Rejecting Adultism: Embracing Safe Worlds

My message to other teachers is to try letting go and giving up a little control – you’ll reap the benefits. Every child wants to feel needed and youth empowerment can do that.

– Elementary teacher

It is human nature to slide down an easier path, and the nature of any form of social privilege (including adultism) is that it feels natural, is acceptable and is often unrecognized. As adults, at home or at work, we need constant vigilance to avoid using our power in order to make our own life easier, without regard for the perspectives and preferences of young people. And yet our personal and professional lives are demanding and comprised of a daily series of big and small decisions and negotiations. Our time and energy have limits.

In reality, however, we are not forced to choose between our own needs and rights and those of our students in order to use our power as adults constructively. We can set clear limits with integrity, honouring students’ intelligence and developing their compassion. Such an approach requires trust and mutual respect and results from a relationship-building process. We are in effect establishing a social contract with our students, building and finding consensus in a way that enables us to work together peacefully and respectfully in a shared life and environment: our school.

Saying It
  • "Okay, everyone, there’s something we need to talk about. I need the classroom to be tidier, and many of you have told me you like your things to be all around you so you know where they are. I know not everyone needs things to be tidy, but I’m also concerned about safety. How can we make sure that we and our guests can all walk about the classroom without tripping or bumping into things like chairs and books and toys?"
  • "I’m so glad you came to talk to me about this project. I’m hearing that you’re not happy with the mark I gave you and you think it’s not fair. I’d like to hear more about that, and I’m happy to let you know how I decided on that mark. Let’s see if there’s a way of coming to an agreement about this."