Adultism is a predisposition towards adults, which some see as biased against children, youth, and all young people who aren't addressed or viewed as adults. Adultism is popularly used to describe any discrimination against young people and is distinguished from ageism, which is simply prejudice on the grounds of age; not specifically against youth. Adultism is ostensibly caused by fear of children and youth.
This definition has been superseded by another from a late 1970s journal article proposing that adultism is the abuse of the power that adults have over children. The author identified examples of adultism not only in parents but in teachers, psychotherapists, the clergy, police, judges, and juries.
Co-Counseling adopted the term in the late 1980s to describe "the oppression of and discrimination against people who are young. Since then the term has come to describe any mistreatment or silencing of children and/or youth.
In 1996, Jenny Sazama, an adultism expert with an organization called Youth On Board, explained that,
Young people are systemically mistreated and disrespected by society, with adults as the agents of the oppression. The basis of young people's oppression is disrespect. Manifestations of the oppression include: systematic invalidation, denial of voice or respectful attention, physical abuse, lack of information, misinformation, denial of any power, economic dependency, lack of rights, and any combination of the above.
This definition is now used widely by youth-serving organizations and education institutions seeking to counter the effects of adultism. The Child Welfare League of America writes,
"[Adultism is] an adult practice of forming certain beliefs about young people and practicing certain behaviors toward them because of societal views, usually negative, that are based on their age. Adultism happens when this prejudice is combined with the ability of adults to exert control over the lives of young people. When adults practice adultism, young people are viewed as objects instead of resources. The end result is that young people become disempowered and disenfranchised.
While not meeting universal acceptance, one national media organization promotes the notion that "adultism is the foundation for all forms of oppression," due to the commonality of every person's having experienced said discrimination.
Illustrating the commonality of this problem, local youth-serving organizations increasingly address adultism. A program in Oakland, California, describes the impact of adultism, which "hinders the development of youth, in particular, their self-esteem and self-worth, ability to form positive relationships with caring adults, or even see adults as allies.
The Texas Network of Youth Services offers a list of traits associated with adultism.
Similar terms such as adult privilege, adultarchy, and adultcentrism/adultocentrism have been proposed as alternatives which are more morphologically parallel. Some activists alternatively call adultism "youthism," equating it to sexism and heterosexism. The dilemma inherent in this term is present in other activist circles, where "youthism" is employed to indicate "one form of ageism which describes people who hold beliefs or take actions advocating unfavourable balance of power or resources toward the 'younger' generations. (See jeunism in the following paragraph.)
At least one prominent organization describes discrimination against youth as ageism, which is any form of discrimination against anyone due to their age. The National Youth Rights Association argues that ageism is a more natural and understandable term than adultism and thus is more commonly used among the young people affected by this discrimination. Advocates of using 'ageism' also believe it makes common cause with older people fighting against their own form of age discrimination. However, a national organization called Youth On Board counters this, arguing that "addressing adultist behavior by calling it ageism is discrimination against youth in itself.
The opposite of adultism is jeunism, which is defined as the preference of young people and adolescents over adults.
Recently, theologians Heather Eaton and Matthew Fox proposed, "Adultism derives from adults repressing the inner child. John Holt stated, "An understanding of adultism might begin to explain what I mean when I say that much of what is known as children's art is an adult invention. That perspective is seemingly supported by Maya Angelou, who remarked:
We are all creative, but by the time we are three of four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else.
Institutions perpetuating adultism may include the fudiciary, legal, educational, communal, religious, and governmental sectors of a community. For examples see:
Research compiled from two sources (a Cornell University nation-wide study, and a Harvard University study on youth) has shown that social stratification between age groups causes stereotyping and generalization; for instance, the media-perpetuated myth that all adolescents are immature, violent and rebellious. Opponents of adultism contend that this has led to growing number of youth, academics, researchers, and other adults rallying against adultism and ageism, such as organizing education programs, protesting statements, and creating organizations devoted to publicizing the concept and addressing it.
Simultaneously, research shows that young people who struggle against adultism within community organizations have a high rate of impact upon said agencies, as well as their peers, the adults who work with them, and the larger community to which the organization belongs
Educator John Holt proposed that teaching adults about adultism is a vital step to addressing the effects of adultism, and at least one organization and one curriculum do just that. Several educators have created curricula that seek to teach youth about adultism, as well. Currently, organizations responding to the negative effects of adultism include the United Nations, which has conducted a great deal of research in addition to recognizing the need to counter adultism through policy and programs. The CRC has particular Articles (5 and 12) which are specifically committed to combating adultism. The international organization Human Rights Watch has done the same.