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Title: Adultism  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Ageism, Adultcentrism, Youth rights, Fear of children, Youth mainstreaming
Collection: Ageism, Children's Rights, Human Rights by Issue, Identity Politics, Prejudice and Discrimination, Youth, Youth Rights
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An age restriction on operating a waffle baker independently

Adultism has been defined as "the power adults have over children".[1] More narrowly, 'adultism is prejudice and accompanying systematic discrimination against young people'.[2] On a more philosophical basis, the term has also been defined as "bias towards adults... and the social addiction to adults, including their ideas, activities, and attitudes."[3]


  • Etymology 1
    • Coinage 1.1
    • Usage 1.2
    • Similar terms 1.3
  • Causes 2
  • Evidence of adultism 3
  • Classification of adultism 4
    • Internalized adultism 4.1
    • Institutional adultism 4.2
    • Cultural adultism 4.3
  • Results 5
    • Social stratification 5.1
    • Cultural responses 5.2
    • Academic developments 5.3
  • Addressing adultism 6
  • Criticism 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10



The word adultism was used by Patterson Du Bois in 1903,[4] and appears in French psychology literature in 1929, describing the influence of adults over children. It was seen as a condition wherein a child possessed adult-like "physique and spirit", and was exemplified by,

A boy of 12 and a girl of 13 who had the spirit and personality of adults.... They were placed in institutions because of stealing and prostitution. These forms of precocity lead the individual into difficulties and should be recognized early in the development of the individual.[5]

This definition was superseded by a late 1970s journal article proposing that adultism is the abuse of the power that adults have over children. The author identified examples of adultism not only in parents but in teachers, psychotherapists, the clergy, police, judges, and juries.[1]


Adultism is defined as the "behaviors and attitudes based on the assumptions that adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon young people without agreement".[6][7] It is also seen as, "an addiction to the attitudes, ideas, beliefs, and actions of adults."[8] Adultism is popularly used to describe any discrimination against young people and is distinguished from ageism, which is simply prejudice on the grounds of age; not specifically against youth. Adultism is ostensibly caused by fear of children and youth.[9] It has been suggested that 'adultism, which is associated with a view of the self that trades on rejecting and excluding child-subjectivity, has always been present in Western culture'.[10]

Fletcher[11] suggests that adultism has three main expressions throughout society:

  • Attitudinal Adultism: Personal feelings, assumptions, and beliefs that form a person’s attitudes about young people. This is also called internalized adultism.
  • Cultural Adultism: The shared attitudes, including beliefs and customs, promoting the assumption that adults are superior to anyone who is not identified as an adult, simply because of their age. This is also called social adultism.
  • Structural Adultism: The normalization and legitimization of historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal dynamics that routinely advantage adults while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for young people. This is also referred to as institutional adultism.

A study by the Crisis Prevention Institute of the prevalence of adultism found an increasing number of local youth-serving organizations addressing the issue.[12] For instance, a local program in Oakland, California, describes the impact of adultism, which "hinders the development of youth, in particular, their self-esteem and self-worth, ability to form positive relationships with caring adults, or even see adults as allies", on their website.[13]

Similar terms

Adultism is used to describe the oppression of children and young people by adults, which is seen as having the same power dimension in the lives of young people as racism and sexism.[14] It is treated as a generalization of paternalism, allowing for the broad force of adulthood beyond males, and may be witnessed in the infantalization of children and youth. Pedophobia (the fear of children) and ephebiphobia (the fear of youth) have been proposed as the antecedents to adultism.[15] Tokophobia, the fear of childbirth, may also be a precursor; gerontophobia, or its antonym, gerontocracy, may be extensions of adultism.

Similar terms such as adult privilege, adultarchy, and adultcentrism have been proposed as alternatives which are more morphologically parallel.[16] Some activists alternatively call adultism "youthism," equating it to sexism and heterosexism.[17] The opposite of adultism is jeunism, which is defined as the preference of young people and adolescents over adults.

At least one prominent organization describes discrimination against youth as Youth On Board counters this, arguing that "addressing adultist behavior by calling it ageism is discrimination against youth in itself."[20]


In his seminal 1978 article, Flasher explained that adultism is born of the belief that children are inferior, professing that adultism can be manifested as excessive nurturing, possessiveness, or over-restrictiveness, all of which are consciously or unconsciously geared toward excessive control of a child.[21] It has been associated with psychological projection and splitting, a process whereby 'the one with the power attributes his or her unconscious, unresolved sexual and aggressive material' to the child - 'both the dark and the light side...hence the divine child/deficit child'[22] split.

Recently, theologians Heather Eaton and Matthew Fox proposed, "Adultism derives from adults repressing the inner child."[23] John Holt stated, "An understanding of adultism might begin to explain what I mean when I say that much of what is known as children's art is an adult invention."[24] That perspective is seemingly supported by Maya Angelou, who remarked:

Evidence of adultism

A 2006/2007 survey conducted by the Children's Rights Alliance for England and the National Children's Bureau asked 4,060 children and young people whether they have ever been treated unfairly based on various criteria (race, age, sex, sexual orientation, etc.). A total of 43% of British youth surveyed reported experiencing discrimination based on their age, substantially more than other categories of discrimination like sex (27%), race (11%), or sexual orientation (6%).[26]

Classification of adultism

In addition to Fletcher,[11] other experts have identified multiple forms of adultism, offering a typology that includes internalized adultism,[27] institutionalized adultism,[28] cultural adultism, and other forms.

Internalized adultism

In a publication published by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, University of Michigan professor Barry Checkoway asserts that internalized adultism causes youth to "question their own legitimacy, doubt their ability to make a difference" and perpetuate a "culture of silence" among young people.[29]

"Adultism convinces us as children that children don't really count," reports an investigative study, and it "becomes extremely important to us [children] to have the approval of adults and be 'in good' with them, even if it means betraying our fellow children. This aspect of internalized adultism leads to such phenomena as tattling on our siblings or being the 'teacher's pet,' to name just two examples."[30]

Other examples of internalized adultism include many forms of violence imposed upon children and youth by adults who are reliving the violence they faced as young people, such as corporal punishment, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, and community incidents that include store policies prohibiting youth from visiting shops without adults, and police, teachers, or parents chasing young people from areas without just cause.[6]

Institutional adultism

Institutional adultism may be apparent in any instance of

  • Bell, J. (n.d.) Understanding Adultism: A Key to Developing Positive Youth-Adult Relationships. Olympia, WA: The Freechild Project.
  • Adultism and the Roots of Authoritarianism
  • Velázquez, J. and Garin-Jones, M. (2003) "Adultism and Cultural Competence" Children's Voice Child Welfare League of America. January/February 2003.
  • Unit on Adultism from, originally located at Creighton University.
  • Tate, T. (2003). "Insist or enlist? Adultism versus climates of excellence". Reclaiming Children and Youth 12 (1): 40–46. 

External links

  1. ^ a b Flasher, J. (1978). "Adultism". Adolescence 13 (51): 517–523.  
  2. ^ J. Gregoire/C. M. Jungers, The Counsellor's Companion (2007) p. 65
  3. ^ Fletcher, A. (2013). Ending Discrimination Against Young People. Olympia, WA: CommonAction Publishing. 
  4. ^ Patterson Du Bois, Fireside Child-Study (1903) p. 17
  5. ^ Courbon, P. (1933). "Mental adultism and precocious growth of the personality". Annales Medico-Psychologiques. 87: 355–362. 
  6. ^ a b Bell, J. (1995) "Understanding Adultism: A Major Obstacle to Developing Positive Youth-Adult Relationships". YouthBuild USA. Retrieved 9/2/11.
  7. ^ Gong, J. and Wright, D. (Sept 2007) "Context of Power: Young people as evaluators", American Journal of Evaluation. 28(3) pp 327-333.
  8. ^ Introduction to Adultism. Freechild Project. Retrieved 4/4/10.
  9. ^ Scraton, P. (1997) "Childhood" in "crisis"? Routledge. p. 25.
  10. ^ David Kennedy, The Well of Being(2006) p. 67
  11. ^ a b Fletcher2013
  12. ^ Tate, Thomas F. and Copas, Randall L. (Spring 2003) "Insist or Enlist?: Adultism versus Climates of Excellence," Reclaiming Children and Youth: The Journal of Strength-based Interventions, v12 n1. p 40-45.
  13. ^ Youth Together Glossary. Youth Together. Retrieved 4/1/2008.
  14. ^ Roche, J. (Nov 1999) "Children: Rights, Participation and Citizenship", Childhood. 6(4). pp 475-493.
  15. ^ Fletcher, A. (2006) Washington Youth Voice Handbook Olympia, WA: CommonAction.
  16. ^ Bonnichsen, Sven. "Three Types of Youth Liberation: Youth Equality, Youth Power, Youth Culture". National Youth Rights Association. Retrieved January 4, 2011. 
  17. ^ Youth Liberation: An Interview With Brian Dominick on Znet
  18. ^ Thread from National Youth Rights Association Online Forums re: Ageism vs. Adultism. Retrieved 7/20/08.
  19. ^ Alex Koroknay-Palicz's blog. Retrieved 7/20/08.
  20. ^ Young, K & Sazama, J (2006) 15 Points to Successfully Involving Youth in Decision-Making. Boston: Youth On Board.
  21. ^ Flasher, J. (1978) Adultism. Adolescence 13(51) Fal 1978, 521.
  22. ^ Kennedy, p. 64
  23. ^ Eaton, H & Fox, M. "Chapter 10: Transcendent Spirit: Child Honoring and Religion." in Cavoukian, R. (Ed) & Olfman, S. (Ed). (2006). Child honoring: How to turn this world around. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group.
  24. ^ Holt, J. (Ed) Teach your own: The John Holt book of homeschooling. Perseus Publishing.
  25. ^ Iraki, X.N. and Mukurima, Muriuki. "Kenya Times News, Opinion--Education new vehicle of a class society". Archived from the original on 17 March 2007. Retrieved 2007-03-21. 
  26. ^ Willow, C., Franklin, A. and Shaw, C. (2007). Meeting the obligations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in England. Children and young people's messages to Government. DCSF.
  27. ^ Get The Word Out! Jenny Sazama (2004). p.12
  28. ^ Hernandez, D. & Rehman, B. (eds). (2002)Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism. Seal Press
  29. ^ Adults as Allies (1998) WK Kellogg Foundation. Retrieved 4/1/2008.
  30. ^ Cult Awareness and Information Center
  31. ^ Males, M. (1997) Framing Youth: 10 Myths about the Next Generation. "Courts have explicitly ruled that policy-makers may impose adult responsibilities and punishments on individual youths as if they were adults at the same time laws and policies abrogate adolescents’ rights en masse as if they were children."
  32. ^ Monitor Breakfast with James Carville and Stanley Greenberg "This is not class warfare, this is generational warfare. This administration and old wealthy people have declared war on young people. That is the real war that is going on here. And that is the war we've got to talk about." - James Carville
  33. ^ Gatto, J.T. (2002) The Underground History of American Education "Children allowed to take responsibility and given a serious part in the larger world are always superior to those merely permitted to play and be passive. At the age of twelve, Admiral Farragut got his first command."
  34. ^ Lombardo, L. and Polonko, K.A. "Interdisciplinary Contributions to the Prevention of Child Maltreatment," The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences. 4(12) pp. 89-112.
  35. ^ Institutionalized discrimination is also viewed as structural violence. See Kelly, P. "Fighting for Hope" (1984) for specific evidence of institutional adultism in healthcare, identified as structural violence. "A third of the 2,000 million people in the developing countries are starving or suffering from malnutrition. Twenty-five per cent of their children die before their fifth birthday... Less than 10 per cent of the 15 million children who died this year had been vaccinated against the six most common and dangerous children's diseases. Vaccinating every child costs £3 per child. But not doing so costs us five million lives a year. These are classic examples of structural violence."
  36. ^ Giroux, H. Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Era (2004).
  37. ^ Breeding, J. (n.d.) Does ADHD Even Exist? The Ritalin Sham Sunriver, OR: The Natural Child Project.
  38. ^ Treating children as equals. Wright, J. New Renaissance Magazine (2001)."
  39. ^ Leddy, T. (2002) "Aesthetics and Children's Picture-Books", Journal of Aesthetic Education, 36(4) p 43-54.
  40. ^ (2006) 15 Points to Successfully Involving Youth in Decision-Making. Boston: Youth On Board. p 95.
  41. ^ (2004) "Making Space - Making Change: Profiles of Youth-Led and Youth-Driven Organizations". Movement Strategy Center. p 17. Retrieved 9/7/07.
  42. ^ Giroux, H. "The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear" (2003).
  43. ^ (2006) 15 Points to Successfully Involving Youth in Decision-Making. Boston: Youth On Board. p 94.
  44. ^ a b (2006) 15 Points to Successfully Involving Youth in Decision-Making. Boston: Youth On Board. p 92.
  45. ^ Zeldin, S, Kusgen-McDaniel, A, & Topitzes, D. "Youth In Decision-Making: A Study on The Impacts of Youth on Adults and Organizations" (2001).
  46. ^ Michell, L.M. (2006) "Child-Centered? Thinking critically about children's drawings as a visual research method." Visual Anthropology Review. 22(1) Spring. pp 68.
  47. ^ Chu, J. (1997) "Navigating the Media Environment: How Youth Claim a Place through Zines," Social Justice. 24. p 147.
  48. ^ Watts, R.J. and Flanagan, C. (Aug 2007) "Pushing the envelope on youth civic engagement: A developmental and liberation psychology perspective", Journal of Community Psychology. 35(6) pp 779–792.
  49. ^ Holt, J. (2003) Teach Your Own Perseus Publishing.
  50. ^ Youth On Board
  51. ^ Creighton, A. & Kivel, P. (1992) Helping Teens Stop Violence: A Practical Guide for Counselors, Educators, and Parents Hunter House.
  52. ^ Miller-McLemore, B. (2003) Let the Children Come: Reimagining Childhood from a Christian Perspective Josey-Bass.
  53. ^ The Evolving Capacities of the Child UNICEF. (2005)
  54. ^ The Difference between Youth and Adults HRW online.
  55. ^ (n.d.) Adultism Resources The Freechild Project website.
  56. ^ Alice Miller, The Drama of Being a Child (1995) p. 85
  57. ^ Eric Berne, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (Penguin 1976) p. 103
  58. ^ M.-N. Beaudoin/M. Taylor, Breaking the Culture of Bullying and Disrespect (2004) p. 9
  59. ^ Beaudoin, p. 129-30


See also

In its milder form, 'adultism is about the misuse of power and does not refer to the normal responsibilities of adults in relation to children'.[58] Therefore, 'addressing adultism is not about reversing the power structure...[or] completely eradicating it': rather, 'shedding adultism involves a negotiation of decisions'.[59]

In its most extreme form, the target of the advocates of addressing adultism is 'the more or less conscious, uncontrolled, and covert exercise of power over the child by the adult...this wielding of power by adults'[56] per se. Such an attack on any adult power may be fuelled by what has been called 'the homunculus idea about many grown-ups a child is a Small Adult. They do not understand that a child carries different kinds of problems than an adult does'.[57]


Common practice accepts the engagement of youth voice and the formation of youth-adult partnerships as essential steps to resisting adultism.[55]

[54] Educator

Any inanimate or animate exhibition of adultism is said to be "adultist". This may include behaviors, policies, practices, institutions, or individuals.

Addressing adultism

A growing number of governmental, academic, and educational institutions around the globe have created policy, conducted studies, and created publications that respond to many of the insinuations and implications of adultism. Much of popular researcher Margaret Mead's work can be said to be a response to adultism.[46] Current researchers whose work analyzes the effects of adultism include sociologist Mike Males[47] and critical theorist Henry Giroux. The topic has recently been addressed in liberation psychology literature, as well.[48]

Academic developments

There may be many negative effects of adultism, including ephebiphobia and a growing generation gap. A reactive social response to adultism takes the form of the children's rights movement, led by young people who strike against being exploited for their labor. Numerous popular outlets are employed to strike out against adultism, particularly music and movies. Additionally, many youth-led social change efforts have inherently responded to adultism, particularly those associated with youth activism and student activism, each of which in their own respects have struggled with the effects of institutionalized and cultural adultism.[44]

Cultural responses

Simultaneously, research shows that young people who struggle against adultism within community organizations have a high rate of impact upon said agencies, as well as their peers, the adults who work with them, and the larger community to which the organization belongs[45]

[44] Research compiled from two sources (a Cornell University nationwide study, and a Harvard University study on youth) has shown that social stratification between age groups causes

Discrimination against age is increasingly recognized as a form of bigotry in social and cultural settings around the world. An increasing number of social institutions are acknowledging the positions of children and teenagers as an oppressed minority group.[40] Many youth are rallying against the adultist myths spread through mass media from the 1970s through the 1990s. [41][42]

Social stratification


Cultural adultism is a much more ambiguous, yet much more prevalent, form of discrimination or intolerance towards youth. Any restriction or exploitation of people because of their young age, as opposed to their ability, comprehension, or capacity, may be said to be adultist. These restrictions are often attributed to euphemisms afforded to adults on the basis of age alone, such as "better judgment" or "the wisdom of age." A parenting magazine editor comments, "Most of the time people talk differently to kids than to adults, and often they act differently, too."[38] This summarizes cultural adultism. For examples see:

Cultural adultism

Institutions perpetuating adultism may include the fiduciary, legal, educational, communal, religious, and governmental sectors of a community. Social science literature has identified adultism as "within the context of the social inequality and the oppression of children, where children are denied human rights and are disproportionately victims of maltreatment and exploitation."[34]

[33][32].gerontocracy This treatment is increasingly seen as a form of [31]

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