for Educational Development’s Center for Youth Development and Policy Research has assembled a basic primer that outlines some of the ways in which we understand adultism.
There are several basic assumptions that underlie adultism:
- Youth are troublesome and hence adults need to deter and correct youth’s problems and stop youth from “acting out”
- Youth are poor investments because they offer little to society
- Youth do not desire to become contributing members of society
- Youth do not care about their community
These assumptions have several effects on society:
- We hold lower expectations for youth and expect them to fail or just subsist
- We fail to provide youth with the resources and opportunities to participate
- We fail to empower youth to make full use of their skills
Adultism can take several forms, independently or all at once, which are important to recognize as we try to achieve a positive developmental environment for youth. That is to say that in order to encourage youth we need to make sure that we are not subconsciously or overtly suppressing youth.
To combat all forms of adultism, youth workers and e-mentors can adopt a set of alternate “caring behaviors” which mitigate the impact of adultism in their interactions with youth:
|Form of Adultism||Alternate
Helping young people on the assumption that they cannot help themselves or helping youth in such a way that limits their ability to help themselves. The result is that young people are ultimately set up to fail.
|– Resist doing things for youth that
they can do themselves
– Provide clear and constructive
feedback that notes positive
behaviors as well as areas for
– Engage youth as partners in
formulating plans to improve their
lives or behaviors
|Blaming the Victim:
Attributing the behavioral problems of young people solely to the youth themselves, without considering that many young people have grown up in poverty, in dangerous neighborhoods, in inferior schools and among adults who don’t care about them. The result is that young people don’t get the adult support they need.
|– Take responsibility for
determining how to judge youth
– Define how your own thoughts
and behaviors contribute to a
– Do not degrade the concerns or
issues of youth
– Do not assess youth by using the
standards of your group
The lack or regular social or professional contact with young people and the lack of effort to learn about youth and the environments in which they live. The result is that adults create programs based on their own needs, and not the interests of young people.
|Making Contact||– Make an effort to learn about the
lives and concerns of youth
– Make an effort to get to know and
personally interact with youth
– Be willing to change your
perceptions to fit your new
|Denial of Differences:
Age differences are assumed to be merely superficial. The consequence is that young people are denied the opportunity to bring their own beliefs, skills or lifestyles into settings.
|– Grant equal respect to youth, but
learn to distinguish differences in
their world views, communication
patterns, issues of concern, etc.
– Do not assess youth using the
standards of your group
– Do not assume you understand
youth; do not assume youth are like
A lack of understanding or denial of the social, political and economic realities of young people. It also involves discounting the fact that young people are not treated “as equals” or “as real people” in many of the settings where they live on a daily basis.
|– Seek knowledge about the
political, social and economic
realities of youth
– Avoid depending on a sole or
select source(s) of information
– Develop critical thinking skills
– Recognize that the personal
experiences of youth constitute a
valid source of knowledge