Adultism and Parenting


Adultism is a product of the system of oppression. Throughout my career in higher education, I worked to try and eliminate various forms of discrimination. I tried to create ways in which everyone, regardless of their identities, would feel as thought they mattered, and were valued.

There were many times in my work, where I was frustrated by how difficult it was to change systems and even one individual’s perspective.

It wasn’t until I became a mom, that I finally made the connection to why it is so difficult to create broader social change. It took five years before I began to see this connection and question the way I parented. I questioned how I might be doing the same thing to the children in my life that I was fighting against in my work.

Through this process of self-examination, I began to see how my belief that I should control them was perpetuating the same things that I fought against in my work.

I began to understand why change is so difficult at a broader level. And, the idea that parenting is the most important thing we can do to change the world became more real and less of a platitude.

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Because the adult/child or parent/child relationship defines our existence and our world from birth, I would argue that adultism allows for the perpetuation of all other forms of oppression (sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc…).

Barry Checkoway, in his article “Adults as Allies” defines adultism as “…all of the behaviors and attitudes that flow from the assumption that adults are better than young people, and are entitled to act upon young people in many ways without their agreement.”

He goes on to say that,

(e)xcept for prisoners and a few other institutionalized groups, young people’s lives are more controlled than those of any other group in society.

In addition, adults reserve the right to punish, threaten, hit, take away ‘privileges,’ and ostracize young people when they consider it beneficial in controlling them or “disciplining” them.

If this were a description of the way a group of adults were treated, society would quickly recognize it as a form of oppression. Adults, however, generally do not consider adultism to be oppressive, because this is the way they themselves were treated as youth; the process has been internalized.

The essence of adultism is that young people are not respected. Instead, they are less important and, in a sense, inferior to adults. They cannot be trusted to develop correctly, so they must be taught, disciplined, harnessed, punished, and guided into the adult world.

The liberation of young people will require the active participation of adults. A good starting place is to consider and understand how we – today’s adults – were mistreated and devalued when we were children and youth, and how we consequently act in adultist ways now.

Adultism is generally not written about in relationship to parenting. Although more recently I have seen a couple of articles where adultism in parenting has been addressed directly. When the concept is raised, the term adultism is often used in articles that describe ways to empower teens and young adults. It is rarely used with regard to younger children.

By the time children reach their teen years, they have usually experienced a decade or more of domination and control by parents, teachers, and the social systems that reinforce this authoritarian paradigm.

The nature of the relationship between a young child and parent (or adult) requires significant caretaking by the adult. Often this caretaker role obscures the ways in which we perpetuate adultism as parents.

At a young age, we see our role as parents as needing to ensure the safety and health of our children. Children need us to ensure their survival and to nurture their growth. The fact that they may not be verbally adept may interfere with our ability to see the child as fully human and thus we need to control them for their own good.

The ways in which I perpetuated adultism were (and sometimes still are) varied and often subtle. I certainly did not recognize them as such during the first five years of my parenting journey.

Even now, when I am in the midst of being oppressive, I do not always see it happening. Naming this controlling relationship in terms such as oppression and adultism challenges us to move beyond our assumptions that adults are better than or superior to children. These words can bring to the forefront the ways in which we use power to control and ultimately harm children.

In my journey, I had to develop a whole new set of strategies and tools. I needed to abandon the ways I learned to be a parent and learn new ways of being a parent. Because we are given so few examples of parenting without control it is important to actively engage in a process of learning how to be a parent and reduce my need to control and confront my fears about letting go of control.

When we abandon our need to control children, parenting is revolutionary in it’s ability to change the world.