As a youth rights supporter, one notices that many otherwise intelligent, right-thinking people are deeply and often casually ageist. While sometimes this is couched in quite possibly sincere concern for youth well-being (however problematic that may be) much of it actually expresses open hostility towards children and older youth. Many wise people who by no stretch of the imagination could be considered radical youth liberationists have said that you can tell a lot about the character of a person or a society by how they treat children. What one quickly realizes is that for all of our talk of liberty, justice, and equality, most Americans are still quick to mistreat those with no social, political, economic, or legal power simply because they can.
The reasons for ageism towards youth are nonetheless more complex than simply noting that power and privilege corrupt adults. Refusing to acknowledge ageism serves many practical and psychological purposes for adults. In this post I am going to explore these purposes in more depth in order to help all of us recognize them when we fall into these erroneous patterns of thinking.
First of all, denying young people the full measure of their humanity makes life much easier for the adults tasked with taking care of or otherwise involving themselves with the youth in question. When adults convince themselves that young people don't really know their own minds or are incapable of experiencing meaningful emotions or cannot express concrete preferences about things that matter to them, it makes the job of a parent or teacher or babysitter or nanny much easier. Instead of engaging in the difficult task of helping youth to make wise decisions about the world that take their needs as well as the needs of others into account, this way of thinking allows adults to simply manage young people. In a society as profoundly organized against youth (and to a lesser extent mothers and other people caring for children) it can be profoundly difficult to adequately meet the needs of the very youngest youth in particular. This type of objectification of children is a way for parents, teachers, and others to feel okay about the decisions they are tasked with making on children's' behalf.
Secondly, denying the ways in which ageism oppresses children is a way for most adults to avoid facing the traumas and injustices of their own youths. When one recognizes the extent of the injustice that most of us faced as youth at the hands of teachers, parents, relatives, and other adults it is almost always profoundly distressing. We are forced to recognize that at best some of these individuals were deeply misguided while others were perhaps downright sociopathic. In order to preserve our pristine image of these individuals, we pretend as if our suffering did not matter or that it was even for our own good. Many adults thereby perpetuate the cycle of youth oppression because they refuse to acknowledge that the injustices that affected them when they were younger were indeed injustices that ought not be repeated.
Another reason that many otherwise intelligent, reasonable people believe that ageism is acceptable (while most other types of prejudice are not) has to do with the ways in which the psychiatric, medical, psychological, educational, political, artistic, and legal establishments legitimate ageist attitudes. This is not to make the bizarre claim that these institutions are actively conspiring to oppress youth. It is to say that even the well-educated and successful among us are formed by their social context and thereby usually perpetuate narratives about childhood and adolescence that are taken seriously primarily because they confirm the prejudices of most people in our society. The myth of the "teen brain" (which has been refuted in depth by psychologist Robert Epstein) is just the latest in a long line of attempts to justify the oppression of subject classes with pseudoscience. Today it is primarily fat people and young people whose bodies and minds are deemed deficient as a pretense for denying them rights. In days past (and to a lesser extent today) it has been women, people of color, people with disabilities, the elderly, poor people, and LGBT people. The idea that children are somehow deficient in their reasoning capacities, that children go through distinct developmental stages that are tied in an uncomplicated way to age, and that young people lack the cognitive capacity for self-determination serves a political agenda that makes our society in some ways more convenient for adults to live in with children but less just for children themselves.
So, having seen the fallacies which cause otherwise intelligent, just people to embrace ageism, how do we give up our convenient fictions about young people and embrace a more just social order? Does giving up ageist prejudices mean that the lives of adults will become unlivable? Not at all. The mother who worries herself sick because of the idea that her children need constant supervision, the school teacher who is fed up with playing the role of police officer as much as the role of educator, and the million other adults charged with the task of playing the proverbial judge, jury, and executioner to young people would all be more and not less liberated than they are today under a radical youth rights regime. But in a society in which adults are charged with total responsibility for young people, objectifying and oppressing them makes carrying out this responsibility much more convenient. The current regime which oppresses youth and the adults in their lives is also not a norm that one can unilaterally opt out of, making the current cycle of youth oppression so vicious and difficult to break.
However, whatever our age or relationship to youth, we can begin pushing for a society that is less oppressive for youth, parents, teachers, and everyone else with a stake in the welfare of young people. We can recognize that the impossible choices we are forced to make in our dealings with young people are primarily the consequence of an unsustainable and irrational social order. We can recognize the psychological and practical needs that our prejudices towards youth fulfill and we can then choose not to give in to them. If we are currently (or previously have been) subjected to ageist oppression we can learn to see this as a reflection on our society and not on ourselves. But only by recognizing where the appeal of ageist discourses and beliefs lies can we begin to undo the fabric of ageism and age apartheid.