Understanding adultism: Creating positive youth-adult partnerships

Everyone benefits when youth and adults work together, but there are unique challenges to learning how to work together as equals.

According to John Bell of YouthBuild USA, adultism refers to behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than young people are, and that they are entitled to make decisions for young people without their agreement. Social institutions, laws, customs and attitudes reinforce this mistreatment. Adults tell most young people what to eat, what to wear, when to go to bed, when they can talk and when they are to be in the house. Some adults even choose which friends are acceptable for young people.

When we address the unequal balance of power between youth and adults and learn how to work together in a partnership, we can help create a stronger relationship based on respect, mutual friendship and sharing. Research on positive youth development tells us that adults should welcome and value the voices of young people as resources in their communities. Michigan 4-H volunteers can help young people learn to make good decisions by involving them as equal partners.

It’s easy to fall into the habit of treating young people as if their opinions and feelings don’t matter because we live in a society that privileges adults. When trying to build a partnership with youth, think first about how you would respond if you were interacting with another adult. Would you treat him or her that way or speak in that tone of voice? If another adult friend tells you about a problem, would you treat the problem with the same level of seriousness and empathy? It can be tempting to minimize the struggles of teenagers who might seem to be in a constant state of drama; however, we should remember that for young people, these emotions feel very real and intense. Before speaking with youth, think carefully about whether or not that statement supports an equal partnership.

It’s clear that youth-adult partnerships have great potential as well as the risk for possible obstacles. By being aware of the obstacles, you can try to avoid them and stay on track to treating young people as true partners. When we see young people as partners, they develop better self-esteem, increase problem-solving skills and are more likely to be seen as leaders in their community. Adults benefit from partnerships with young people, too. They can help us renew our enthusiasm for activities, energize us and teach us new skills. The community benefits from youth-adult partnerships by gaining additional perspective and investing in their citizens. Everyone wins when young people and adults work together as partners.

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