The Language of Youth Liberation

by Kathleen Nicole O’Neal

Two lies reside at the heart of our society’s understanding of children and adolescents. The first lie is that parents, teachers, and caregivers are always benevolent, wise, and capable of ensuring that the best interests of a young person are met. The second lie is that young people are inherently incompetent, foolish, and incapable of attending to any aspects of their own welfare or making wise decisions on their own behalf. Questioning either or both of these lies – that undergird all of our legal, social, political, cultural, economic, educational, religious, spiritual, and psychological institutions at the macro level and habits of thought at the micro level – puts one on track towards embracing youth liberationism as a philosophy and activist priority, and decrying youth oppression as the greatest unsung injustice of our age.

Feminists, critical race theorists, disability theorists, and queer theorists have given us language and conceptual tools to better understand various forms of oppression and how they might be overcome. Youth liberationists offer a similar set of concepts to enable us to unpack all the ways we take youth oppression and adult supremacy for granted, thereby allowing us to begin to see a path towards youth liberation. Therefore, I would like to present a few keywords in youth liberation theory that shed light on what we talk about when we talk about the oppression and liberation of youth.

Ageism – Youth liberationists speak a lot about ageism. It can take different forms (it is a prejudice that impacts elders, too). Normative ageism is your garden variety bigotry towards youth defined as “the assertion that individual capabilities, interests, strengths, weaknesses, and the ability to exercise rights is tied in an uncomplicated way to age.” Cultural ageism “involves the attitudes taken by members of one generation towards another that devalue their mores, technology, pastimes, entertainment, etc. only because it is different from that which the previous generation is used to” (think baby-boomers complaining about rap music and videogames). Paternalistic ageism is the belief that young people require older people to make choices for them because they are too immature to make decisions for themselves. Pedophobic ageism is the casual hatred of children one finds so often in contemporary society (think restaurants that institute blanket bans on individuals under a certain age). Ephebophobic ageism is the casual hatred of adolescents that permeates so much of our popular and civic culture. Economic ageism denotes the ways that youth (including young adults who have outlived minor status) are discriminated against in the labour market, when seeking government assistance, and in the context of the capitalist system as a whole. Scientific ageism (sibling to scientific racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, and ableism) denotes the ways that biology, psychology, and psychiatry are employed to perpetuate ageism (think all of those studies of “the teen brain” or social panics about young people reaching puberty at earlier ages than before). Personal ageism involves valuing relationships more when they are with people that are of a given age. Sentimental ageism is a romanticised view of childhood and adolescence that many adults take on as they age, thereby perpetuating the ongoing injustices and oppression of young people today. Puritanical ageism is often, but not always, religious in nature and is concerned with preventing young people from engaging in sexual activity, consuming forbidden media, drinking, smoking, consuming intoxicants etc. Institutional ageism refers to the ways that institutions such as guardianship, legal age restrictions, compulsory education, minor status and the like oppress and discriminate against youth at the institutional level. Authoritarian ageism is yet another form of ageism embodied in the phrase “because I said so.” Obviously ageism is one thing and many things.

Guardianship – The institution of guardianship (or “parental rights”) is viewed by youth liberationists as constituting a private property right in minor children held by their parents or guardians and is therefore deemed fundamentally oppressive. This is because guardianship empowers parents to make decisions on behalf of their children in ways that go beyond looking out for their best interests, and instead involves dictating where one’s minor children can live, what religion they can practice, the sort of education they are to receive etc. Youth liberationists see guardianship as a throwback to a time when children were considered the legal property of their parents.

Minority – The legal status of minority is one of subordination and oppression that youth are typically forcibly prevented from voting, signing contracts, consenting to medical treatment, engaging in intimate relations, obtaining housing, owning property, working, consuming certain media, purchasing cold medication, and a plethora of other activities that constitute the bulk of human existence. Youth liberationists question the need for this institution and believe it thwarts the potential of youth, and ultimately endangers them through disempowering them to look out for their own needs.
Paternalism – Paternalism is the notion that youth are best served by wise and benevolent adults that see to their best interests by making their important decisions for them. Youth liberationists resist the logic at the heart of paternalism because we realise that no perfectly wise and benevolent adult actually exists and that youth, like all people, are uniquely situated to know what is in their own best interests and act accordingly. We recognise that child abuse and child protectionism are often two sides of the same coin.

Intersectionality – Anti-youth ageism intersects with all other types of oppression. When adolescent women are shamed for their bodies by sexist dress codes at their schools or are prevented from making decisions about their reproductive and sexual healthcare, they are oppressed at the intersection of ageism and sexism. When youth of colour are more likely than other youth to be negatively impacted by zero tolerance policies in American K-12 schools, these youth are oppressed at the intersection of ageism and racism. When there are negative consequences for LGBTQ youth for coming out, but there are no negative consequences for the parents who kick them out of the house or send them to anti-LGBTQ reparative therapy programs, these youth are hit at the intersection of heterosexism, cissexism, and/or monosexism and ageism. When caregivers murder disabled youth with impunity and the media report the crimes in terms that cast the parents as long-suffering victims of their child’s health problems or differences, these youth are victimised at the intersection of ageism and ableism.

Autonomy – Autonomy is important for all people to exercise. Autonomy as a concept is often used interchangeably with independence, but this is wrong. Even when youth or others must seek the assistance of others (as we all ultimately must) in order to function, this does not negate the importance of an individual right to self-determination. Recognising that autonomy ought to be separated conceptually from independence is an important cornerstone in youth liberation theory.

To wrap up, I hope that some of these keywords have provided a sense of the ideas at the heart of youth liberation theory and the rudiments of a vocabulary that can speak to the reality of youth oppression and the possibility of radical alternatives to the present condition. Finding the language to discuss youth oppression is taking the first step towards abolishing it.


Kathleen Nicole O’Neal is a writer and advocate for youth liberation. Her writing features in NO! Against Adult Supremacy, which is jointly published by Dog Section Press, Stinney Distro and Active Distribution.

Illustration: Marco Bevilacqua

If you enjoyed reading this article online, why not pick up a print copy? It’s much prettier and your purchase will help us continue to produce not-for-profit publishing – including sending solidarity issues to prisoners.