In order for colleges to function as inclusive communities of responsible and respected members, all of their adults must be treated as adults. Yet, many of my faculty colleagues habitually call their undergraduates “kids” by default. They should stop. In addition to usually being false, it is demeaning and it tacitly encourages the immature behaviors we all bemoan.
When undergraduates begin college they immediately receive warnings that high school is over and that they will now be held to adult standards of conduct. Meanwhile, hallways are filled with faculty and students talking about which of their classes have especially “good kids,” “quiet kids” or “lazy kids.” In our speech, undergraduates are demoted back to children — they are infantilized. The resulting mixed messages would confuse anyone. Undergraduates are held to high behavioral standards (“I have zero tolerance for accidental plagiarism. A college student should know better.”). At the same time, they are spoken of as children (“The kid who plagiarized in my class is asking for leniency.”).
In my state and most of the U.S., we formally recognize 18-year-olds’ right to make autonomous choices while also being held accountable for a full set of societal responsibilities. Eighteen-year-old men and women begin college having recently earned the right to sign contracts and take full responsibility for the consequences; those who are U.S. citizens have recently earned the right to vote and the duty to serve as jurors; most of the men have completed their mandatory registration for Selective Service in case a military draft is ever reinstated. These men and women who are undergraduates live with the adult consequences of their adult rights and responsibilities when they get tattoos, decide whether to seek mental health treatment, get married, sign up for credit cards and so on.
What about those still-developing young adult brains? In contrast to the rigid law, developmental psychology research paints a complex picture of how traits gradually develop over time, with features such as “psychosocial maturity” varying substantially from person to person within an age group. Appealing to the developmental psychology literature will not justify the decision to walk into a lecture hall filled with young adults one scarcely knows, each at variable stages of development for a wide array of psychological and behavioral traits, and say, “Quiet down, kids!”
By publicly referring to undergraduates as “kids,” faculty members unwittingly invite childish behaviors. Kids ask their parents to call the instructor about a bad grade. Kids whine that they were not reminded about the homework that was due. Kids giggle when a peer shares an embarrassing personal story during class. Kids make inappropriate jokes to get a laugh from the room. These behaviors then become perceived justifications for continuing to see undergraduates as kids. The vicious cycle perpetuates the behaviors that faculty members wish to prevent. You’ll have to take my word for it, but my undergraduate students do none those childish behaviors. They act like the adults they are. I contend that the key to achieving this is the radically intuitive strategy of treating them like adults.
If there is one thing I have learned from teaching controversial philosophical subjects (e.g., the ethics of health care policy) to undergraduates, it is that a good classroom environment is the product of an explicit and consistently applied ethos. On the first day of class I tell my students that I will treat everyone in the room as adults whose contributions are valued, and that I expect them to do the same. They are not allowed to use the words “kid,” “idiot,” “bleeding heart,” or any other disparaging language to describe each other, as this is incompatible with a classroom that is inclusive of its diverse members. In a recent course evaluation from a senior seminar, a student expressed gratitude that I did not treat the class members as “inferiors.” It upsets me that such a thing bears mentioning. A roughly 22-year-old man or woman was so accustomed to being treated as a child or a second-class citizen that he or she felt obliged to mention it when treated otherwise.
Thinking of and speaking of undergraduates as “kids” can manifest in class policies ill-suited for adults. Perhaps the clearest examples of this are some of the faculty responses to poor undergraduate behavior. There is undeniable appeal in some of my colleagues’ approaches, such as publicly shaming students caught looking at Facebook in class or confiscating any cell phones used for texting during a lecture. However tempting it might be, this is not appropriate behavior between two adults. This is how an adult treats a kid.
If a dean did such things to faculty members during meetings then he or she would rightly be called a tyrant (and would likely have a large collection of cell phones). Strategies responding to an adult’s childish behavior must work within a framework of adult-adult interaction. If students use their cell phones in class then the instructor can easily initiate a brief classwide conversation about the classroom policies and penalties, as well as the reasons for them. An instructor can also speak candidly and politely with an individual student after class ends about any violated policies.
Every adult has moments of childish behavior. It is one thing to criticize an individual adult for a specific childish behavior, but quite another thing to indiscriminately call a whole group of adults “kids.” There are indeed cases where it might be appropriate to refer to an individual student as a “kid” or “child,” much like it occasionally might be appropriate to refer to an individual student as a “jerk.” Faculty members need to privately grumble and blow off steam just like anyone else — call it the Happy Hour Exemption. This does not make it acceptable to use “kid” (or “jerk”) as one’s default term for undergraduates. Even when used as a term of endearment, “kid” still devalues undergraduates as autonomous agents. It is no more appropriate than saying “good boy” to a graduate student who wrote a strong paper, or describing a junior faculty member as a “nice girl.”
Whether they grew up listening to the Everly Brothers or the Jonas Brothers, adults deserve to be spoken of and treated as respected and accountable human beings. Many undergraduates are new adults, and unsurprisingly most are not yet very good at acting like adults. This does not excuse faculty members who casually refer to these men and women as “kids.” In anything, the infantilizing language sends the misleading message that undergraduates are permitted to act like children. Unfortunately, the undergraduate-as-kid mindset is deeply ingrained in campus culture, making change difficult. We even have the audacity to reserve the term “adult learners” for undergraduates over the age of 25. This status quo is unacceptable. The adult men and women in our undergraduate courses deserve better.
Sean A. Valles is assistant professor in the Lyman Briggs College and department of philosophy at Michigan State University.