Social Issues

despising our youth: ageism in fundamentalist culture

In the fundamentalist cult I spent the bulk of my childhood in, encouraging the young people toward being an active part of the church community was one of the supposedly important goals. At one point, we moved toward a more “family integrated” model, and the “pastor” eliminated any separate activity for the teenagers. We no longer had our own Sunday school, and “youth group”-type events were basically outlawed. The idea was that too many teenagers were disconnecting from church once they reached adulthood, that they expected “youth group” to continue all their life. Welp, that wasn’t going to happen in our church, no sirrey.

At around the same time we started having “Youth Night” one Sunday evening a month. For that service, the kids and teenagers would do everything– lead the music, make the music, usher, pray, and preach. In theory I still think it was a solid idea. If only the adults in our church treated the teenagers with anything approaching respect.

I’ve talked about my experience as a teenager in fundamentalism before, about how I was given the nickname “sub-adult” after a game of cards. That label was humiliating, especially since it was used by the various adults at church to humiliate me. They used it against me any time I did something to make my presence known– like have an opinion, or assert my own wants or needs, or make a suggestion.

A little while ago I was having a conversation with my mother about that “sub-adult” moniker, and she said “well, you were doing something immature,” and what came erupting out of me shocked me with the truth of it:

“Yeah, maybe I was being immature. But so was she. Calling someone names isn’t exactly a mark of maturity. I was a teenager– some immaturity is normal, and should be a teaching moment, but no one ever called her on the fact that she was being cruel and petty. No, she was the ‘adult,’ so whatever she did I had to accept.”

That’s when it struck me that as much as being tortured with a humiliating nickname hurt me growing up, I’d never really questioned the authority of the adults to do that. All that time, while I inwardly seethed, it was mostly internal: I was largely angry with myself for failing to be the flawless young person they demanded. It never really occurred to me to that I question their behavior, or call it what it was: they were worse than bullies– adults using playground tactics to attack a child.

It never occurred to me because it would never in a million years have occurred to them that they could be wrong about how they treated their children and teenagers. Being the adult was what made them right. I’d been forced to accepted ageism as just a fact of life.

The worst thing is that this attitude hasn’t even remotely changed, regardless of how old I become. In interactions I have with older fundamentalists (and, frequently, more moderate Christians), the fact that I’m twenty-eight, married, with multiple degrees and plenty of life experience in things they’ll never understand (like being an abuse victim and queer) … none of it matters. They were an adult when I was a child and that’s it for them.

Recently, Slate published an article by Jessica Huseman on the ways the Homeschool Legal Defense Association has made it almost impossible to protect homeschool children from abuse. When Huseman questioned Farris (the founder of HSLDA) about people like me who are advocating for more oversight and protection for homeschool children, this is what he had to say:

He dismissed both organizations outright, calling them “a group of bitter young people” who are “fighting against home schooling … to work out their own issues with their parents.”

He’s talking about HARO and CRHE, organizations that were both founded by fully-grown adults, men and women in their 30s, who are married, who have children. For comparison, Michael Farris was 32 when he founded HSLDA. And yet we’re the “bitter young people.”

I was told all my life to “let no man despise thy youth,” but if there’s been something made perfectly clear to me over the last few years is that there are always limits to what “The Adults” are willing to tolerate. They think we’re fantastic when we’re bashing each other, writing think pieces on just how entitled millennials are. Write a post on how young people these days are just so willing to abandon orthodoxy and they will share the shit out of that.

But disagree? State a strong opinion? Assert that your views and experience matter and … nope. End of all civil discourse with them. The second we’re not bobbleheads, we’re “bitter young people.”

It took me a long time to realize that I can look at the words, actions, and beliefs of other adults and interact with them as another adult. No, I don’t have 50-60 years of being alive on this planet, but I do have experiences with something many adults will never have. I was raised in a cult. I grew up as a bisexual woman in Christian culture. I experienced a modern incarnation of purity culture that they didn’t have to live through. I came of age in a completely different economic reality. I’ve been through the process of completely re-evaluating every single last thing I believe.

I am the authority on my life, and I am a person, and that makes me equal. It means that my point of view and perspective matters just as much as anyone else.

Photo by Ciokka
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  • Ugh, this in so many ways. When I agreed with everyone — hell, even when I was MORE conservative than my parents — I was godly and mature. When I had questions, I was being childish and led astray. When I left altogether…it’s this weird mix of treating me like a disease, like I don’t exist, or like a child. Telling me I can’t expect basic human decency from others because I’m different now. My difference makes me shallow, immature, and not worth basic respect. It’s sick and infantilizing and infuriating and there’s no real way to combat it.

    • Upvote for sympathy + I can highly relate. “Infantalizing and infuriating” encapsulates it so well.

    • Harmony

      That’s a lot of my relationship with my dad. When I was more conservative and listened to Rush Limbaugh almost every day ( >.< ) he always commented on how mature I was and older than my years, and stuff like that. As I drifted more into my own thinking and began to disagree with him, he switched over to how inexperienced I was, unable to function, how much I still needed his help.

  • Gloria

    The worst thing is that this attitude hasn’t even remotely changed, regardless of how old I become…..They were an adult when I was a child and that’s it for them.

    This. This is how I was 27 and the family had an “intervention”/discussion because I was living in the same house with my now husband in order to save money while studying for the bar. That money went into the trip to visit – which has been my last visit because I don’t have the money – from 11pm to 3am, talking about how I had fallen away from Jesus, complementarianism was the only way to live (what are they teaching her in college? when it was law school and being on the internet) and eventually the plan that was presented as a fait accompli was I should break up with C, move back up to NY, and get back together with my ex. I expressed several times that that ship had sailed and I wasn’t making any decisions until I had talked with the people involved. I don’t think I’ve forgiven my aunt for insisting on that course of action and it’s been two years.

    • I’m quite impressed with the level of universe-control they attempted! Not only merely making you move out/in-with-them (and apparently think and feel differently about pretty much everything to do with that), but also thinking they can jump start a dead relationship with someone they presumably can’t control?

      What magic spell did they think would conjure all that?

      • Gloria

        Thank you for pointing out the extreme level of delusion that this would
        require. I’m not sure they got it when I told them I would have to
        talk with people and this decision was not one to be done “on one’s
        own”. I believe this would require some time-traveling and mind control as well.

        I really, really don’t know. About the only things I can think is (1) that my ex and I are (now) friends (we stopped speaking for several years), (2) that they would have more control if I moved back up to NY, (3) that everyone will do what the plan is even though we’re all over 21, (4) that even though I graduated college, and law school, somehow I didn’t age and was still 18 or younger at that point, (5) that “I have a great future but now-husband-then-boyfriend will ruin it because we’re living in the same house” but move to NY which is not the state I took the bar in [and passed], (6) repeat #2 indefinitely.

        That magic spell starts with “You should do this because we’re your family and we know what’s best/what God wants and you do want to do that, yes?”

  • Kaitlynn Hill

    This was so true in my life. I never questioned the abuse I received from adults in the curch, because they were adults. Recently I came to the realization that although they were adults they were wrong and I did not do anything to deserve their treatment. Thank you for this post.

  • HypercubeVillain

    “They were an adult when I was a child and that’s it for them.” This, a thousand times. No room for reasoning or real communication, just this. And the “sub-adult” nickname is just cruel, thoughtless, & ironically childish from the supposed adults; no child nor teen deserves that.
    My youth group wasn’t looked down upon quite that overtly, but there’s still this pervasive tone of condescension, with sentences starting with the words “You know, young people nowadays…” often whinged from the “adult” pulpit.

  • I can’t even come up with a coherent response… You’ve written basically all of my thoughts, here.

  • Jackalope

    This brought to mind and argument I had many years ago with adults when I was in late middle school or so. It took me years to realize that not only did I act immature, but so did they. For so long I had a hard time believing, despite my own strong memory of the event, that I as a kid might NOT be the only guilty one. I was fine with recognizing that I was acting immature (it was to be expected at times; I was a middle schooler!), but it was so healing to finally understand at a gut level that it was NOT just me.

  • I think there is also a threatened response to self-assured or intelligent young teenagers or young adults; you must be put in your place, because otherwise they would have to admit that someone half their age or younger is smarter than them, or more well-read, or simply more able to adapt to whatever the situation was at the moment. And that is unacceptable – so you have to make sure the kids understand they are inferior right from the start.

  • The day I realized I am equal to them in both humanity and ability to think, I left and never turned back. They know their authority is a house of cards, and that terrifies them. I was shunned so fast that everyone assumed I had done the unpardonable sin. (Nobody seems to know what that is, though.)

    What their demand boiled down to was this. I had left my ex without their permission (after years of emotional and sexual abuse and a final act of blatant cheating), therefore I was challenging their authority by refusing to go back. If I would just return to him like a good child and go through more of the counselling they’d spent years using to make me stay, they held out the carrot that they would then “allow me to separate” under their “authority”, thus remaining in everyone’s good graces and … I don’t know … continue to receive God’s input and be seen as holy? The ex would/might/maybe be seen as the bad guy (if he actually was one, which they still questioned because he loves having hoops to jump through, it’s his specialty) they promised, and I would remain in good graces with the church.

    Oh, and don’t make us do this to you by rebelling! –never mind I had already raised a teenager myself, and was educated in a Bible school they respected so I knew enough to research their doctrines independently, without their “patronage”–We do love you, and don’t want to have to discipline you by kicking you out and refusing to allow you back or “associate with the (apparently weak-minded) women, because you might lead them astray”.

    Oh, and you’re hurting US by acting this way, so please stop forcing us to behave like this…. … HA!

    I looked at them and thought. “Oh, they are just blind men after all.” And just like that I was free.

    I’m teaching my kids to rebel and to think for themselves. No more of this “youth must submit to authority/age/diplomas/married status” or else … crap.

    • Good grief, what kind of a nasty cult needs that much control over your personal life in order to make you welcome?

      • You have no idea how freeing it was the day I found the list of “signs of a cult” and realized they fit all of them. It made me feel much less crazy. Heh!

    • Missionary Dave

      Let me guess; it was an Independent Fundamental Baptist church.

      • Oddly enough, it was merely a “Bible” church. (My ex’s parents were concerned back when we joined because they weren’t Baptist and didn’t do alter calls every Sunday.)

        I’m seeing a certain pattern of teaching/ leadership style among graduates from several major Christian colleges. (No, I’m not going to list them, because I haven’t researched it enough.) Their view of God, approach to doctrine, and leadership methods seem to warp leaders early on, and not many break out of that mold.

        The graduates aren’t all hired out to the same denomination, so depending on a label (or the old doctrinal statement someone posted on their site ten years ago) won’t always inform anyone of the actual teaching going on in the building.

    • Original Lee

      Sadly, this can happen almost anywhere. I think pastors’ wives might get the worst of it, because of being married to, you know, The Pastor. Especially if they marry someone from either their home church or a nearby church from where they grew up. They have their families AND their congregations getting on their cases, with the added “I taught you in Sunday School” flavor. In one recent instance I know of, the pastor had a porn addiction and was in denial about being bisexual, so you can imagine what happened when his wife had enough and filed for divorce.

      She had to promise her husband to keep the records sealed and not tell anyone in the church or her family the real reason for the divorce beyond “irreconcilable differences” in order to get full custody without a fight. Otherwise, she would be ruining his career, which would be sinful and vindictive. It was all OK for her reputation to sink into the mud, though.

      The number of long, long, abusive conversations with the elders and deacons was quite high, because obviously she must have learned something at her conservative Christian college that made her corrupt her husband, even though that’s where they started courting. The number of long, long, abusive conversations with her family was also quite high.

  • Missionary Dave

    I just finished a post about Fundamentalism.

  • Melody

    This one resonated so much for me. Yes, exactly like that.

    My grandfather was the worst and I always assumed it was sexism (certainly part of it was) but it could have been partly this as well. He’d have this smug expression of “listen to her speak, the girl has an opinion…. how funny…” But then in youth groups there was hardly any real discussion, though it was ‘encouraged,’ whenever we strayed and had a different opinion as the leaders, suddenly they weren’t all that tolerant…. We were only allowed an opinion if it alligned with theirs…. like good little echoes.

    It still shocks me sometimes when people adress and treat me as an adult, because sometimes I don’t see myself like that. I think it is a problem that in such an authoritarian environments teens are perhaps not really raised to be adults. Rather than helping them to grown into their own, they are considered as a threat and are prevented to grow since their main function is to validate the adults around them. When you think about it, how immature is that?

    • Kalieris

      I call that smug expression the “talking dog look” – they act so astonished that “oh look, it speaks – how droll!” I got that a lot, even much later when transitioning to more senior positions in the male dominated field I work in. I’ve learned not to be silenced by it, but still have to work to overcome the idea that I’m making a fool of myself in front of the grownups.

  • Kalieris

    This was true for me as well. When I was a good little parrot, I was praised for my maturity, but any non-conforming thought was met with a curled lip and a patronizing comment that clearly let me know I was being disappointingly foolish. My father was great with little kids, up to maybe 4 years old, but any older than that and he began to feel challenged and disrespected by anything that didn’t mirror his beliefs exactly. Same thing during my marriage, although he was easier for me to “rebel” against. Music was a big bone of contention: in his car, we listened only to talk radio or country. In mine, 80’s and 90’s. He’d always at some point sneer and then get the “pious elder” look before expressing the concern that listening to that kind of music wasn’t “appropriate” for our small child. (We’re talking Dire Straits, here, not NWA, just for perspective.) He was 15 years older, and by default he felt that he was the final arbiter of appropriateness and maturity. Early in our marriage, I’d take the correction and change the station, but after I got more confident I’d just say “my car, my rules”. The marriage didn’t last more than a couple of years after that point.

  • Plain English

    I have come to accept that the double-speak love of religion is as much dark at least as light. When you choose to punish a child, shame and blame and even physically harm, then you enjoy what you are doing. It is not truly a hard thing but a delight to be serving the Master by harming your child. It is not called harm in double-speak; it is called discipline, and training and love.
    People harm because it feels right and good. Often these abusers can reveal pasts full of a similar harm in their own early lives. Oh really. Wow. Big surprise. The Bible verses are used to help define the Double-speak so black becomes white. We are born fallen and need to be trained up in the way we should go…. what a load of shite.

  • Rebecca

    As your elder, I will correct you and set you all straight. Sorry, I couldn’t resist…

    Seriously, I don’t think this is just a fundamentalist Christian problem. It just looks a little different, perhaps a bit more obvious, in those circles. But there are a lot of older adults who view differences of opinion or differing choices as a “slap in the face” of them personally or of their generation. It’s as if everything is to be taken personally, as an actual insult or affront, if the younger person thinks/does/prefers/believes differently. It must be rebellion — what other explanation could there possibly be?

    Because I encountered that ageism growing up (“Oh, look, how cute — she used a big word!”) I tried not to be that way with my kids, but I have to say that there were times when I failed miserably. Now that they are all adults, I fully recognize that they have experiences, insight, knowledge, and expertise that I don’t. That respect goes both ways — even our oldest, at age 30, still asks us for advice and values our opinions.

    There is a feeling of validation (oh good, I didn’t mess up entirely) when our grown kids follow in our footsteps in the things in the things we tried to do right. But there is also a feeling that I can’t quite put a name to when our kids find their own way. It is enriching. I never wanted to raise little clones. I wanted to raise kids who turned out better than me.

    Part of trusting God with our kids is trusting that He can guide them — and that their paths won’t always be the same paths He had for us.

  • Mimc

    I never had it quite as bad as that but I know what you mean. I’ve had a small group (all over 40 except my husband and me) rant about how bad Millennials are for almost a full hour while we were right there. It was pretty hurtful. I honestly thought that people would treat me more like an adult once I graduated high school but 6 years later and some still don’t. Fortunately my parents don’t do this. I’m not sure if we could have the close relationship we have if they didn’t treat me as an adult.

  • I’ve been seeing this in small ways that have really bothered me. I recently read Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love and I loved the first chapter. Then I read the second chapter and put the book down for a couple of days. I eventually finished it, and had almost talked myself into believing that I was overreacting, but then I read basically the same thing by Jamie the Very Worst Missionary and got all worked up again. Both women were talking about turning 40. They talked about how they wish they had appreciated their bodies more in their 20s and how nothing sagged or was covered in stretch marks back then. They talked about how now in their 40s they feel comfortable as themselves and confident in who they are. They were like, “Just wait, young ones, wait till you get to be 40! It’s going to be great! And also, enjoy your firm butt!” And I was like, “How dare you?” First of all because my body is both squishier and stretchier at 25 than either of their bodies (I mean, from what I can see in pictures of them, obviously) and I ENJOY IT because it’s my body. Also, I’m not waiting around till I’m 40 to be confident and comfortable with who I am. I’m working on that now.

    I fully acknowledge that I don’t know everything and that I will know more at 40 than I do now, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things a 40 year old knows that I also know. Ya know?

  • When I think of ageism, I usually think of people mistreating elderly people, but I suppose it can work in the reverse way too. Especially this is the case with parents who never treat their children the same way they do other adults.