I think society needs to take a long, deep look at the degree to which it silences and oppresses people under the age of eighteen. The thing about this kind of prejudice is that it’s a very dangerous one because it doesn’t oppress a group of people who will always be part of that group and who will eventually stand up for themselves. No. It oppresses everyone when they’re at the most vulnerable time in their lives, and once they’re old enough to resist that oppression it no longer applies to them, and they have grown up being convinced that the oppression is OK, even necessary. They end up doing it to their own children. I think even people who recognise the oppression and want to stand against it end up doing it in small ways, subconsciously, because it’s so deeply ingrained.
Children are pretty special because they speak the truth. They see past all of the bullshit people cloak themselves in and say what needs to be said. They believe in people. That honesty and naïveté is something that doesn’t fit into modern society, where we all hide behind things we don’t really mean and pretend we’re being oh-so-progressive when really we’re shit-scared to move out of our comfort zones. (I’m not saying children aren’t prejudiced; I actually think you often become more open-minded as you get older, but I think young people are a lot more honest and unafraid of being so).
If you think about it for a second, while in one way under-18s get a lot of protection and benefits in most countries, in another way they have no freedom. They are beholden to their parents or guardians, can’t vote, can’t drink, can’t drive, and it’s acceptable to ostracise them. I remember, when I was looking through a directory of festivals last year, coming across one that banned teenagers. This isn’t an isolated incident – I’ve seen plenty of campsites that are adults-only, for example.
Now, if the festival had said “no women” or “no Muslims” or “no blind people” that would be totally unacceptable. (NOTE: I realise now that this sentence is playing the Oppression Olympics – i.e. trying to claim one group is more oppressed than another – and I apologise. While I do think that it in the UK, which is the perspective I’m writing from, there are some types of bans that would cause more of an outcry than a ban on teens, it was unacceptable of me to imply that everything is all roses for every group except teens, and I’m sorry. I have edited this rather than deleting it, for accountability purposes, but if someone wants it deleted, please shout and I will do so.) Why then is it accepted to ostracise someone on the basis of their age? How come you can ban anyone under the age of 18 from somewhere without any repercussions, just because you’ve decided that whatever is in that place is unsuitable for them? You. Not them, not their families: you, making a decision on someone else’s behalf without their consent.
Here’s another thing: imagine that you are forced to work from 9 ‘till 3 every weekday, plus work you have to complete at home. You receive no monetary or any other kind of compensation for this work, you have no choice in what kind of work you’re going to be doing, and if you fail to complete the work or do anything that contravenes the rules of your workplace, you’re punished. That sounds pretty terrible, right? Oh, wait, it happens* – under the name of education. And even if a child doesn’t want to learn, even if every friendship or alliance they make in school is fake and they’re only maintaining the pretence so they won’t be penalised by the school culture for being a loner, even if they’re being tormented and abused at school, they should still go, because it’s good for them, right? They’ll thank you later for it; they don’t know what the best thing for them is. They’re not qualified to make decisions about their own life or education. Yes. Right. I’m sure everyone knows how horrible it is to have control over your life taken over your hands, or to be talked down to as if you’re stupid and incapable of understanding anything. So why do people do it to children?
"I feel ashamed that so many of us cannot imagine a better way to do things than locking children up all day in cells instead of letting them grow up knowing their families, mingling with the world, assuming real obligations, striving to be independent and self-reliant and free."
– John Taylor Gatto
The fundamental difference between children and adults is this: they have been alive for fewer years and hence have less worldly experience and less power. There are other differences, of course. But at the root of it all is the I’m-bigger-than-you mentality. Many adults exploit, control, compartmentalise and demean children because they have the power to. In reality, there is no sudden shift on the day you turn eighteen; you don’t wake up and magically become more mature. You ‘grow up’ gradually, or in a single moment of epiphany. It might happen when you’re twelve or when you’re twenty. It might never happen at all. And just because you haven’t ‘grown up’ doesn’t deny you a place in society. Or a voice. People are very, very ready to dismiss or laugh at something a young person says just because it comes from a young person, or to be amazed because a young person, wow, gosh, actually says something worth taking note of.
"Recently, I was talking to my night watchman, Marcos, about his eleven-year-old son who works in a barbershop. I noted in Spanish that his son was still a ‘niño’. Marcos, surprised, answered with a guileless smile, ‘Don Ivan, I guess you’re right.’ Realising that until my remark the father had thought of Marcos primarily as his ‘son’, I felt guilty for having drawn the curtain of childhood between two sensible persons.”
– Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
Let’s talk about teenagers for a second. We all know teenagers are troublemaking delinquents, right? I mean, why else would there be so much bad press about them? All teenagers at some point end up getting drunk, stoned, debauched and throwing hissy fits, right? (Even if you don’t see it this way, you know that there are parts of society that does. I despise how some people treat being or having a teenager as an ‘issue’, like something you need help dealing with, and/or act like every teenager is likely to have problems with sex, drugs and drinking.) It’s just a phase everyone has to go through. Right? Um…
Being a teenager is a pretty magical thing, I’ll grant you, in the way that you’re coming into yourself, understanding the world, understanding things you might never have before. It can be hellish and it can be glorious. You’re at that in between stage; you’re no longer a child, but you’re not quite an adult. You don’t fit anywhere. You’re expected to be rebellious and delinquent, and assumptions are made about you, so you go and be rebellious and delinquent. Then you’re penalised for it. You’re told by people you love that you cannot do this, cannot do that. You’re threatened with grounding or removal of privileges in your life. You can’t, of course, threaten adults in your life with this, even when they make mistakes or do things you disagree with. You’re judged simply for being what you are. And worse, when you fit that judgement, you’re blamed for doing so. (Not to mention, between the ages of 14 and 18, the education system pushes you into some of the most rigorous and draining exams you’ll ever have to go through. Right at the stage when your brain is developing, expanding, ready to discover new things, it’s pushed into a mould and the worry that you might not be good enough.) Is it really such a surprise that many teenagers rebel or turn to bad habits? There’s not much left for them.
"Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favorite colors." – Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
I’m not trying to imply that every adult or older person does this to young people. I’m not trying to say that all of this is true of everyone. But I do think people need to think a hell of a lot more about the way they treat young people. Need to stop passing over them. Need to stop acting like talking over them or excluding them from conversation is an OK thing to do. Need to treat them with the same respect they’d afford an adult.
I think the fundamental thing to come back to, if you’re considering doing anything that might be ageist, is to ask yourself, 'if a child did this to me, how would I feel? If another adult did this to me, how would I feel?' And if the answer’s anything but good… think about it for a second. Really think about whether you have the right to tell someone they can’t see their friends or use the internet for a week, just because something they did goes against your beliefs.
”***THIS IS NOT A GIFT***
This item is on loan to you under certain conditions.
It can and will be taken away from you at the will of your parents, for any reason, including but not limited to: your room is too messy, your grades are too low, you were grumpy one day, you made a mistake.”
– DEMAND EUPHORIA, You Call That A Gift?
Young people aren’t stupid – they never have been. It’s just more convenient for the world to see them that way.
*Obviously, this also happens when people are enslaved, and I don’t want to downplay that – I’m just talking here specifically about school in the US, UK and other countries that follow the same model, and the fact that much of our culture considers it to be acceptable.