Are you an ‘ageist’?

Any of us would be horrified to be accused of being a racist — someone who has a hatred or intolerance of another race. But I actually think that many of us are ‘closet ageists’ — people who discriminate against persons of a certain age group — especially when it comes to children and youth.

Most often, the term ‘ageist’ is used to describe those who discriminate against the elderly in various ways, but I believe many of us are even more prejudiced against children and youth. It’s not that we mistreat those who are young, but rather that we don’t take them seriously. We don’t value their opinions, and we don’t believe that they can offer anything significant when it comes to solving social problems or improving our society. We don’t treat them as we should — as partners. Instead, we treat them more like pets, training them and feeding them, but never really letting them have a say.

Chheng, 18, facilitates the domestic violence awareness session at his community's youth club. (Vichheka Sok/WV/2010)

One of the most impressive accomplishments of World Vision’s involvement with children and youth around the world is the work we have done with youth leadership development and youth empowerment. World Vision believes that one of the greatest assets any community has is the untapped reservoir of ideas and influence present in its young people, just waiting to be released.

In Bolivia, for example, World Vision has organized youth clubs for children of different ages. These clubs are not about playing ping pong and watching movies; they’re about leadership development and problem solving. Confronted with the growing problem of alcoholism and drugs in their community, one such group has produced two videos that illustrate the problem and provide a powerful call for teenagers to resist the forces that draw them into alcohol, drugs, and early sexual experiences. In creating an alternative peer group identity for their friends to choose, the teens have become leaders among their peers, and they’ve raised the discussion in a fresh way among the adults in their community.

Youth participants in the 2009 Famine weekend. (Pat Rhoads/WV/2009)

A similar group in a different community took on the problem of domestic abuse and discrimination against girls. They developed both a video and a drama, which they act out to audiences of adults and youth in churches and community centers around their town. And it’s making a difference, breaking down the blinders of apathy.

It’s clear to me and to World Vision that young people have tremendous potential to become a voice for change, if only we would believe in them more and empower them to use their God-given talents. They see what needs to change, sometimes more clearly than adults who have already become part of the status quo. As adults and parents, we care a great deal about the world they will enter when they become adults.

This month, more than 150,000 American teenagers will be speaking out against global hunger as they participate in World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine. If Famine participants come to your church or to your door, I would ask that you listen to what they have to say. They might just rock your world.


    Mr. Stearns - My 10 yr old daughter, Camryn, is doing a report on a hero for her 4th grade class and she chose you because of your work through World Vision. She was thrilled to see your most recent post about the potential of youth and wanted to write you this note:

    I enjoyed what you said in this article. I feel very strongly about the matter. Kids should be able to stand up for what is right, help make choices, and express their own feelings and thoughts. I feel that your article speaks for many children worldwide. I feel it is very important to have World Vision and I wish that I could do more. I helped my mom and the rest of my church to create 93 Caregiver Kits. As soon as I finished one kit I started another. It felt great to be helping out!

    Sexual harassment is a major problem facing teens and young adults in the US. I recently read an article on how sexual harassment is directly linked to ageism and the acceptance that youth can be treated with less respect than older adults. I faced sexual harassment myself in my twenties and hope that with people standing up against sexual harassment and ageism, we will start to see a decline in such awful behavior.

    @Karen- How very sweet of your daughter. I am sure that Rich Stearns will be grateful and humbled to be your daughter's chosen "hero" for her 4th grade class. I am personally going to be passing on your's and Camryn's comment to Rich. Blessings to you and Camryn, -Lindsey, Blog manager

    Camryn (and Karen), your note proves the point about how much kids have to offer. You are a very special young lady to be involved with helping the poor at just ten years old. You are an example not just for other kids but for adults as well.

    I recently read a book called Do Hard Things about the low expectations our culture has for youth and how God expects us to do so much more. The book challenges teenagers to live out their faith not only in challenges, but in even the small things. As a teenager I so often want to volunteer for something but see that I can't until I am older, but I also see how many teenagers only live up to the low expectations because no one expects them to do anything more. I think 30 hour famine is a really great idea.

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