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December 02, 2002

Adult Supremacism - part 1

"Adultism" is the oppression of young people by adults. Adultism is pervasive in U.S. society, shaping personal relationships, institutions, and cultural images. The word "adultism" is very general; it encompasses many different situations. So, it is useful to create more specific language. Probably the most important word an anti-adultism activist can add to their vocabulary is "adult supremacism".

ADULT SUPREMACISM is the belief that adults should control youth.

In this essay I'll attempt to give a better understanding of adult supremacism by describing it in some detail.

I. An Ideology
Adult supremacism is an ideology. It is the set of ideas, the belief system, that rationalizes how adults continue to treat youth. Most people don't even give it conscious thought. They agree with adult supremacy by default rather than by choice. Adult supremacism has been built into our institutions and handed down as tradition, so it seems like it's just how the world works, like it's nature. Other individuals are more outspoken about their dislike of youth or belief that parents should be strict disciplinarians. These people are bigots -- but don't make the mistake of thinking that only aberrant individuals are supremacist. The entire society is saturated in adult supremacism; the bigots are just more vocal about their support of the system.

II. Control by Parents
The most basic building block of adult supremacism is the parent-child relationship. It is supposed to be a command/obey dynamic: the parent makes commands, the youth is obligated to obey them. But obedience is not enough. The youth is supposed to show that they're eager to comply and grateful for the supervision. Resentment, rolling eyes, sighing, back-talk, and being slow to obey -- are seen as insubordination, an attack on the parent's right to command.

To empower parents, adult society has granted authority to use violence ("discipline") -- acts that would be considered "assault" if done to another adult. Most parents seldom need to use this power, though. Having established that they *can* inflict pain, intimidation keeps the youth in line. Youth remain trapped under this lingering threat by dependence on the parents for shelter, food, clothing, money, and transport.

Most parents, perhaps, seem kind the majority of the time. Generally, parents don't want to see themselves as tyrants. They want their offspring and other adults to appreciate them as kind protectors. The children of a "good parent" are supposed to obey out of love -- too much resistance by the youth, too much force by the adult, makes the grownup look like a "bad parent". So parents give youth areas of freedom, making life tolerable to the extent that the basic command/obey relationship can fade into the background. The fact remains, though, that when some issue feels important to the parent, they can step back into the role of authority at any time.

The power that parents are given to rule over their offspring is almost unlimited. Most states prohibit violence only if it leaves lasting physical damage -- and even then, some states forgive the act if it was an accident that occurred during discipline. There is a presumption that adults in their wisdom are fair rule-makers -- but youth experience shows that parents often become petty tyrants: judgmental, inventing rules and punishments to suit their mood, stepping in to control young people's lives simply because they can. "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." [John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1887]

III. Control by Government
This idea that "adults should control youth" shapes the government, just as it shapes parent-child relationships. As things stand now, only adults are permitted to run for office in the U.S., and minors are prohibited from voting in elections. It's a situation that echoes the structure of the family: adults get to make the rules, youth are expected to obey them. Someone could argue that there are benefits to this system -- but not that it's the only *possible* system. Rule exclusively by adults is a particular form of government -- like monarchy, oligarchy, matriarchy, etc. By coining a new word to describe rule by adults -- "adultarchy" (or "adultocracy") -- we create room to envision something different: a society where all members have a voice, regardless of age.

Modern adultism is a phenomenon linked to the emergence of the nation state. Within the family unit, the line between parent and child can remain intact even as both get older. In previous times, this allowed the grandparents or great grandparents to hold the highest authority in a multi-generational family. Now, however, simple rule by the eldest has been replaced by rule by the mid-range, an artificial class: adults. On a societal level, government has imitated the generational lines of a family (child / parent / grandparent) by establishing legal categories: minor / adult / senior citizen. But unlike in the family, law-makers are *forced* to pick an artificial age-line to distinguish youth from adults. Different laws identify different age lines (e.g. 16, 18, 21, 25), but the preponderance center around 18 -- roughly the age when most youth now leave home. Again, the parent-child relationship is the most basic building block of adult supremacism; government attempts to echo its patterns in law.

Where youth are concerned, the adult government's first role has been to elevate the tradition of parental authority to law. The original and continuing model for parent power has been to view youth as property. In the early part of U.S. history women, children, slaves, and cattle were all seen as the living property of a white, adult, male, head-of-household. Like inanimate possessions, these dependents were seen as extensions of the man, without a legal voice of their own. It was the right of the man to do with them as he liked, and his obligation to be responsible for their actions should they offend another adult male citizen. The man could be punished if his property committed a crime, so he was granted legal authority to use violence as a means of control. Institutions were put in place to return "runaways", as were means for severing connection to a continually unruly ("incorrigible") youth. Most legal vestiges of "persons as property" have been wiped away for women and African Americans -- but for minors, parental responsibility laws, the right to discipline, prohibitions against running away, and laws pertaining to "incorrigible" youth, remain largely intact.

In addition to codifying individual parents' right to control their children, the modern nation state claims for itself the right to control minors as a class. As with parental authority, the powers of the state are essentially unlimited. Of the many youth-related laws currently in effect, examples include:

  • a minimum age to take a driver's test
  • a minimum grade point average required to hold a driver's license
  • city-wide curfews (both night-time and day-time)
  • bans on underage dance clubs
  • bans on unsupervised minors meeting in groups of 3 or more in public spaces (how some cities define "gang activity")
  • bans on buying spray paint
  • punishments for minors of a certain age that have sex with each other
  • limits on minors' access to sexually explicit literature
  • bans on youth purchase or use of alcohol and tobacco products
  • [Note: city, county, state, and federal-level laws have been lumped together here.]

At times, governmental and parental interests in controlling youth seem at odds. Compulsory schooling and child abuse intervention are probably the most significant instances of state interference with parental control. Parents may become angry because they feel that state agencies are teaching viewpoints that they disagree with, or more basically, just because their human property has been taken away from them. Like parents, the state views youth as property -- but property that is collectively owned by *all* adult citizens. Backing up a step, the state actually views all U.S. citizens as its own property. Anything owned by a possession of the state, must also belong to the state. When (for whatever reason) government takes an interest in a matter that would otherwise be parents' domain, this principle justifies superseding private ownership rights.

It's worth noting that when agents of the state do step in, they tend to replicate the parent-child model. Public schools -- the arm of the government that youth are most personally effected by -- are at least as hierarchical as the family: youth are given no power in decisions about hiring and firing staff and administrators, funding, policy, or curriculum. Teachers are expected to act "in loco parentis" -- in place of the parents... And in more than half of the U.S. states, they share with parents the right to inflict corporal punishment. In child abuse intervention, the ultimate goal is to either reunite the youth with their rehabilitated parents, or to place them with a foster family. Youths' right to simply "divorce" the parents has repeatedly been denied in the courts, even when they were sufficiently articulate and aggrieved to demand it.

To summarize... The government echoes the structure of the family: adults, and only adults, get to make the rules. The breadth of rule-making power that adult government grants itself is almost unlimited. It elevates traditional parental authority to law, giving youth a status much like private property. Yet, when the state does take an interest, parents' rights of private ownership are superseded, with the justification that youth are property ("resources") collectively owned by *all* adult citizens.

-- to be continued --

December 2, 2002

Posted by Sven at December 2, 2002 05:53 PM


The devil's advocate might ask for your thoughts on these statements -- particularly Number 1, which distinguishes youth from women and slaves.

1) Youth are less experienced and knowledgeable than adults (and are increasingly less experienced and knowledgeable the younger they are).

2) Inexperience and ignorance can lead one to harm oneself or others (consider a 5-year-old driving on the freeway).

3) Adults have a responsibility to protect youth and society at large.

4) Adults exercise this responsibility by imposing restrictions on youth.

It would also be interesting to see how genetics would fit into your discussion. An argument could be made that the desire to protect and nurture one's child is built into our genes. Adults and youth are inequally able and powerful in most species. Most of what's built into our genes got there because it kept us alive. Has this instinct lost its relevance?


Posted by: Gretchen at December 4, 2002 03:43 PM