ADULTISM: becoming aware of how we oppress and discriminate against children and young people

On Monday, December 2nd, 2019, Dr John McHugh and I gave a public talk at Carlow College on the following subject:  Unwrapping Oppressive Attitudes to Children and Young People in Time for Christmas PDF  Following this link brings you to the slides I presented and below I offer a brief commentary on them. It probably makes more sense to read the commentary before viewing the slides.

John began with a presentation on the profession of Social Care and the factors that contributed to how it was practiced today. I then offered my perspective on how I believe children and young people are oppressed in Ireland today and why social care workers and foster carers should be aware of this. I described this oppression as Adultism, treating children and young people as not deserving full human rights simply because of their young age.

I set my argument in a Humanistic context, relating how Maslow rejected Freud’s pessimistic view of humans as  deeply flawed neurotics and Watson’s insistence that we are only capable of reacting instinctively to external stimuli. I quoted the late Dr Jonathan Miller’s claim that the human brain was not just the most complex phenomenon in the Universe, it was more complex than the Universe. This is how we got to the Moon and back  – we can think, reflect and develop. So, if humans are so amazing and full of potential why don’t more of us achieve that potential and promise? Because, according to Maslow, we cannot achieve self-actualization unless the significant preceding needs on his pyramid of needs are met. We also get hurt as individuals, such as by abuse and tragic events, but also by belonging to groups that are oppressed. Many of us are hurt by all three causes. Consider a black immigrant female child living in poverty and being sexually abused – not an improbable scenario.

I offered the slide listing the best known oppressed groups, including sexism. As many of my social care students (especially women) have been sceptical about whether women were oppressed, I have begun showing slides of Fintan O’Toole’s incredible 10 things women couldn’t do in the 1970s in Ireland. On this occasion I then followed this with my own 10 things children and young people can’t do in Ireland, on December 2nd 2019.

But I first reminded the audience of Ireland’s First Dail (or Parliament) in 1919 vowing that “it will be the first duty of the Government of the republic” to put meeting the needs of children first, as they were the most dependent citizens of the new republic. I reminded the audience that as over 4800 children will be homeless in Ireland this Christmas their needs are clearly not being met.

It should be unthinkable by now to use the term ‘woman’ as an insult as in ‘you are talking like a woman’ or behaving like a woman’. Yet it is very common to use the word ‘child’ instead of immature as in ‘you are being childish’ or ‘behaving like a child’. As I write this now I remember how much I resent the term ‘kids’ as in ‘kids go free’. I’m not too fond either of ‘little people’ or ‘smallys’. At public events often only Ladies and Gentlemen are welcomed, sometimes despite the significant presence of children and young people. Circuses and pantomimes are obvious and joyful exceptions to this sad convention.

I then offered some slides of children behaving as children, but heroically, saving lives and trying to save the planet.

The following slides detailed how most children and young people cannot today say ‘no’ to medication, such as Ritalin, say ‘no to having therapy and ‘no’ to having access with family when they find access distressing and traumatising.

Children can’t claim sanctuary, choose the parent they wish to live with in cases of family breakup, choose their faith or right not to have any faith.

Christmas is increasingly being used to manipulate and intimidate children into being ‘good’, such as in the recent  “tradition” of Elves on Shelves, a particularly sinister and disturbing commercial venture that children may experience as emotional child abuse and grooming. There is also a worrying trend of public shaming children on the internet by parents (see

Young children and babies can’t refuse to be used as props in movies and TV entertainment. In contrast to the regularly declared claim that great care is taken that animals are not hurt in productions, I showed three clips from TV and a recent film in which babies are clearly being hurt and distressed, obviously without their consent.

The final slide in this series depicted Rosa Parks who helped begin the Civil Rights movement in Montgomery by refusing to sit in a Blacks Only seat. Had she been a child she would have been moved. Children, because of their young age, cannot take action as adults can. They need adults to be their allies, not their oppressors.

I gave Mary Robinson’s example of Irish people internalising their oppression to our own cost and wondered whether the many worrying issues for children, such as increasing levels of anxiety, mental health concerns, drug and alcohol abuse, could be looked at objectively without factoring in adultism and internalised oppression.

Finally, I asked whether Adultism could be something that social care workers, foster carers and everyone who worked directly with or had responsibility for children and young people should usefully reflect on in terms of their own attitudes to them.









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