TOP 2019-03-28

Adultism and the Liberation of Children and Teenagers

Denied the right to vote or hold political office, prevented from making their own decisions without their family’s consent, paid less for equal work, frequently subject to physical and emotional abuse at the hands of those who claim to care for them - you’d be forgiven for thinking I was talking about women in patriarchal societies. Whereas women have won so many battles for their rights and freedoms, we have yet to build the kind of movement that will finally liberate children and teenagers from these same kinds of oppression.

This oppression is ‘justified’ with the same kinds of regressive excuses that have been used against women and oppressed races and peoples for hundreds of years: young people are said to be undeveloped, uncultured, lacking in intelligence, controlled by their hormones, or in need of supervision and ‘cultivation’ by the oppressing class.

Native peoples and women in general have often ended up as the real or effective private property of their oppressors; and young people are similarly treated as if they were the private property of their parents or ‘guardians’, with the complicity of the state.

Non-medical circumcision of both males and females has been a common practice around the world, demonstrating that children’s bodies are not considered to fully belong to them. Children are frequently considered to be automatically members of their family’s religion, even when they have not explicitly agreed to join - a particularly serious abuse in those jurisdictions where apostasy (leaving the religion) is illegal.

Many young people are not allowed to sign contracts or make other fundamental life decisions without their parents’ agreement, and they have fewer political and economic rights, mirroring the status of slaves in historical societies. Many jurisdictions and cultures even permit corporal punishment for children, and some families and communities have curfews that apply only to young people. Like the parental practice of ‘grounding’ children (preventing them from leaving the house), school ‘detentions’ should be considered fundamental human rights abuses.

Meanwhile the idea that we have achieved ‘universal suffrage’ is a farce, conveniently rendering young people invisible, prohibited from participating even in the political decisions that affect them the most.

Young people can legally be paid a lower minimum wage than older people for equal work, and they face restrictions in the kinds of jobs they may accept. They are prevented from making free choices about their lives while they endure compulsory education. This usually means being institutionalised - without their consent - in systems that have a frightening degree of control over the minutest aspects of their behaviour. Perversely, ‘compulsory education’ is listed as a human right by the UN. Education is indeed a right, but coercion is a fundamental wrong. A right does not need to be compulsory for it to be guaranteed. Nobody claims that the right to vote implies we should be forced to vote.

As with women in patriarchal cultures, the sexuality of young people is also suppressed and demonised, as society shoehorns them into an image of ‘innocence’ and ‘purity’ that serves only the fantasy of adults. Young people’s consent doesn’t legally count unless they are above the jurisdiction’s arbitrarily set ‘age of consent’, which varies considerably across the world. Hypocritically, consent isn’t legally important when it comes to such things as circumcision or compulsory education. Society has simply decreed what young people shall and shall not do, at times ignoring consent when it is given, at times disregarding it when it is not.

Our language sometimes reveals how ingrained adultism is in our culture. Words like “childish” and “juvenile” are used pejoratively, and people are said to be “acting like a child” and told to “grow up” if they behave in ways we disapprove of. The intelligence of young people is implicitly insulted when someone is said to be “smart for their age”, and young people’s feelings are treated dismissively when people speak of “puppy love”.

In the digital world, many websites legally prohibit use by persons under a certain age, and technology companies participate in privacy violations by offering parents tools for monitoring and controlling their children’s web browsing and computer usage. Meanwhile, the state helps parents to control the kinds of films, video games and media that their children consume by prohibiting sales purely on the basis of the customer’s age.

Society’s bias towards adults and discrimination against young people is called adultism. A movement against adultism should consider these as basic demands: