Adultism to Adult Supported

Grade Level: 
5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Team Building
This guide defines Adultism and suggests actions to explore adults stepping back from management, using language that gives youth ownership. The following tips and activities will build adults as allies who trust youth to lead.

What Does Adultism Look Like?

Adultism describes adult attitudes and behaviors that subtly patronize and micromanage youth. Adults can make unsupported assumptions about youth regarding experience, motivations, energy, technology, availability of time, and judgment. Sometimes even positive assumptions, like expecting adult behaviors, can still be damaging to relationships and trust. Adults think (maybe unconsciously) that they know best, and this exhibits by providing too much guidance and a lack of trust in youth. Even with good intentions to listen to and give youth power, attempts to engage youth leadership tend to tokenize youth (give power in name only) rather than treating them as equal members of society.

Dismantling Assumptions About Youth

The following assumptions and counter-perspectives raise awareness of unconscious biases we may have about youth and what we can do better. 

  • Assumption: Young people need an adult to explain things to them and hold their hands.
    Try This Instead: It is okay to listen more than you talk and let youth figure things out on their own. Let them make mistakes. Most youth have a growth mindset. They know they are "works in progress." They are ready to learn and explore.
  • Assumption: Youth are our future.
    Try This Instead: Youth are our present and future. Listen and learn from them. It might be more fun.
  • Assumption: Adults know best. Youth cannot know what’s best for themselves. 
    Try This Instead: Youth can be more open to collaboration and more willing to set aside their own egos. Since youth are the ones invested and affected by decisions, listen to their input. “Don’t do something for us without us.”
  • Assumption: Youth ideas are unrealistic and lofty with no backing.
    Try This Instead: Be open that youth may have ideas that you might not have because they are willing to let go of the way things have always been done and collaborate on new solutions.
  • Assumption: When youth are arguing for themselves, they are arguing to make things easier for themselves because they are looking for the easiest path.
    Try This Instead: Since youth are the ones invested and affected by decisions, listen to their input.
  • Assumption: When youth are very capable, adults sometimes assume they know how to do things. Sometimes they hold a young person up on a pedestal. 
    Try This Instead: Use communication and be transparent about expectations from youth. Ask how you can help and tell them your areas of expertise. 
  • Assumption: The issues when adults were youth are the same today.
    Try This Instead: Avoid saying, “When I was a kid…” Acknowledge that times have changed, and the youth perspective has changed.

Shift Your Thinking

Here are some shifts in thinking that can help adults be more authentic with youth:

  • When recruiting youth to serve on a YAC or board, shift language and perception from “I want the best students” to “I want the most passionate youth.”
  • Give youth progressively more autonomy and trust and step out of the middle of decision-making. They are capable. Many young people experience a dramatic shift in autonomy when they move from being required to raise their hand to use the bathroom to borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars for college. To lessen that culture shock, we need to trust youth sooner to make decisions about things they are involved in. 
  • In discussions, let go of the need to validate and respond to youth contributions. Let the discussion flow from youth to youth without adding adult wisdom, affirmations, and control. 
  • When giving youth a task, rather than telling them what to do, ask them what they think is needed and then tell them how you can support them, if needed.
  • The Search Institute, known for its resources that build positive youth development, has identified five elements—expressed in 20 specific actions—that make relationships powerful in young people’s lives. They refer to this as the developmental relationships framework. These are particularly helpful for adults to prioritize as they seek to empower youth in service and community leadership.

An example: Your youth committee has the requirement to write a report to your board of trustees. Rather than giving the group directions and an outline to write a report, ask the group what the board needs to know about their most recent efforts. Share with the group what specific skills you personally have to support them. These may include proofreading or knowledge on how to format the report. Invite youth to request your help, as needed.

Activities to Engage Youth:

The following activities build team trust and belonging. 

Group Statues: Move the participants into small groups of 5-8 people. Have them use their creativity to express the given idea with their bodies and facial expressions. One group forms the statue while the other group observes and interprets. Things to express in a group statue: What does it feel like to be the only youth in a room? What does it feel like when you are the only adult in a room? What does it look like for youth to feel empowered?

Check-ins and group meetings: Meetings require some trust and relationship building. We can't do important work without knowing the people we are with. At the beginning of each meeting, use a check-in, which may be as quick as each person saying a single word. It may be about how you are doing, how you feel about this meeting, how you feel about the goals, or how you feel physically. More about meetings and check-ins.

Rose, Thorns and Rosebuds: Each person tells about how things are going by describing something positive (a rose), something challenging (a thorn), and something promising (a rosebud). This helps us see the spectrum of things going on in one another's lives.

Back-to-Back Builder: This activity builds communication and listening skills while designing and building simple objects. This helps us think about the power of words and how difficult it can be to get a message across to another person without it being lost in translation.

Teambuilding: These activities and games educate, equip, and empower young people to build community, trust, and open communication with others in their community.

Get to the Root: In this activity, participants use critical thinking to identify a problem, explore the root causes and effects, and research who the experts are. 

Ice breakers: Here are a few icebreakers to warm up a group.

Blue Sky Activity: Get to know the people you interact with and what they care about with this group envisioning activity.

Map Your Heartbreak Activity: This activity helps youth discover their giving passion. The first step to meaningful philanthropy is identifying issues that really matter to us.