Adultism: How Is It Affecting Your Youth Work?

At Summerhill I am not bullied and I am safe and I have freedom of speech. I am given responsibility, I have the opportunity to look after myself, choose how I want to learn. By being given these opportunities, I can be what I want. Which is perfect and every child’s dream.

Alex C. – pupil

Imagine my surprise when coming across the words above from a young person describing their school. I’ve written numerous articles and blog postings on the issue of adultism, but recently came across an awesome post that I wanted to share. The blog can be found HERE, but the post I came across was this one —-> where she talks about the school Summerhill. Summerhill, in England, was established in 1921 and calls itself an alternative “free” school. The model this school uses is the epitome of Advancing Youth Development theory which highights the value of putting services, supports and opportunities in place for young people to be able to do and think for themselves.

I recently left work with a youth-serving foundation that did not find value in my method of work that viewed youth work from this standpoint. The lasting visual of my time of work at this place was an image of a co-worker of mine snatching food from high-school seniors who were hungry after being in 8 hours straight of mandatory programming. As my former co-worker remarked to me, “they know the rules, and they aren’t allowed to have food now.”

My response to this outlandish adultist enforcement of a rule made with no pre-thought was to simply ask her, “Is this what you choose to do with your power, deny a child of food?”

Her offense and surprise at my question led me to question how often do we ask those in decision-making capacity why they choose to use their ability to make decisions in a way that is confrontational, punitive and in no way in promotion of providing a service, support or opportunity for the young people we are paid to serve.

My challenge to those of you who work with young people is to use my example as a reference to refer to when we consider how we speak up as advocates for youth. Often, it is not always only our actions, but also our questions that can promote change.