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March 07, 2003

Chapter 1: About This Book - part 9

IV. Narrowing the Topic
"Youth Liberation" and "Adultism" are big topics. There's enough material here for a dozen books: ones that counter opponents' arguments point for point; ones that tell how to be better parents, teachers, and friends to youth; ones that discuss adultism in the context of Christianity, the Latino community, or 18th century Japan. This book is only meant to be a general introduction. A lot has had to be left out.

The idea of Youth Liberation tends to provoke strong emotions in an adult audience. There is such a gut-level reaction, objections pouring fourth almost immediately, that it becomes difficult to lay down any meaningful arguments before getting interrupted. In the context of a book, a similar thing can happen. The author seems to be ignoring an obvious issue, or has lumped two very different topics together -- so you find yourself distracted, thinking "But what about...?!" every few paragraphs. Eventually you just give up on the book.

By explaining at the start how I've chosen to narrow my topic, I hope you'll be better able to give what I'm saying a fair chance. Even if you don't agree with it all, maybe you can walk away with a few new ideas that do seem useful.

Here are ten important ways that I've constrained discussion in this book:

1. What Adults Are Like
This is not a book about what youth are like. I don't discuss their biology, emotional needs, or social development. I don't try to prove that their overall character is better than adults tend to think -- although you may accurately surmise that this is what I believe.

Instead, this is a book about what *adults* are like. I describe how adults commonly treat youth, criticize it, and try to explain why they behave this way. To the extent that I deal with youth at all, it is to offer them tools for changing adults.

2. Young People's Point of View
The vast majority of literature about young people is preoccupied with how to love, nurture, teach, guide, supervise, control, manipulate, or punish your child / teen. In other words, it's from a parent's point of view. It's so common, even non-parents tend to think about youth from the parental point of view. Even *youth* tend to think in this way -- at least about anyone younger than themselves. However, what benefits adults is not always in the best interests of youth. The two groups have different standpoints which, inevitably, conflict with each other sometimes.

In this book I try to look at the world from the point of view of someone whose legal status is "minor". This is different from simply reporting children's and teens' actual opinions. ...Suppose you didn't have to be under 18 to be a minor. Suppose any human being, regardless of their age, could be dropped into the identity -- having to obey all the laws, living under the authority of (typically) two parent figures, having to put up with being treated like a youth by strangers. How would it feel to be in that position? How would things play out when conflicts with adults arose? This is the method I use for exploring young people's standpoint in society.

3. Youth As Independent Beings
I want to be careful about how I discuss young people's dependence on adults. Infants are physically dependent on other people for survival. Grade school children are physically independent, but would run into terrible difficulties trying to get food, clothes, and shelter without help (at least with society set up as it is now). Teens can easily survive on their own, but are generally still *economically* dependent -- often for several years after turning 18.

Good care-giving is tremendously important. And it can be difficult, exhausting, thankless labor. However, I think youth are frequently seen *only* in terms of their dependence and care-giving needs. The seeds of selfhood begin sprouting very early on. Adults can work to encourage and respect a youth's independent will from the very start -- but instead often see it as annoying, inconvenient, or insubordinate. This book seldom addresses the ways in which young persons are dependent on others. Perhaps it's overcompensating -- but I believe a perspective that emphasizes youths' independence is a necessary counterpoint to the prevailing attitudes of our time.

4. Gender Neutral Criticism
Women have been, and continue to be, the primary caregivers for children in our society. There is a history of male "experts" unfairly shaming women for how they mother. In this book I deal with both mothers and fathers as "parents". I hope that my artificial gender neutrality on this issue will be balanced out by equally neutral discussion of domains that are traditionally male-controlled, such as government. Should readers still find anti-woman bias herein, I invite hearing constructive criticism from them.

[For more about how society blames mothers, I suggest starting with these books: "The Myths of Motherhood" by Shari L. Thurer, "The Myth of the Bad Mother" by Jane Swigart, and "Motherguilt" by Diane Eyer.]

5. Active Abuses
There is much discussion about absentee parents who don't take their role as care-giver seriously; they go out partying and leave the children on their own, abandoned. Some look to their offspring to emotionally take care of them. Commentators have said that these people need to "grow up" and act more "adult". I don't see being responsible to other people as having anything to do with whether or not a person is adult; so I choose not to address issues arising from lack of responsibility.

This book deals with parents (and other adults) who are actively engaged with youth, but in a negative way. In extreme terms, I deal with abuse but not neglect -- harm done by acts of commission, not omission. I think much abuse of power is done out of a sense of responsibility. This should not be misinterpreted either as my saying that parents are not responsible for being good care-givers, or that they should simply disengage from youth and abandon them.

6. Grouping Teens with Younger Children
You'll quickly notice that I usually talk about "youth" and "young people" without distinguishing between infants, grade-schoolers, and teens. Obviously the physical and psychological differences are enormous. However, minors from age 0 - 18 tend to be treated equally under the law; parents' authority to control minors' lives remains essentially absolute up to age 18; and to some extent all minors suffer similar prejudices from adults -- being seen as unintelligent, incompetent, and generally worthy of ridicule.

Because my main concern here is with young people's ability to get their complaints heard and dealt with, I see no need in most cases to distinguish between age groups. All voices are worth listening to. Yet, this very emphasis on *verbal* complaints does exclude babies. I acknowledge that teens are best equipped to do Youth Liberation activism, being most verbally articulate. Yet, I remain loath to say that any young person is simply unable to communicate that they're being mistreated -- even infants can communicate displeasure, in their inarticulate, non-verbal way.

[The main challenge to this grouping is where changing laws is concerned. I see a variety of issues arising. In some cases I find no justification for drawing an age line (e.g. city-wide curfews). In other cases, finding appropriate ways to accommodate age differences is very problematic, and I have no better alternative than the laws that already exist (e.g. age of consent laws). These issues are discussed in depth later on.]

7. Other Differences Between Youth
With few exceptions, I do not deal with differences between how boys and girls are treated. This is not for lack of interest in the subject! As with differences between teens and younger children, I've chosen to discuss commonalities of experience over differences. Gender differences in child-rearing and in the classroom have been explored at length by other authors. To do so here would expand this work beyond reasonable lengths.

By the same token, other differences between youth also receive little attention. I don't talk about what it means to be straight versus gay (or lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, or intersexed); I don't talk about the cultural differences of growing up in a black, Latino, Asian, or Native American family; I don't talk about being working class or living on the streets; I don't talk about being developmentally delayed, physically or mentally handicapped, mentally ill, or incarcerated. Each identity combines with adultism to create new, specific forms of prejudice and oppression -- there's too much to consider for an introductory text.

8. The United States / Urban Areas
This book is specific to the United States of America. I don't attempt to discuss adultism in other nations. And even within the U.S., I recognize that I'm mainly dealing with cities and urban life.

Adultism is omnipresent; but the resources to support Youth Liberation are not. For this kind of activism to thrive, you need a large pool of youth to draw from, and a context of other activist groups already disturbing the peace for social change. Circumstances like these exist mostly just in metropolitan areas. Looking at a map, there are roughly 50 large cities in the U.S. (not evenly distributed). Additionally, within each state there are also several large towns where organized youth activism might be really practical. By my estimate, there should be about 250 - 300 locales where this book can be immediately useful.

9. "Mainstream Culture"
Within the U.S., I presume that a "mainstream" culture exists -- growing out of universalizing forces such as television, compulsory schooling, and the "melting pot" ethic. Adult-youth relationships vary somewhat, according to which ethnic or lifestyle subculture they occur in. Still, the mainstream's influence is sufficiently powerful, finding its way even into these pockets, that I feel comfortable making generalizations.

I'll spell this out once, at the beginning: the mainstream U.S. lifestyle tends to be defined by white-skinned, European-descended, middle-class, politically moderate, Christian-leaning, heterosexual, family-oriented parents. By talking about mainstream values, these are the people I'm most strongly referencing. That said, I won't bother to repeat such qualifications throughout the rest of the book.

10. Shifting What's Normal
If I knew how, I'd write a book titled "How To Fight With Your Parents And Win". The trouble is that odds are so stacked against youth, they lose every time -- if the parent's being unreasonable. Tips for how young people can better deal with living in their own family are painfully absent here.

Instead, I pin my hopes on a long-term approach: shift what's considered normal, so adults won't be as casual about throwing their weight around. It's hard to leverage a parent with activism; they're pretty much off on their own, the "king of their castle", ruling however they want. Even so, they are restrained, somewhat, by their perception of mainstream public opinion. If public opinion is swayed toward the ideals of Youth Liberation, then after long enough people will simply be brought up believing that it's what's right. The outcome of challenging norms with activism is uncertain; but for the sake of justice, it must be tried.

-- to be continued --

March 7, 2003

Posted by Sven at March 7, 2003 05:11 PM