Just because things have always been done one way doesn’t mean they can’t be done better. Just because we have always believed something does not mean that we cannot be wrong. In 1978, psychologist Jack Flasher became aware of a long-standing phenomenon affecting children that was deeply ingrained both in our society and in institutions and families: he called it adultcentrism.
What is adultcentrism?
Adultcentrism, or adultism, as it is also known, is a prejudice that discriminates people just because they are younger. There is no doubt that children and adolescents need guidance and supervision from adults, but this prejudice goes much further because it involves systematically ignoring, oppressing or belittling them because of their young age.
At the base of adultcentrism is the belief that adults are inherently superior to younger people or even that the rights of adults must always prevail over the rights of children and adolescents. Some people also believe that young people have an obligation to hand over power to adults, even if it is used indiscriminately, harmful or even abusively.
At the base of adultcentrism lies the belief that adults are always right because they know more about life and are more prepared to face it since they have had more experiences, so that children or adolescents must subordinate themselves to them without question.
Examples of adultcentrism in everyday life
Everywhere there are examples of adultcentrism, we just have to refine our perception. This prejudice is more common within families, whether from parents to children or even from older siblings to younger ones. However, adultism can also be seen in some workplaces, where older workers look down on their younger colleagues as too inexperienced.
There are also relatively common expressions that reveal a disguised adultcentrism. Such is the case, for example, of a popular saying that says “children speak when chickens pee”, to refer to the inappropriateness of expressing their opinion in certain contexts or interrupting the elderly.
Other examples of adultcentrism in everyday language that we probably heard when we were little or even said to our children are: “You are too young to understand” or “When you grow up you will understand.” In this way, we avoid to explain to children or adolescents issues that concern or interest them simply by arguing that they will not be able to understand it.
It is also often common to say to adolescents or young people: “Grow up!” when certain behaviors bother us. Some compliments can also be very adult-centered, such as, “You are very smart for your age,” which means that only grown-ups can be smart.
The consequences of adultism extend into adult life
Very few people come out of childhood without ever having been victims of adultcentrism. That means your wishes and ideas were likely to be ignored or even belittled at some point. When this phenomenon occurs rarely, it is not a problem, but when it becomes the educational style applied by parents and teachers, its psychological traces extend into adult life.
If from a young age you have been conveyed the idea that your opinions, preferences, dreams and needs are not important to adults because they are superior and you owe them respect – whoever they are and whatever they do – it is likely that you have gotten used to submitting and accept pressure from others.
Adult-centered parenting has taught you that there is a hierarchy of power in which you do not count, so it is more likely that you are willing to accept different forms of oppression and become the victim of psychological abusers. You are also more likely to believe right away the messages of the system and not sift them through logic or try to check if they are true.
The lack of empowering experiences in the first years of life can create a mark that is difficult to erase. It is possible that you show a more submissive attitude towards your boss at work, even if they are not right, or that you are not able to defend your assertive rights when someone treats you unfairly.
Adultcentrism weakens the confidence that children have in themselves and generates an increasingly negative self-concept. These children probably do not feel loved enough because they sense that they are not taken seriously.
In other cases, adultcentrism leads to an opposite reaction. When that person grows up, he assumes the role of the oppressive adult. This is due to the accumulation of negative feelings such as the feeling of worthlessness and helplessness. As a result, that person channels those negative emotions and feelings towards others in harmful ways.
That person feels that now that he finally has the power, he can exercise it over the younger ones, replicating the behaviors he learned from the adults he related to. Therefore, it is probable that those adults who today silence the youngest have been in turn silenced children. Thus the cycle of adultcentrism is perpetuated.
How to avoid adultcentrism?
An assertive way to avoid adultcentrism is to pay more attention to our language. For example, instead of saying “The children speak when the chickens pee”, we can say: “It is not okay to interrupt another person while he is talking, when he is finished you can say what you think.”
Instead of saying that he is too young to understand it, we could try to explain what is happening with words and examples that allow him to understand it. In reality, there are different levels of understanding of the facts, from the most superficial to the deepest – even for adults – so that there are no children who cannot understand but adults who cannot explain.
On the other hand, it is essential to change your attitude and stop placing labels or believing in certain prejudices such as that all young people are irresponsible or all older people are wise. Although it is true that young people have less life experience, it is not the years, but the “damages” rceived that allows us to grow. A young man can be infinitely more mature than an older person due to his personality characteristics and the lessons he has learned from his few life experiences. In contrast, an adult may have had many experiences without taking advantage of them.
Therefore, some characteristics more typical of the first decades of life, such as imagination, creativity, innovation, motivation and energy are also positive and socially desirable, so that each stage of life is unique and important.
“The Mirror” is a practical tool to stop adult-centered behaviors proposed by the psychologist John Bell. In practice, when you interact with younger people, you just have to ask yourself:
Would you treat an adult this way?
Would you speak to an adult using that tone of voice?
Would you snatch that out of an adult’s hand?
Would you make this decision instead of an adult?
Would you have this expectation of an adult?
Would you limit an adult’s behavior in that way?
Would you listen to a friend’s problem in the same way?
We must bear in mind that, if we want to have a society in which people are more independent, mature, responsible, respectful and self-confident; we need to educate children in a climate of respect. And respect is two-way, regardless of age. This does not mean that there should not be rules and limits, nor does it mean that children and adolescents do not need adult guidance and discipline, but it can be disciplined with love from the respect of individuality.
LeFrancois, B. (2013) Adultism. In: Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology.
Bell, J. (1995) Understanding Adultism A Key to Developing Positive Youth-Adult Relationships. In: The Free Child Project.