Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Adultism and the Rights of Children

This blog post is loosely based on a keynote lecture on ‘Adultism and the rights of children’ for the conference, ‘Contemporary Children and Families: Opportunities and Challenges in Law, Policy and Practice’. This took place at the Centre for Child and Family Law Policy at Edinburgh Napier University on 6 September 2023. 


Time to read

3 Minutes

There is a vast academic literature on the nature of childhood. Inevitably much is written from an adult-centric perspective. This means that children are commonly defined in terms of the “adult” attributes which they are said to lack: rationality, independence, autonomy etc. It is also revealed by the fact childhood is often presented as a route through to adulthood: children are “becoming” adults. Indeed, a successful childhood is understood to lead to a successful adulthood. The focus is on services and rights which enable the child to reach the age of 18, in good health, with a wide range of options open to them. This “right to an open future” is often seen as a key goal for children’s rights.

This kind of approach implicitly presents adulthood as superior to childhood; adulthood as the nirvana that children should be reaching for. But this, often unarticulated, premise can be challenged. In disability scholarship there is increasing interest in the concept of ablism. This challenges the assumption that the goal of disability policy should be to enable disabled people to be in the same position as “the able”. That is challenged because it assumes “the able” have got it right and are in a desirable position. The implicit assumption is that conditions labelled as disability are harms and that disabled people are thereby disadvantaged. In a powerful section in his book Far from the Tree, Andrew Soloman describe watching deaf people communicate with sign language. He is impressed with their powers of communication and ponders whether sign language might be as effective a tool of communication as speaking. But then after a while he realizes that in fact the better question might be whether sign language is a more effective tool of communication. He realized his assumption had been that speaking was the ideal to aim for.  

I think the same thing needs to be done with adulthood. The term adultism can be used to challenge our assumptions that adults have it right and that childhood is a deficiency for which “growing up” is the cure. Much of what is declared to be good about adulthood is a myth. The assumption that adults are rational, able to balance short term versus long term risks, are less impulsive is highly questionable. There is some evidence that adults are better at appreciating risk that children, but only a tiny bit better, and not really until their mid/late 20s. In fact both adults and children are susceptible to peer pressure, subject to impulsivity and suffer cognitive bias. There are very small differences between their abilities in these regards, but hardly enough to support a claim there is some fundamental difference between them. 

Further, it is claimed that adults are independent and self-sufficient, while children need the support, care and practical assistance of adults. The reality is that children provide enormous amounts of care for adults, as I discuss in ‘Children care’ in Disability, Care and Family Law. Few, if any adults, really live self-sufficient lives. Adults, like children, need others to provide them with food, shelter, emotional support etc. 

Those who worry about the “crisis in childhood” refer to the prevalence of unhealthy eating habits, addiction to mobile phones, and use of pornography amongst children: but the very same concerns can be raised about adults. Indeed, to take one example, the drinking of alcohol above the recommended limits, this is far higher in older age groups than those aged 16-24. While many complain about students’ alcohol misuse, it is far, far less than that of the middle aged

A far more realistic starting point for adults is that we are all vulnerable, enmeshed in nurturing relationships of care, and with impaired intellectual capacity. Just like children. A law which focused on the building up and maintenance of caring relationships, rather than one promoting the importance of autonomy, would be far more effective one. Not least because autonomy is better found within a relational context, than based on an image of rugged individualism. If we were to have a law that was premised around care this would chime with the reality of the lives of adults and child. It would mean that we could regulate adulthood and childhood in many of the same ways, acknowledging that childhood and adulthood are social constructions. 

Adults, therefore, need to be far more skeptical about the benefits of adulthood. Adults have much to learn about wonder, imagination, spontaneity, and trust. We need to be liberated from adulthood.  

Go on, run around pretending you are a dinosaur; roll down a hill; laugh until you fall over. Grow down a little.