How to Be a Good Adult: A Helpful Guide by Young People

An ongoing guide to combating adultism and being a kickass adult ally to marginalized youth.

By the Oregon Queer Youth Summit

So you’re an adult in a youth space, and maybe you have some questions about how to be a really kick­ass adult ally. That’s terrific.

Let’s define a term first: ADULTISM. According to Wikipedia, ADULTISM is “the power adults have over children. More narrowly, adultism is prejudice and accompanying systematic discrimination against young people. On a more philosophical basis, the term has also been defined as bias towards adults and the social addiction to adults, including their ideas, activities, and attitudes.”

All of us—youth and adults—are socialized to protect and perpetuate this paradigm. Here are some tips to undermine it:

Listen. We live in a society where the voices and experiences of young folks are routinely ignored and dismissed. Young people have knowledge. Actively listen and ask questions. How are your actions validating their thoughts, feelings and experiences?

Learn. If you’re an adult in a youth space or routinely hanging out with young people, chances are you genuinely enjoy spending time with youth (we hope). Listen to how youth are defining their economic, cultural, political, and social realities and challenges­ as articulated through social media, art­making, and whatever forms the information takes,­ and learn about their lives from them directly (rather than mainstream media representation).

Strength First! Understand that the capabilities, ideas, priorities, and communication styles of young people are rooted in their own lived truth. Expect and honor that their skills might be different from your own strengths.

Practice respect and humility. As adults, our words and tone can all too easily slip into patronizing patterns when engaging with youth. Self­-reflect on what strategies work best for you to challenge these default tendencies. Be honest and gentle with each other.

Share resources and power. Withholding information and skills from young people makes equitable partnerships impossible. How can you be creative in sharing knowledge, ideas, resources and power with young people? Are youth equal participants in decision ­making? Is their input valued? Is the decision­ making process itself welcoming to youth participation and leadership? Be sure to differentiate between the role of being a Mandated Reporter and being a co-­creator of content, vision, etc.

Mistakes happen. We all make them. Often. Adults have to practice skills to engage with youth differently and young people have to practice skills to develop their own leadership. We all have to take risks and learn from our mistakes, which means we need to build enough trust to be vulnerable with each other in the first place.

Challenge Adultism. Part of our role as adults is to support our peers—a.k.a. other adults—in learning to recognize and unlearn adultist behavior. Support young people themselves who are speaking back against messages that undermine youth agency, knowledge, and power.

Find your people! Talk with other adults who also work with youth. We are here to support and learn from each other.

***This is a living document. Please email if you have ideas on how to contribute to this list, especially if you’re a younger person. [Updated May 2016].***

Header Photo Credit: Poughkeepsie Day School via photopin (license).