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Problem youth or problem adults?

By Cecilia Gran

Have you ever heard of the word "ephebiphobia?" I hadn't until I ran into it when I was looking for information on the subject of youth rights. It means the fear and loathing of adolescents and it results in an "irrational, exaggerated, and sensational characterization of young people"

Coined by Kirk Astroth, a 4-H outreach agent in Montana, today ephebiphobia is recognized as a major issue in youth engagement throughout society. Sociologists, government agencies, educators, and youth advocacy organizations use the word to describe any loathing, paranoia, or fear of young people or of that time of life called "youth".

This reminded me of a piece of curriculum content we cover in the Youth Work Institute's Culturally Responsive Youth Work Matters course on adultism. In this piece, we focus on adultism and internalized adultism -- how young people are discriminated against in adult-defined institutions and how young people sometimes internalize this mistreatment against themselves or other youth. The essence of adultism is disrespect of the young.

The other day I was talking with a county social worker who wants me to speak to his staff about adultism at an upcoming meeting. When he brought the topic up to his supervisor for her approval, she responded that adultism isn't as bad as the other "isms" and it wouldn't be a very interesting topic. Hmm.

John Bell addressed this issue in a 1995 article called Understanding adultism: A key to developing positive youth and adult relationships"). Bell believes that racism, sexism, all the other isms reinforce each other in American culture, but the phenomenon of being disrespected simply because one is young is an ism that crosses many cultures around the globe. That is what makes this problem so complex. It's everywhere and we have all experienced it in one way or another because we have all have been young. The feeling of "less than" has been normalized. It feels like that's just the way things are.

So, now I want to ask the following question about a current issue that has been troubling me for some time.

Here in Minnesota, does the Anoka-Hennepin School District's controversial Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, a.k.a. the "neutrality policy" on the issue of bullying have anything to do with ephebiphobia or adultism in some way? The policy requires adult staff members to remain neutral on issues involving student sexual orientation. The new alternative policy, called Controversial Topics Curriculum policy, states that discussion of controversial topics in class is helpful, but forbids staff members from taking sides with youth, even when bullying is going on.

What does controversial mean? Is it controversial to be gay? Do either of these adult-created policies and/or rules protect, nurture, and support all youth? Do they create an atmosphere of respect and care for all young people? Is adultism at work here? What do you think?

Cecilia Gran, former associate program director and state faculty member, Youth Work Institute

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  1. Cece-
    Thank you for this. I would love to hear you talk more about internalized adultism and it's impacts on both youth and youth workers.
    If it hasn't been done already, I think it would be interesting to see research from the school day education realm about adultism in systems and it's impact on learning/belonging/leadership.....

  2. Thanks for your response Shaun! You are the first one! As you can see from the silence around this post, I am thinking this is a topic that not many people are interested in or comfortable writing about.
    I am not sure what is out there in the world of research on adultism in the education system and its impact on young people in terms of their learning, sense of belonging, and the steps they are willing to take to lead. This is a topic that needs more attention for sure. Anyone else with a response for Shaun?

  3. Hi Cece,
    Thanks for the great blog entry. You have certainly broached an array of important and arguably pressing issues in the field. From the theoretical perspective of your entry, I read through Bell's article, and what stands out to me the most is his qualifier that adultism entails a "consistent pattern" of disrespect toward a young person; it is not just a policy in and of itself. Applying this understanding of the term to the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, I cannot help but wonder what direct impact this policy has had on the all youth in the school district. IN PRINCIPLE (i.e. this is not my own opinion), adults remaining neutral on a controversial and often painful issue among youth is seemingly in accordance youth-centered learning; by not taking sides, adults are not imposing their value system as superior to others.
    But let's be honest, when it comes to bullying around sexual orientation, an adult remaining neutral may likely render or deepen the affects of adultism identified by Bell (e.g. an undermining of self-confidence and self-esteem; an increasing sense of worthlessness; developing health conditions, attempting suicide, depression, etc.; feeling unloved or unwanted.).
    Having made this conjecture based on what I have read, I cannot help but wonder what this policy looks like in practice. Have there been evaluations capturing the efficacy and impact of this policy? As is the case with many policies, it may sound good or at best, harmless, but policy deployed into practice can render some serious and unexpected consequences. I would conjecture that adult neutrality on such a serious and controversial issues is indeed adultism in practice, but I imagine that to make policy change, we would need to capture how this comes into practice by directly identifying that "consistent pattern" of disrespect toward young people.
    What has the evaluations around the Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy looked like?

  4. Thank you for your response Joanna. Interestingly, the Anoka-Hennepin School District scrapped the new proposed policy yesterday and is going back to the drawing board. Public outcry over the policy killed it. We'll have to wait and see what they propose next.