Sunday, January 23, 2011

Don’t Respect Your Elders. Respect Each Other.

When I was a kid, the statement, “Respect your elders.” just pissed me off. I would say, “Respect the children!” or “Respect each other,” or “Respect is earned, not given!” I always felt respecting “elders” was DANGEROUS. I also felt that it could be used as an excuse for idiots who’ve grown old to be idiot elders. As a child this didn’t make me too popular among the elder men in my life. The women seemed to secretly get it but didn't want to piss off the men demanding my respect.

Well, I’m an “elder” now, and I’ve just come across something called, “Adultism,” which perfectly describes how I felt as a child who was yearning to be free, independent, and given equal respect despite my diminutive stature. 

The Parenting for Social Change website describes adultism as a product of the system of oppression explaining the adult/child or parent/child relationship defines our existence and our world from birth, arguing that adultism allows for the perpetuation of all other forms of oppression (sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc…).

I read the article, saying, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” The article goes on to explain that 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,

(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.

And, again, I thought, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” In my experience, these elders, did not respect me and it pissed me off. I knew I was important. I knew I would develop correctly. I thought it was insane that they punished, hit, and took away privileges. When they did this, (yes, even as a kid)I explained that I felt sorry for their ignorance and felt we’d both gain much more by discussing our feelings. Of course, when you’re dealing with adultists (most adults I knew were), that just gets you more punishment, hitting, and loss of privileges. They called me a smart-mouthed, know-it-all. I said, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” “You are right! Listen to me! I have a smart mouth and I know stuff. I have important things to say!” Their adult status gave them the right to disregard my thoughts.

The adults in my life liked to show off my successes (which they inappropriately took ownership for) to their friends, but they wanted me to know, that I knew little. They knew all. And, oh yes, I was spoiled and selfish...even though I didn’t ask for the stuff they gave me and would have traded it in for a good conversation anytime.

I moved out of my parent's house the day I turned 18 and my life since then has been a relief. It was at that time I had the ability to escape from some of the adultism that I knew was wrong, wrong, wrong! I did have a few college experiences where, unfortunately, I had to call in the support of “real” adults to help me make a case because my adultist professors dismissed me.

The article advises this.

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.

Wow! Great advice. When I talk to my friends like Penelope Trunk or read about people like Bill Zeller (read letter to the end where he addresses this), I realize how important it is for adults to talk about this farce and acknowledge how some children are mistreated. The cycle needs to be broken.

The article points out that 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. This happens because the nature of the relationship between a young child and parent (or adult) requires significant caretaking by the adult. This kinda sucks for the kid, because they need the parent to take care of them financially and in other ways. This often makes the adult to feel empowered in inappropriate ways i.e. telling/hitting/demanding rather than explaining.

This article challenges us to move beyond our assumptions that adults are better than or superior to children.

For the whole article read Parenting for Social Change. You may also be interested in reading what wikipedia says about adultism or the adultism blog which publishes a few posts each year.


  1. "I’m smart; you’re dumb.
    I’m big; you’re small.
    I’m right, you’re wrong.
    And there’s nothing you can do about it."

    Roald Dahl said it best in Matilda, a perfect example of how adults are intimidated by children, especially the really dumb ones...

  2. Very interesting. On the flip side, did you catch this article? Quite controversial and interesting.

  3. Check out the anti-adultism resources on The Freechild Project website at

  4. I moved out of my parent's house the day I turned 18 and my life since then has been a relief.

    I envy you. Consider yourself lucky that you hadn't been deprived of the self-confidence to leave home by 18. In my teens, the only safe way to rebel against the tyranny of school and home was passive-aggressive refusal to do grownup stuff like getting a job or a driver's license. I hated being bossed around by my parents, but it was too damn scary to leave home. It took my parents' divorce and the sudden death of my father for me to get my own apartment at 25. I'm essentially a welfare case, living off a legal settlement from my father's death. Am I a victim of tyranny, or am I just a coward? I ask myself this question every day of my painfully unproductive life. :(