Adultification Disproportionately Hurts Black Children—but Parents Can Help

Black children are more likely to be treated—and punished—like adults which robs them of healthy childhoods. Here's what to do at home and at school.

Two boys embrace while standing in front of a house
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Adultification happens when young children are expected to act like adults. For example, an 8-year-old who is being adultified may be expected to fully care for their younger siblings by cooking for them, making sure they attend school, doing their laundry, or bathing them daily. But that same 8-year-old isn’t as capable as an adult in many ways. They can’t always navigate social situations well, can’t reason with nearly as much efficiency as an adult, and are only starting to develop critical thinking skills.

Black children, especially, can be turned into mini-adults
, which can hinder healthy developmental growth. And since development research has shown that there are important benefits of being a child, like developing social skills through play, creating memories through exploration, and learning about oneself through experimentation, if these opportunities are lost or delayed due to adultification, then consequences will occur.

Black children are often viewed as older than they actually are by their teachers, peers, police officers, and even society at large. Children who receive less help from parents—which is also common in lower-income households—may be less equipped to deal with difficulties later on in life than kids whose parents stepped in earlier. Their less advantageous upbringing may make them more likely to struggle academically or act out. They may also be more susceptible to entering a cycle of poverty, or involvement with the criminal justice system, that they'll have difficulty escaping.

As if on cue, around age 10, Black students begin getting into trouble at school. In one study, researchers found that Black students were 21 times more likely to be suspended than white students. While many factors contribute to higher rates of suspension among Black students, adultification plays a part, too. Because Black children are perceived as older, they are likely to receive harsher punishment than their white peers for breaking rules. 

Dr. El Brown, Ph.D., a family engagement strategist, and an early childhood education professor at American University says, “Working with children requires empathy and compassion. When someone sees a Black child as an adult, they don’t empathize with them as a child. Therefore, the compassionate nature that is inherently there as adults toward children is missing in that interchange.” 

But sometimes the adults who are adultifying children don’t realize they are doing it. To them, Dr. Brown suggests recognizing their own deeply-ingrained beliefs. “I don’t think that someone who adultifies a child is someone who is always doing so intentionally,” says Dr. Brown. “It’s the adults' implicit biases that make it difficult for them to view that child the same way another individual with lived experience interacting with Black children may view the child, thus leading to harsher treatment, and beyond.” 

The good news is that there are ways to help prevent adultification from happening in your home and community.

Don't Expect Too Much From Kids

It's common for parents to expect too much from their young children, particularly when dealing with achievement. For example, parents might expect children to perform at school in ways that are above their grade level. When this happens, kids aren't given adequate time to explore themselves before expectations supersede their stage of development.

"As an educator, our time with a child expires. However, parents and families are forever teachers. My responsibility as an early childhood educator is to help parents understand developmental milestones. I am empowering families to advocate for their children in instances when children are expected to act or perform above their age level," says Dr. Brown.

An educator spends about six months with a child each school year. Therefore, engagement and continuous communication between the educator, educational systems, and the parent is vital for a student's success.

"Adultificaltion is a complex issue that requires an in-depth understanding of the systems in place that have permitted this behavior in the first place," says Dr. Brown. Some of the public systems that have led to the adultification of Black youth are America's educational system and juvenile justice system.

If you want your child to enjoy life more fully, remember not only what they are capable of but also what makes sense at each stage of development.

Help Children Make Sense of the World

One way to help prevent adultification is to take part in helping young children make sense of what's happening to them. For instance, if a 3-year-old doesn't understand why their parent is going away to work while they are at daycare, talk about it together. Whenever possible, try explaining situations with empathy and age-appropriate understanding. In that situation, it would mean avoiding saying things like, "I'm going to work now," or "I have to go." Instead, say something like "I'll see you later," or "I'll be back soon."

Similarly, telling your child about grown-up topics like finances or relationships is obliging them to try to fix what they cannot control, which leads to undue stress.

Lastly, minimizing your child's reaction to a problem by saying things like, "It's not that big of a deal," implies that what they are feeling is unnecessary and that there are more pressing issues. Validating their emotions can help kids remain kids. With support from caring adults, kids can learn how to cope with challenges and separation. In turn, they will grow up to be healthy adults who are flexible and understanding.

Avoid Labeling Kids Based on Age

While it's natural to think about kids according to their age, it's important to keep in mind that there is more to each child than simply being labeled in comparison to their age group. Every child deserves to be seen and appreciated for who they are and how they behave, regardless of their age. Each person is unique, but all children deserve an opportunity to develop self-confidence, maturity, and a healthy sense of self-worth.

To avoid labeling kids based on age, avoid using words such as "little" or "big" unless talking about actual size. Instead, use descriptive terms that refer to physical characteristics instead of abstract terms that label a child according to their age. For example, instead of calling a toddler a "big boy" or a "little girl," try describing their behavior or character instead.

Consequently, actions must be taken to counter these growing trends in order to prevent unintended consequences. Parents should keep tabs on how their kids are being treated, or labeled, by teachers or peers by monitoring teacher feedback forms or speaking directly with other parents about how their children are doing at school. If your child is being labeled, take action to ensure they feel included and respected. While putting an adult label on a child is nothing new, adultifying Black children comes with adverse effects that differ from those of white children. Allowing it to happen can lead to serious emotional issues down the road.

"There should be diversity, equity, and inclusion training for all educational service providers, which will help them to be aware of their potential implicit biases so they cannot manifest in the treatment of children within their learning environment," says Dr. Brown.

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