Adultification Adversely Affects Black Children, but Parents Can Take Steps to Prevent It

Black children are more likely to be treated, and punished, like adults which robs them of developmentally healthy childhoods. Age-appropriate parenting is crucial in changing this pattern.

Two boys embrace while standing in front of a house
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When adultification happens, we tend to expect young children to act like adults. For example, a 9 year old who is being adultified may be expected to fully care for their younger siblings by cooking, making sure they attend school, doing laundry, and bathing them daily. Black children are adultified often and, when it happens, we encourage behaviors that negatively affect their development. We turn them into mini-adults, which can hinder healthy growth. As a result, they may lose out on important developmental opportunities. And since child development research has shown that there are benefits of being a child, such as 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 youth are often viewed as older than they actually are by their teachers, peers, police officers, and even society at large. African American 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.

An 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. Critical thinking skills can take up to age 11 to develop.

An 8-year-old who is adultified may get teased more for their childish interests or style of dress; others may expect them to act less like a child since they don't look so young anymore. In short, they are expected to grow up faster than other kids—and that puts pressure on them. This is especially true if the child lives in a predominately Black or financially challenged community where adults may be unemployed or underemployed. Furthermore, crime rates may be higher and access to resources may be lower. Their environment may indicate that being older means being tougher—and that being tough means having to be violent to protect themselves or aggressive to compete.

In other words, youth are surrounded by grown-ups who aren't acting their age at all times—and this may lead to a very limited set of choices—ones that don't include pursuing higher education or working hard at school. When we treat Black children like adults before they're ready to handle such responsibility, we limit their options and put them in dangerous situations.

"Transmuting Girls Into Women: Examining the Adultification of Black Female Sexual Assault Survivors Through Twitter Feedback," a recent study published in the journal Violence Against Women looked at how adultification shaped the abuse Black girls faced from R. Kelly. The research highlighted how Twitter users challenged the "fast-tailed girl" narrative used in Black communities to justify the abuse of Black girls with the hashtag #SurvivingRKelly. Researchers found Twitter users did this by pushing back against narratives that say Black girls are victimized because they make themselves look older and that they "knew better." They also challenged language saying that because they continued to interact with R. Kelly after victimization they weren't really victims.

The school-to-prison pipeline thrusts low-performing students, into the criminal justice system through academic policies like Zero Tolerance and disciplinary actions starting in elementary school.

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.

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 Children

It's common for parents to expect too much from their young children, particularly when dealing with tasks that are considered adult activities. For example, making mealtime overly complicated by serving kids aged four and under food prepared for older individuals. There are many other examples of adultification where kids aren't given adequate time to explore themselves as kids before jumping ahead to expectations based on age rather than the 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 Young Children Make Sense of Their Young World

One way to help prevent adultification is to take part in helping young children make sense of their world. For instance, if a 3-year-old doesn't understand why their parent is going away to work during the day, talk about it together. Whenever possible, try explaining why you're leaving without turning your child into a mini-adult. That means 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 you don't know how you're going to pay the bills is obliging them to something they cannot control, which leads to undue stress. Lastly, minimizing your child's reaction to a problem by saying, "It's not that big of a deal," implies that what they are feeling is unnecessary and that there are more pressing issues. Even without these responses, being a kid is not easy. But, 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.

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. 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 by teachers or peers by monitoring teacher feedback forms or speaking directly with other parents about how their children are doing at school.

"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.

If your child is being labeled as too old for his or her age group, take action to ensure he or she feels included and respected. Allowing your child to be labeled as older than they are can lead to serious emotional issues down the road. It's never too early to make sure all children are given equal treatment!

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