Let Kids Be Kids: Resisting the Adultification of Black Children

By Jennifer Sunami

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about childhood and what it means to have the freedom to play. It seems reasonable to say that most of American society has embraced an idea that children are different from adults in fundamental ways. We assume kids do not have as much physical or emotional self-control as adults. We understand that the young brain is not as good at judging risk or making logical decisions. We grant children the assumption of innocence and give them extra leeway to make mistakes. All of which means that we allow different rules to apply to the actions of children versus adults, to let kids learn from missteps rather than punishing them. Yet sometimes we fail to let kids be kids, and unfortunately that lapse tends to target Black and Brown children the most.

The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality recently released a study looking at how the misperception of Black girls’ age can change how they are treated. Among other effects, they found the “adultification” of young Black girls can lead to less support in school, harsher discipline for infractions, and increased interactions with law enforcement. The results of this study appear to support similar findings from a few years ago, which suggested that young Black boys also were often viewed as more adult than they really were. The source of these errors may be subconscious, but the outcome can be incredibly harmful, whatever the intent.

Adultification makes it more likely that children will find themselves in conflict with authorities, from teachers and principals, to police officers and other adults. It also increases the likelihood that innocent mistakes and otherwise age-appropriate outbursts will be disproportionately punished, sometimes to devastating results. Likely we have all heard stories that illustrate this idea to varying degrees. When I read these reports however, the example I can’t shake from my memory is of Tamir Rice, who was only 12, but was treated as an adult by the people who reported him and the officers who shot him. Even in situations when the stakes are lower, the inevitable conclusion is that adultification deprives children of their natural opportunities to grow and develop through play, and shortens the window of their childhood.

Some efforts to reduce the catastrophic consequences of adultification through policy have been hopeful. Seattle Public Schools is working to implement restorative practices throughout the system, potentially keeping more kids in school and reducing the disproportionate rates of Black children being suspended. Washington State very recently passed Senate Bill 5290, which moves to stop jailing kids for noncriminal offenses, such as truancy. However, institutional change can only work to mitigate the effects caused by our incorrect judgments, and in many cases it is not making the kind of impact we’d hope.

It falls to us as individuals to continue to question our own observations and assumptions. As with all unconscious biases, one of the first steps towards addressing our faulty perceptions is to acknowledge their existence. Every adult, regardless of race, must ask themselves honestly if their reactions to a Black child’s behavior are the same as they would be with a White child of the same age, or if they are expecting more mature behavior from the Black child than is developmentally appropriate. Adults in positions of authority such as a teachers, school administrators, and police officers have a special duty to stop and examine their beliefs. Because of the immense power that these adults can wield over the kids in their care, it becomes all the more critical that their interactions with these children are based on the actual actions of the child, and not on a flawed interpretation of those actions.  

Children understand when they are being held to a different standard. They can see when they are expected to behave differently than their peers, and they will change their behavior to fit those expectations, even if they lose a part of themselves in the process. Instead, should be giving kids the time and space to act like kids. When we do that, we are growing the foundations for a more just and generous society. There are lessons learned in the park and on the playground—lessons about fairness, tolerance, kindness, and inclusion that children will carry with them throughout their lives. Through play, kids have the ability to make connections and bridge the divides between us. Let’s make sure that all our kids can get a chance to be kids and to play, for as long as possible.

Read the original studies here and here.