Gentle Parenting Grow

What is Adultism?

“Why can’t I go up to the buffet myself?” my very independent six year old asked me with her brow furrowed.

We were at a local buffet restaurant and she wanted seconds and she didn’t think she needed a parent with her to walk twenty feet and use a spoon.

“Because this restaurant’s rules say,” I point to the sign on the end of the salad bar, “‘Kids under 13 must be accompanied by an adult.’”

“But why? I can do it.” Her tone is imploring like she thinks that I think she can’t do it.

How do I explain to her that making rules that only affect a certain class of people – “kids” –  is acceptable in our society? That saying, “handicapped people must be accompanied by an able-bodied person” would be unthinkable but is perfectly acceptable for children. Where we have legal protections stopping a business from saying “gay people must be accompanied by a heterosexual” and even, “elderly people must be accompanied by a person in their prime,” there is no legal protection to stop discriminatory practices against children.

This type of discrimination–prejudice and systematic discrimination against young people–is called Adultism. It’s the idea that adults are better than children and thus have the natural right to control them.

Wait a minute! Are you trying to tell me kids are discriminated against? Didn’t we just have a holiday where we lavished them with gifts?

Being treated nicely, even specially, does not negate discrimination. Geishas lived in luxury and pampered excess but (especially before modern times) were often slaves or indentured servants with no access to self determination. I think we can all agree that a gilded cage is still a cage.

“We have real problems like racism and sexism. We don’t need to muddy the waters with a new concept like adultism.”

The term ‘racism’ was introduced into English in the 1930’s, ‘sexism’ in1965. Adultism was first used in 1903 and with its current definition in 1970. All the terms we use to talk about inequality and discrimination are relatively new. Discrimination, as a term meaning prejudicial treatment of an individual based on their broader class category and not simply “to discern,” shows up around the time of the Civil War in American English.

Regardless of how young the concept might be, understanding adultism is actually a powerful tool in reducing sexism and racism. Before most kids can fully articulate what racism and sexism are they’ve already been immersed in adultism for years. The hierarchy we begin with “adults over kids” sets a framework for other prejudices to build on. People are divided into groups and how we treat them is dictated by the group they’re in. With this solidified world view, racism, sexism, classism, and a host of other prejudices just fit.

Conversely, if we raise kids who see that all people are unique and entitled to respect and self-determination, then judging a whole group based on skin color or gender or wealth seems incongruous to their worldview.

I am definitely not saying we don’t need to talk about racism and sexism. These issues are so important right now and we need to be addressing them with ourselves and our kids. But, kids first understand their own place in the world and then that of others. If they see their place as part of a hierarchy of power, then fitting race and gender into the hierarchy will come naturally and we’ll have to fight against that inclination to combat racism and sexism. On the other hand, if they see their place as part of a collective humanity where respect for individuals is paramount, then racism and sexism have an uphill battle to take root.They just don’t fit in a world view of equality and compassion.

“But kids are different! They actually can’t do the things adults can.”

That’s certainly true. Sometimes they can’t do things because of their height or strength. My four year old might be responsible enough for the buffet but he can’t reach it. More often, they can’t do things because of their cognitive level. My daughter is good with machines but she’s not ready to drive a car (even if her feet could touch the pedals and she could see over the steering wheel). She’s bright and makes good decisions but I wouldn’t want her to enter into a legal contract without talking to an adult.

It is interesting to note that developmentally disabled people, who can have a similar cognitive level to a child, are protected from being treated like children. My sister works in a group home with high-functioning developmentally disabled women. She routinely takes training classes that use the words, “Don’t treat developmentally disabled people like children. Treat them like adults.” In other words, you can’t demean (“Ugh! You never tie your shoes!”), threaten (“Eat your dinner or you’re going straight to bed!”), or control (“No you can’t call your friend on the phone.”) these people because they are people and they have rights.

To take away the rights of a developmentally disabled person requires reason. If a client of my sister’s isn’t eating and she thinks it might be hurting her health, then a doctor, case-worker, and guardian/family member are all required before she can force the issue. And even force is done as gently as possible and with a full explanation. Patients deserve that because they are people and have that right.

Children have no such protections. “Eat your dinner or you’ll go straight to bed!” doesn’t sound all that out of the ordinary for most mainstream parents. If the child asks for a reason (like is required for the developmentally disabled adult) we say, “Because I said so!” Translation: because I’m an adult and I don’t have to explain myself to you because you are a child.

Because children are at a different cognitive level than most adults we sometimes have to force an issue. When my daughter was younger and didn’t want to do her asthma treatments, I (understanding cognitively that she needed this medicine to be healthy) would force her. However, I never said it was “because I said so.” I told her she needed this medicine to be healthy and I was going to make sure she got it. It was pretty traumatizing to hold her down while she screamed. But the whole time I wasn’t yelling, only gently empathizing. Afterwards we cuddled and talked about why she needed the medicine. I treated her with respect even when wielding power over her because she’s a person and deserves that right.

The fact that children are less capable than adults and that they need us to survive is not a good excuse to treat them like sub-humans. It is just lazy really. If we can’t think of a reason for what we are doing then I assure you that we don’t “have to” do it. If we can’t be bothered to share that reason with the person in question then we are not showing that person respect as a fellow human being.

Ok, Adultism. Now what?

Adultism is one of the more pervasive types of discrimination in our culture. We’re moving past a history of “explaining” sexism and racism with pseudo-science about how women or certain ethnicities are just biologically “less than” the majority group (usually white males). The concept that children are property is still deeply entrenched in our culture because, biologically, it is easy to say children are less than: less tall, less strong, less knowledgeable, less experienced, etc. The shift to treating children as full human beings, like we are doing with other people who may be less tall, less strong, or less “smart,” is hampered by our beliefs about children as people-in-training.

Just as dismantling sexism requires men to stop talking and listen to women, and dismantling racism requires white people to stop talking and listen to people of color, dismantling adultism requires adults to listen to children. There are youth-led groups tackling some of the big institutionalized forms of adultism like the National Youth Rights Association. There are also organizations working with democracy in a mixed-age format. Democratic/Free schools, likethe Sudbury Valley School, operate as a full democracy where each person from teacher to janitor to kindergartener receives an equal vote on every issue and all activities are voluntary and consensual.

Those organizations mainly focus on institutional adultism–that is the legal and structural barriers to giving children full human rights. What we parents can work on is cultural adultism–the myths we perpetuate about the capabilities and roles of children and how we treat children on a daily basis.

For example, have you ever said, “You’re acting like a three year old!”? This is a cultural by-product of adultism. It teaches children that being a child is an insult.

“Don’t be childish.”

“You don’t understand because you’re a kid.”

“Grow up!”

“It’s just a teen crush.”

“That’s not for kids.”

“This won’t matter when you’re grown up.”

“Because I’m the parent.”

“You big baby.”

On a personal level, the first thing we can do is work to stop saying adultist things like these. Understand first that these are shorthand phrases. If you’re saying, “You’re acting like a three year old,” what do you really mean? Are they acting emotional? Irrational? Annoying? A more specific word (and empathetic tone) will be more impactful. “You seem to be very emotional right now, do you want to talk about it?”

Second, and probably most difficult,is to examine when you are saying your kid “must” do something. Nine times out of ten it isn’t really a MUST. It is a parental “pretty pretty please” masked as a must. Your kid doesn’t HAVE TO eat his peas. You want him to. You want him to be healthy and like veggies and you want to brag to your mom friends that your kid loves greens. But, he doesn’t HAVE TO. No child has ever died from lack of peas. Find a way to explain your need (your reason–that he eat healthy food) and then find a mutually beneficial solution (in my house it is usually an apple but maybe you can negotiate trying a pea or what- ever respects his autonomy and your need to have a healthy kid).

When you first start doing this kids will do what we call “take advantage” which is an adultist way to say they exercise their new freedom of self determination by refusing to do what you want. This is a rubber band effect. They’ve been controlled in this area for a while and now they’re going to swing the opposite direction. I often hear this with teeth brushing. My kids never “have to” brush their teeth and I’ve never had an issue with this but they’ve also never had the issue forced. If I had been forcing teeth brushing and then stopped they’d probably stop brushing their teeth (yuck!). If this style of parenting is new to you then you’ll have to negotiate your needs with theirs so you (and their teeth) can both survive the transition.

The beautiful thing is the more areas where you give your kids freedom of choice the less they’ll bristle at force or control when you do need to use it. They’ve seen that you don’t wield your force at random and that you care about their feelings and needs as well. Battles over things will decrease dramatically. Making sure your kids feel capable (“I get to decide what I eat.”) and heard (“Mom cares that I think peas are gross.”) is absolutely the best “discipline” tool you’ll ever use.

Lastly, talk openly with your kids about adultism. One of the strangest things I’ve found in my parenting classes and coaching is that parents think we should never let the kids see behind the curtain of our parenting. If they know we have “methods” and “tools” they’ll never listen! Deep breath. They will listen and they’ll feel capable and trusted to see you be real with them.

When you encounter something adultist, like an “adults only” party invitation, explain why it is excluding kids–tradition, alcohol, late night, etc. You don’t have to agree with it (I don’t attend events where children aren’t welcome) to explain what the reasoning might be. If you’re forcing your kid to do something they don’t want to do, like homework or taking medicine, explain why those things exist and why they need to do them (assuming you’ve really thought about how necessary said thing is). Be willing to compromise. Empathize with their frustration.

As my daughter is starting at me with her buffet plate in her hand I realize I have to be honest with her (note: I looked into it and it is NOT a health code thing in my particular city, just a restraunt policy.). “Honey, people don’t trust kids very much and think you’ll make a mess. We know that’s silly but being in this restaurant is like being in someone else’s home and we follow the rules to be polite. I know you’re quite capable of doing it yourself but, for now, why don’t I come with you?”

“Maybe kids make messes because everyone thinks they’re going to make messes.” As usual she floors me with her insight into the problem.

“Very true, honey.”

Because painting a whole group of people the same because they share a characteristic is the essence of prejudice. Identifying and ending adultism is a huge step toward creating a world of equality.

About the author

Paige Lucas-Stannard

Paige Lucas-Stannard is a parent educator and coach specializing in social justice and feminist-focused, respect-based parenting practices. She is the author of Gender Neutral Parenting and the upcoming book, based on her popular online class, Transformative Parenting. She and her partner unschool their three kids in the rural mid-west. When not writing, she loves to travel and spend time in nature with her family. Follow her on Facebook at Parenting Gently and on Twitter @parentinggently.