More young Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election than ever before. Young people have also been engaging in more activism and political movements, two great examples being Fridays for Future and March For Our Lives. Greta Thunberg, who started the FridaysForFuture School Strike for Climate, has been attacked relentlessly due to her young age, with adults claiming that a 16-year-old can’t possibly be worth listening to about any political issue. Alex Wind, a 17-year-old survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Parkland, FL, expressed frustration with how adults treat the young politically active, proclaiming, “People believe that the youth of this country are insignificant. People believe that the youth have no voice. I say that we were the only people who could have made this movement possible.”
The treatment of Greta Thunberg and the survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, FL aren’t isolated incidents; they are examples of the widespread tendency to overlook young people and their opinions simply because of their age. Adults take advantage of their youth to undermine their influence for the sake of partisan politics. Thunberg has done more research than many adults, yet isn't taken seriously as an authority on the subject of climate change. Wind and the other founders of March For Our Lives have experienced more trauma, death, and fear than most adults could even imagine, yet they are still silenced because of their age.
Oppression based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, religion, etc., is addressed with the proper emphasis, but there is very little attention given to the oppression of youth. In this analysis, I am using the definition of oppression as “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control or the state of being subject to unjust treatment or control” (Oxford Languages).I know that it can be difficult to comprehend how young people are an oppressed group, so I will pose a few ideas to consider.
First, thinking about treatment, there is an expectation that young people should simply endure emotional and verbal abuse from adults. Dr. Barbara Shaffer, a psychiatrist specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Counseling, Grief and Bereavement, Marriage and Family, and Post Traumatic Stress defines abuse as "an attitude of entitlement and profound disrespect that discounts at every turn the inherent right of the other person to dignity, separateness and autonomy.” What Dr. Shaffer calls emotional abuse is more commonly referred to as “respect for your elders”. However, there is an unaddressed but significant difference between mindlessly deferring to one’s elders and offering basic respect as it is deserved.
I posit that the way most adults treat or think of young people fits within this definition of emotional abuse and is therefore deeply harmful to children and young adults. Young peoples’ value, temperament, rights, and respect are all based on adults’ perception of them and their adherence to arbitrary expectations. One major issue to consider is bodily autonomy. Children are expected to express physical affection whether they want to or not. It has only recently become somewhat socially acceptable to ask a child if they wanted a hug instead of saying something along the lines of “where’s my hug?” Consent must be enthusiastic, non-coerced, and informed agreement, but consent isn’t considered a necessity when children are involved. When a child doesn’t want to be touched, adults take that as an expression of disrespect instead of a preference by an individual.
Having mentioned respect, young people are expected to obey and listen regardless of their own interests to adults simply because they are older and are never granted basic respect themselves. We as a society have understood that in situations of race and gender the ideas of “speak only when spoken to” and “be seen not heard” are oppressive and controlling, but children are still held to these expectations without a second thought. Acceptable behaviors for young people differ because of diverse cultural and regional beliefs, but across all boundaries if children don’t fit into those flawed expectations of respect, they are labeled as a bad kid or a delinquent. A young person is labeled good or bad is based on how much they “respect” adults, whether those adults deserve respect or not.
Young people are consistently treated as less than human, which I feel falls easily within the treatment part of the definition of oppression. In parallel with a young person’s assigned goodness, their value is also arbitrarily assigned. Youth are assigned value and potential based on their performance and abilities; they are not granted any inherent worth as adults are. One child is not worth more simply because they are able to perform arbitrary skills for adults when others can’t. I am alluding to grading in schools, but also worth assigned by skill in athletics or fine arts. Adults are understood to have inherent value as an individual, youth should be granted the same understanding.
Good or bad, valued or not, children are treated in a way that aligns with definitions of oppression. The other portion of the definition is control. Young people are individuals and should have the basic rights and respect any other individual has. Legal autonomy over one’s own body, living situation, and life in general is one of those basic rights. However, young people don’t get any legal standing until they are 18. What is the difference between someone who is 17 and an 18-year-old? Moreover, why should a teenager not be allowed to have a say in their own life?
I am not trying to claim that young people should have all the same rights as adults, but the complete lack of autonomy is simply unacceptable, as is the complete lack of respect. I ask you, how many times did you hear “because I said so” as a kid? When a child asks why, they are trying to learn how adults think, how reasoning can be translated into action and decisions. Why not help children learn by discussing things with them instead of shutting down efforts to learn?
Children are expected to take emotional abuse from every angle of their lives and never to speak out against it or speak up for themselves lest they be labeled a “bad” kid and have opportunities for their future taken away. There is a balance between caring for a child’s needs until they are old enough to do so for themselves and emotionally abusing them that we have yet to reach. Once this balance is struck, we will be treating children and young people with basic human respect while still caring for them and making sure they don’t make harmful decisions. Until we reach this point, it will be beneficial to understand young people as an oppressed group and consider how we think of them and how we treat them in our daily lives.