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Adultism: The Hidden Toxin Poisoning Our Relationships with Children

By Teresa Graham Brett, JD

Published Monday, 14 November 2011, viewed 6463 times
"In our own lives, even if we fight against racial injustice, even if we fight f
or world peace, even if we fight for a sustainable world, if we are using our po
wer over the children in our lives, we are perpetuating injustice and oppression
. We are setting children up to accept a world that is based on the more powerfu
l controlling the less powerful."
As parents or parents-to-be, we commit ourselves to understanding the physical a
nd emotional needs of children. We learn about breastfeeding and its importance
to the optimal health of children. We make conscious choices about the foods we
provide and the toys we give. We delve into research about child development so
we can provide developmentally appropriate experiences for the children in our l
We think and reflect on our childhoods and imagine how we might do things differ
ently than our parents, or perhaps the same as our parents. If you were like me,
you may have spent time thinking about how to raise a boy to be in this world s
o that he would not become sexist. Since we are a multi-racial family, I thought
about how I could help him to understand who he was in the context of race and
culture. We might be committed to creating sustainable lives for children and fu
ture generations, so we consciously make choices for our families to support our
Most often, however, we do little as parents to understand the broader social an
d cultural dynamics that inform our views on children, childhood, and the instit
ution of parenting. Our dominant cultural paradigm of children and parenting is
one based on fear, control and domination. We use schools, churches, even parent
ing, to deny the basic rights of children to be treated with respect and trust.
We are a culture whose view of parenting, children, and childhood is rooted in a
dultism. Adultism is the silent, hidden toxin in our child-adult relationships a
nd in our culture.
What is adultism?
My favorite explanation of adultism comes from an article written by Dr. Barry C
heckoway at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I had the opportunity to br
iefly work with him when I co-directed the Program on Intergroup Relations there
and find his description not only defines adultism, but also illuminates how it
In his article Adults as Allies, he defines adultism as all of the behaviors and a
ttitudes 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 institutionalize
d groups, young peoples lives are more controlled than those of any other group i
n 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 w
ay 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 th
is is the way they themselves were treated as youth; the process has been intern
The essence of adultism is that young people are not respected. Instead, they ar
e 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 ac
tive participation of adults. A good starting place is to consider and understan
d how we todays adults were mistreated and devalued when we were children and you
th, and how we consequently act in adultist ways now. (1)
Adultism impacts all relationships between adults and children in our culture. I
t impacts how we view children. It impacts how we treat them and what we feel we
have the right to do as parents. It is institutionalized in schools, churches,
and our legal and medical systems.
I have spent over two decades working towards social justice in higher education
. It took five years after becoming a parent to realize that the oppression I fo
ught outside of my home was deeply entrenched inside my own home in my relations
hip with the first child in my life. I began to see how my use of power and cont
rol over him and my domination of him were planting the seeds for oppression and
discrimination to be perpetuated by him or upon him as he grew older. Adultism
creates fertile ground for all other forms oppression to exist.
Our relationships with children from the time they are born create a paradigm fr
om which they will view and experience the world. This is the nature of socializ
ation or enculturation. (2) Because the majority of us experience domination and
control as children, we feel it is normal, even if we fought against this injus
tice as children and teenagers.
This socialization subconsciously operates to inform the ways we view children a
nd our role as parents. The belief that adults have the right to exercise contro
l over children is perpetuated by deeply-ingrained cultural beliefs about the na
ture of childhood. Throughout our lives, we are bombarded with information about
how our culture views the world. (3) This information includes history, habits,
and traditions, but it also include biases, stereotypes, and prejudices about g
roups of people, including children. (4)
We create, or construct, a view of children that rationalizes control and domina
tion because our culture defines children in contrast to adults. We use adults a
s the norm from which we measure the actions of children. We define their differ
ences as deficiencies that must be overcome through a long socialization process
carried our by parents, teachers, schools, and other individuals and institutio
ns. (5)
The socialization process is about using our greater institutional (or structura
l) power over children to ensure they do what we believe is right as adults. The
re was a time when I believed that because my values and beliefs were often outs
ide of the mainstream (natural childbirth, extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping,
no use of physical punishment) using my power over the children in my life was a
cceptable because I had rejected dominant values. What I fooled myself into beli
eving was that my parenting was better because I had carefully considered and ch
osen alternatives to the mainstream. And yet, what I had not eliminated was the
most fundamental and harmful belief in our culture, that adults have the right t
o use their power over children.
This power-over paradigm teaches children to question themselves and rely on aut
hority figures to make decisions for them and to tell them what is right. The ne
ed for autonomy and self-determination is sacrificed to the need for order and p
roductivity. Indoctrination into this kind of world-view is easier if the power
of children is dismissed and disregarded. We may be indoctrinating them in alter
native values, but the use of power in and of itself, is harmful and serves the
dominant culture.
The loss of our inner authority and voice in childhood creates fertile ground fo
r our institutions to teach us that using power over others is the only way in w
hich our society can flourish, be productive and succeed. This is how adultism c
reates fertile ground for all other forms of discrimination and oppression to fl
ourish in our society. We normalize the more powerful (adults) controlling the l
ess powerful (children) to get them to do what we believe is right. Because the
end does not justify the means, whatever that belief is doesnt matter. It is the
way we use power and the way we treat children that matters.
In our own lives, even if we fight against racial injustice, even if we fight fo
r world peace, even if we fight for a sustainable world, if we are using our pow
er over the children in our lives, we are perpetuating injustice and oppression.
We are setting children up to accept a world that is based on the more powerful
controlling the less powerful.
When I came to realize this, I began to understand why social justice work was s
o difficult. By the time I began to work with college students to help them unde
rstand how racism, sexism, heterosexism, or ableism operated in our society, the
y had already experienced 20 years of domination and control. They accepted this
as normal, because as we all do, we want our parents love and approval. At the t
ime I didnt make the connection between adultism and all other forms of oppressio
n. However, I have since come to understand that it is the missing link.
If we are to create broader social change, create a world where justice is a fun
damental value, we must challenge ourselves to unlearn the adultism we were subj
ect to as children and internalized as adults. We must challenge ourselves to qu
estion our own authority and power, not just the power and authority of big corp
orations or corrupt governments.
We must ask ourselves, How do I mirror the injustice in the world in my relations
hips with the children in my life? How can I live my life so that my actions and m
y beliefs are congruent? Not just in the values I espouse, but in the small actio
ns I take everyday with those who are the least powerful in my life. We can crea
te the change we want to see in the world. To do this, we must start with the mo
st important relationship we have as parents, and that is
with the child in our life. If we can fundamentally eliminate adultism in those
relationships this generation of children will see the world through different e
More importantly, they will act on this new world-view. If they have not experie
nced what it feels like to be dehumanized, dismissed, and marginalized as childr
en, they will not feel the need to perpetuate injustice on others as they grow m
ore powerful in the world. If they have experienced trust, respect and mutuality
as their paradigm, they will be the change our world needs. This change, this c
hallenge to all of us, begins with our own internal work as parents to reject an
d eliminate adultism in all its forms in our own homes and in the lives of child
part 2
In part one of this article, I introduced the idea that the dominant belief syst
em in our culture around parenting is one based on adultism. Adultism is defined
as all of the behaviors and attitudes that flow from the assumption that adults a
re better than young people, and are entitled to act upon young people in many w
ays without their agreement. (1) I also described the broader societal framework
that operates to disempower children and how this disempowerment sets the stage
for other forms of oppression and discrimination to be perpetuated.
In this second part of my article, I want to explore the manifestations of adult
ism in our culture and how, as parents and adults, we need to unlearn adultism i
n order to establish relationships with children based on mutual respect, trust,
and freedom. Unlearning adultism also allows us to heal from our own past exper
iences as children who were controlled and disempowered in our culture.
What Does Adultism Look Like?
A paradigm of control fundamentally supports adultism. We believe that control m
ust be imposed on children for their own good. If we practice gentle discipline
and avoid physical punishment, we may believe we are not controlling parents. I
was definitely one of those parents. I never believed I was a controlling parent
until I was forced to examine my behavior from a different perspective, and spe
cifically from the childs perspective.
The control we exert over children manifests itself in almost all aspects of the
ir lives. Well explore just a few of those areas. One prime aspect of childrens li
ves where control is harmful is in the expression of emotions. When children are
expressing their emotions and we become uncomfortable with how they are express
ing them or what they are saying, we might respond with some of the following st
Ok, youve cried enough, now its time to stop.
Life isnt fair, so you might as well get used to it.
Ill give you something to cry about.
Big boys dont cry.
Well, shes just going through the terrible twos.
You know how teenagers aremoody all the time.
I will often hear these statements made in public places by adults to children o
r about children. We also might control childrens emotional expressions in more s
ubtle ways by shushing them. Our culture will often justify this control over emot
ional expressions by perpetuating the myth that we must control children in orde
r for them to learn self-control. However, the unintentional message and impact
of this kind of control may be far more negative than we believe.
When a child is allowed to express all emotions, including sadness and anger, th
e emotions dissipate and the child is better able to make sense of the experienc
e. By controlling how a child expresses his emotions, we require him to suppress
them. This suppression of emotions doesnt allow the child to integrate the exper
ience and make sense of it.
When he experiences a similar distressing situation in the future, he relives th
e suppressed emotions of the past experience. We set up an emotional loop that b
ecomes a pattern of behavior that is difficult to overcome. He is triggered by s
imilar circumstances in the futureeven as an adultbecause the experience hasnt been
effectively integrated. (2) And, more importantly (or harmful) is that he may n
ot even be aware of this cycle of unintegrated emotions.
Beyond emotional expressions, we control how children interact socially. We beli
eve that children learn politeness when we say to them, whats the magic word? Or if
they are given a gift and dont immediately say thank you, we will say what do you
say? We are encouraged as parents (and this is often reinforced by other parents
and adults) to force children to apologize to each other. We are also expected
as parents to force children to learn to share.
Lets look at this from the childs perspective. Im busy playing with a stick I found
at the park. Its a very cool stick. I can pretend that its lots of different thin
gs. Another kid comes along and decides he wants the stick. He takes it from me.
I punch him. My parent sees me punch him and I am told I should have shared the
stick and I need to apologize. Do I learn empathy or compassion in this scenari
o? Or, do I learn that I can be forced to say something I dont believe to be true
or I will face the disapproval of my parent whom I need and want to love me.
When we force children to share or to apologize, we may believe that they are le
arning a lesson about caring and sharing. What children learn in these instances
is not politeness. They learn what it feels like to be controlled by someone wh
o is more powerful. They learn that children can be coerced by adults, who rudel
y (and disrespectfully) force them to say and do things that are disingenuous. A
nd this is all for sake of learning to be polite and caring. The hypocrisy of th
is treatment is not lost on children or teenagers, even if they might call it so
mething else besides hypocrisy.
Adultism operates in our culture when we judge a childs behavior by a different s
tandard than we might judge an adults behavior. For example, children are often d
escribed as master manipulators. Adults will remark upon how a child has an adult
wrapped around her little finger. We believe that children are trying to manipul
ate us into doing what they want by crying, throwing a temper tantrum or whining.
The reality is children manipulate and adults manipulate. What are we doing when
we manipulate another person? We are doing our best to get our needs or wants m
et. If we feel unheard, if we think someone will not want to do what we want, we
might use techniques to manipulate them. When a child manipulates an adult to g
et what she needs or wants, we believe we need to eliminate that behavior. When
we manipulate a child to get her to eat (or not eat) a certain food we call ours
elves good parents. When we manipulate a child to share the swing by threatening
to leave the park, we are using natural consequences. We hide the reality of our
behavior under the cloak of responsible parenting, not manipulation and coercion
As parents, our manipulations might be covert as well. We might manipulate a chi
lds environment by controlling what comes into the house. I might decide as a par
ent that we will only watch educational television or not allow certain kinds of
video games. When we manipulate environments we are limiting and controlling ch
ildren. We obviously know this as parents. We are setting appropriate limits and b
oundaries. However, our manipulation is much more than this.
Manipulation is an attempt to control the ways people think so that they will co
me to the conclusions that we want them to come to. (3) We dont trust children to
learn from the world and come to the place we want them to be, so we manipulate
their environments so they will become what we want or think what we want them
to think.
What I hope to provoke in our growth process as parents is an examination of the
ways that we view childhood and children. This worldview strongly affects our p
erception of their behavior. If we view children as needing to be controlled and
tamed, then well see their behavior as manipulative and seek to control it. When
we see children outside of this frame of reference we can see that their manipul
ation is a manifestation of the lack of power children have to effect the change
they need in their lives and get their needs met.
Unlearning Adultism
In my professional and personal experience, I have met few individuals who did n
ot experience control as children. Adultism is a very common experience for a ch
ild growing up in our culture. Because it is so common, we come to see it as nor
mal and accepted. Even if we fought against it as children and teenagers, we wil
l most often move into adulthood not questioning our right to control children.
To unlearn adultism, we must actively challenge our worldview. We have to engage
in what is referred to as transformative learning. (4) In this learning process
we challenge our assumptions about childhood. We engage in a process that opens
up our current worldview and transforms our understanding of childhood and the
role of parents and adults.
As we grow up, we make meaning of the world through our experiences. When someth
ing happens to us, we expect the same thing to happen again in the future. We de
velop a frame of reference based on these experiences. We adopt values, beliefs,
and behaviors through living our daily lives. This is how cultural expectations
are passed on from one generation to the next. Most often, we absorb them witho
ut any critical examination. (5)
To open up and transform our frame of reference or worldview we must critically
examine what we believe to normal or true based on the values, beliefs, and beha
viors we have absorbed. We move away from how we were socialized and begin to de
velop a differentiated set of values and beliefs. We then begin to act on those
new values and beliefs. This is an abstract description of the transformative le
arning process.
In my work with parents, and in my own unlearning process (or transformative lea
rning process), I had to explore those ways that I had experienced disempowermen
t as a child and what that meant for me as an adult. There were instances in whi
ch those experiences prompted me to vow to myself that I would never use physica
l punishment, for example. However, because I had not questioned the fundamental
worldview I had internalized from experiencing adultism, I still believed contr
ol was a necessary parenting tool.
The steps in my process that have brought a deeper understanding and unlearning
of adultism consisted of me having some critical incidents, such as watching mys
elf on a video recording interacting with Martel when he was five. Or, being so
angry, I yelled around a doorway and Greyson, then 18 months old, ran away screa
ming in terror. Though they did not involve hitting, those incidents were wake-u
p moments that led me to understand that I had deep work to do to overcome my pa
st experiences.
I had to discover that when I was triggered by something Martel or Greyson did a
nd reacted very strongly with anger or frustration, I was experiencing unintegra
ted emotions from my own childhood. I was reliving my own past traumas, but didnt
know it. I began to journal, write articles, read research, explore other paren
ts experiences and create accountability for myself as a human being to overcome
my past experiences.
I had to face the disempowerment I experienced as a child and the resulting fear
I had as a parent and adult. By facing these feelings, I began to integrate the
m and make sense of all the experiences I had as a child. I could begin to accep
t what I had experienced as a child in a healthy way so that I could create rela
tionships with Martel and Greyson that werent founded on beliefs that control, do
mination, and oppression are normal and expected experiences for children.
I also began to understand that the experience I had with my parents was not uni
que. Our family was typically dysfunctional. We mirrored the broader dynamics in
our culture. It helped me to see the ways in which our institutions and social
structures reinforce parental control and domination of children. My parents, ju
st like me, were products of their own socialization process as children. Yes, t
hey were accountable for their behavior, just as I am, but I could begin to move
beyond the feelings of blame and anger toward them.
The unlearning process is never ending. Each day presents us with an opportunity
to challenge our assumptions and beliefs. When a child in our life does somethi
ng that makes us uncomfortable, we can challenge the assumption that it is becau
se they have done something wrong. Perhaps it is our perspective that needs to c
hange. Perhaps we have past experiences and feelings that we are unconsciously r
If we are committed to freedom and liberation from adultism, we must engage in t
his transformation process that requires a variety of processes, skills, knowled
ge and tools. When we change our everyday behavior to reflect and reinforce the
internal change process, we begin to also change how, where, and when we focus o
ur energy and time.
Where as before we may have been focused on the behaviors of children that didnt
fit into our socialized notions of how they should behave, we can shift our fram
e of reference so that we offer children the opportunity to explore the world ar
ound them, make meaning of their experiences in the world, and create a deeper u
nderstanding of who they are and what they want from this life.
Children are on that journey for themselves. We walk alongside them in their jou
rney, providing support, encouragement, trust, and respect in their ability to d
iscover and to create the life that is best for them. As adults, we are also on
that journey for ourselves. Being parents enhances the journey we are on. We can
heal from our experiences as children and discover the life we want to have lib
erated from the control we experienced as children. We engage in this process fo
r ourselves and for the children in our lives, with the belief that we can creat
e broader change in the world.
1. Barry Checkoway, Adults as Allies, W.J. Kellogg Foundation,
(July 5, 2010) 13.
2. William L. Roberts, The socialization of emotional expression: relations with
prosocial behaviour and competence in five samples, Canadian Journal of Behaviour
al Science, 1999, 31, 6.
3. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition, (New York,
NY, Continuum International Publishing Group, Limited, 2006) 147.
4. Patricia Cranton and Merv Roy, When the Bottom Falls Out of the Bucket: Toward
a Holistic Perspective on Transformative Learning, Journal of Transformative Edu
cation 2003 1, 87-88.
5. ibid.