Adultism and Adult Privilege

Adults often look down on kids and don’t take their ideas seriously. Adults can help by taking us more seriously and treating us like equals.

– High school student

At its core, adultism’s most basic premise is that adults are superior to young people. A host of negative or condescending beliefs about young people reinforce and justify the misuse of adult power. Teens are viewed as irrational and unpredictable troublemakers, or as vacuous and irresponsible, indifferent to anything but superficial concerns. We may view children and teens as cute and charming, while belittling their concerns and needs, and overlooking their intelligence, insight and wisdom.

Adultism is manifested in daily life by a range of subtle, ordinary and often unremarkable words and actions that serve to buttress adult privilege. Adultism is often invisible for it is largely the norm for interactions between adults and young people in our society.

Double standards for adults and young people are one example of adult privilege arising from adultism. For example, when an adult politely disagrees or expresses an opinion they are likely to be considered assertive, whereas a young person doing the same may well be thought of as impertinent or difficult. Minimizing or dismissing young people’s feelings ("You’re making a big deal out of nothing.") or ideas ("Now I’d like you to be serious. That is just not appropriate for a school setting."), discounting their opinions ("You’re too young to understand.") or disbelieving their accounts of a situation ("I think you might be exaggerating here.") are further examples of adultism.

As adults, we are using our privilege when we make decisions that affect students’ school lives for our own convenience. Of course, it is always easier (in the short run) to decide ourselves, to announce, "Today we’ll go to the gym, rather than the park," rather than seek students’ input to find out what they might prefer, or to give multiple options and let students choose.

Or we may withhold information as another form of adult power, not sharing all the facts with students in order to increase the likelihood that students will make a decision that we prefer.

Adultism exists on a continuum of manifestations of misused adult power, from the most subtle and normalized forms, to the most explicitly aggressive forms. The most extreme and harmful example of adult dominance is violence and abuse against children and teens. While such explicit and destructive abuses of power that directly attack young people’s well-being are clearly condemnable, even illegal, it is important to name and address the roots they share with more mundane manifestations of adultism: a belief in the superiority of adults and their needs.