Adultcentrism: The Power of Adults Over Children and Adolescents

Adultcentrism is exercised by underestimating the behavior, thoughts, and ideas of children and adolescents. In fact, it's taken for granted that, simply because they're young, their contributions are worthless.
Adultcentrism: The Power of Adults Over Children and Adolescents
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 December, 2021

“When you’re older you’ll understand. I’m in charge, your opinions don’t matter. When you start earning your own money then you’ll know what life’s all about “. Adultcentrism defines the superior position of adults over children and adolescents. It’s a kind of invisible reality, of which we tend not to even be aware. Nevertheless, it has an important impact on the youngest in our population.

Many people see nothing wrong in this position of dominance and imposition. After all, aren’t children inexperienced creatures we need to take responsibility for? As a matter of fact, in reality, everything has a limit and adult-child relationships should never exhibit any form of contempt.

Adultcentrism is a phenomenon similar to androcentrism, the social vision in which man is seen as superior to women. However, from the moment a specific figure or sector of the population sees itself with more rights than others, discrimination appears. Let’s take a closer look at it.

Children and adolescents often demand that they stop being seen as passive subjects. In fact, they too, with their own abilities, can do great things to improve the world.

girl suffering from adultcentrism

Adultcentrism

Adultcentrism refers to a paradigm of thought that sometimes leads us to perceive children and adolescents in a distorted way. One example of this is seeing them as passive subjects, unskilled, and lacking autonomy. By viewing them in this way, we don’t hesitate in doing everything for them and overprotecting them to an unhealthy extreme.

This behavior shapes the phenomenon known as ‘the squishy generation’. It’s true that this population between the ages of four and 18 is undergoing a process of growth, maturation, and self-discovery. However, just because they’re young doesn’t mean they’re incomplete, incapable, or lacking in qualities.

Above all, adultcentrism is defined by a vision of superiority. These adults don’t pay attention to or value the child’s perspective.

Orientation yes, contempt no

Naturally, all children need protection and guidance. However, it’s extremely common for protection to evolve into prejudice. In fact, sometimes we ignore the needs of our children or students and even underestimate their abilities. We do it when we minimize their reasoning or say things like “You’ll understand when you grow up”.

We have to understand and focus. While it’s true that, as adults, we know much more about life, we mustn’t override our children’s capabilities and potentialities. A child also has the right to give their opinion. Likewise, our work with them is to guide them, not belittle them. Furthermore, we must give them a voice, reason with them, and answer any questions they ask.

In 2013, UNICEF drafted a document aimed at making the population aware of adultcentrism. It claimed there’s a need for us to reflect on our attitudes of adultism. This will allow us to better educate and guide our young people.

Educating doesn’t mean dominating or underestimating. Every child has a unique potential as a human being and we can’t, under any circumstances, behave in a superior or discriminatory manner toward our youngest members.

How is adultism exercised?

Adultism occurs unobtrusively. Furthermore, not everyone is aware of those attitudes that discriminate the value, identity, and potential of children and adolescents. Here are some examples:

  • Minimizing or despising the ideas or proposals of children.
  • Taking for granted that, just because they’re children, they don’t understand anything.
  • Disqualifying their emotions and feelings. Criticizing them because they cry, because they’re wrong, or because they demand attention.
  • Not listening to them when they speak or thinking that what they express or think is nonsense.
  • Disregarding their dreams or projects, and not taking their goals seriously.
  • Considering that every child and adolescent is conditioned to comply with what an adult tells them.

There’s another noteworthy aspect. It’s the fact that adultism also appears in work environments when someone’s discriminated against just because they’re young. This creates a system of domination and discrimination that’s not uncommon in society today.

Child high-fiving his mother's hand, breaking the bias of adultcentrism

How to detect and overcome adultism

In many cases, adultism is linked to authoritarianism. It’s also associated with the kind of overprotection that many parents exercise. We know that this ends up invalidating the autonomy, identity, and psychological maturity of the child. In fact, this type of attitude isn’t only discriminatory but is also harmful to the social and emotional development of the child

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the University of Bergamo (Italy) created a scale of adultcentrism to identify this thinking bias among caregivers in school communities, etc. It’s necessary that we not only learn to identify these types of perceptions in ourselves but that we also correct them.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Promote the fact that children are entitled to give their opinions on any and every subject. Indeed, simply communicating or expressing their thoughts should never be seen as an attempt by them to challenge authority.
  • Allow them to participate in daily decisions. Let them give their opinions and views. Allow them to debate and to stay up-to-date on problems at home, in the community, in society, etc.
  • Respect their ideas, opinions, and personal goals.

We must remember that educating doesn’t mean dominating or modeling children after their parents. It means guiding and giving them wings so that, once they’re fully grown, they’re able to conquer their own dreams and follow their own paths.

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