The Adult Gaze: a tool of control and oppression

The adult gaze is a tool of oppression and control. 

My definition of the adult gaze is inspired by the male gaze, a phrase coined by the feminist and film critic Laura Mulvey , which describes the way women in the media are viewed and represented from a heterosexual male perspective. 

The adult gaze, for me, derives from this concept but is much broader. It means the way adults watch, weigh up and evaluate children; the way adults bring all of their social conditioning and project it onto children; the way children are viewed, represented and portrayed by adults; and finally society’s conception of children and the way this is perpetuated within institutions, and inherent in all interactions with children, from advertising aimed at children to the way the medical profession relates to children.

The adult gaze is firmly rooted in the adult conception of children as less than, or adults-in-the-making, rather than whole people in themselves, and the resulting narrative that adults “know best” and can therefore wield their power over children in a myriad big and small ways. Children are seen as less capable, less worthy, in need of being steered, taught, shaped, molded, controlled and corrected.

This is what I mean when I say the adult gaze. It is layered, and complex, and it’s hard to escape the fact that what lies behind it is a combination of assumptions and constructs that adults grow up around, internalize, and then project onto their own children. The gaze describes what the adults do (watch, follow, assess, give feedback), and also what they project onto the child (societal pressures, assumptions and stereotypes), as well as the influence of systemic adultism, racism, colonialism, capitalism, ableism and all other types of discrimination and imposed social norms.

The adult gaze is all those things. It projects them onto the child, but it is also made up of them: it is the gaze of the white supremacist, the coloniser, the patriarch, the capitalist; it is a neurotypical, ableist, sizeist, binary gaze. 

The ‘evaluative gaze’, coined by Carol Black, is school’s heightened and institutionalized version of the adult gaze. In schools or more conventional schooling/education, children are constantly monitored, controlled, organized, measured and assessed. They are judged, criticized and given constant, unsolicited feedback, both positive and negative. The evaluative gaze is a systemic, sanctioned tool of oppression and control. 

The adult gaze is harmful and disempowering for children. Many of them internalize and take it with them into adulthood; it becomes their inner voice and the pressure they put on themselves. It becomes the sense of never being enough. It is in turn projected onto their own children, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. 

The adult gaze can be heightened for children from marginalized groups, because it operates within a hierarchy– it automatically puts people in categories, pits them against one another, encouraged comparison and disconnection, and is contains an inherent idea of what is “normal” and desirable.

Children deserve to go about their days without constant monitoring and feedback on who they are, what they say and what they do. They deserve to feel seen, appreciated and accepted for who they are at all times. 

I suppose this would feel like Unconditional Positive Regard, coined by the psychologist Carl Roger; this means always assuming that our children are doing their best. This tool can help us step outside of the default adult gaze, and give our children the compassion and unconditional love that they need. And because many of us find giving ourselves this sort of unconditional positive regard challenging, this is where the inner work really begins. We start to deconstruct our cultural assumptions and dismantle systemic inequalities, and work on feeling worthy of love and belonging, so that our children may feel this too. 

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