I have previously written an entry on what I called misopedia- child-hatred. Since then I learned there was another term designating the prejudice against children, childism, modeled after words like sexism and racism. In her book on the subject (Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children), Elisabeth Young-Bruehl defines childism:
Drawing on a comparative study of prejudice forms, then, childism can be defined thus: a prejudice against children on the ground of a belief that they are property and can (or even should) be controlled, enslaved, or removed to serve adult needs.
I would like to go into more detail on this topic, as there seems to be very little about it out there on blogs.
First, like all other prejudices, childism is a hierarchical system with superiors, adults, and inferiors, children. I have not found any label used to designate this hierarchy, so I have decided to call it the “domestication hierarchy” (another term for it might be the “maturity hierarchy”). My intention here is to refer to the domesticated/wild dichotomy we apply to non-human animals: central to the way we see children is the concept that they are “wild,” “savage,” “immature,” master manipulators, born evil, or whatever other rationalization people come up with, and that they must be “domesticated,” trained to obey and imitate the adults around them.
Our prejudice against children is part of a conceptual chain. In The Culture of Conformity, Patrick Hogan delineates two metaphorical frameworks, which he calls domains, used to discuss race: the domain of maturity and the domain of animalcy. The former is divided in four categories: children, adolescents, adults and elders:
Adulthood is, of course, the standard by which the others are measured, and it is the model for the dominant group…
The infantile model yields a conception of a status group that is asexual or presexual, naive, intellectually limited to basic studies, lacking an internalized morality yet fundamentally good-natured and thus inclined to follow parental guidance, playful and friendly, chattering, and cute. The adolescent model, in contrast, is highly and compulsively sexual, clever and cunning, still intellectually limited (though somewhat less so), actively rebellious against parental authority and morality, aggressive and unfriendly, inscrutably silent, and either ugly or powerfully sexually attractive.
It is not difficult to see that the former is one of the most persistent models for women in our culture… This is [also] the view of Africans as happy, banjo-playing folk, apt to a grade school education only… friendly and loquacious.
If women and black people (and in the past, first nations people) are defined in infantile terms, then our beliefs about children are at the foundation of that prejudice. Children in turn are defined using both animalistic terms like “wild” and a lack of morality, and racist terms like “savage” and “barbarian.” The domestication hierarchy goes something like this:
men > women, POC > children > pets > wild animals
I’ve seen the objection that equating childism with racism is spurious, but that’s not the point: obviously childism is not the same as racism, but they are both prejudices that are structurally similar, and they are linked. All prejudices are linked in promoting a common hierarchy: sexism, racism, childism, carnism, capitalism and ableism all share a vision of the world where rich healthy able-bodied white adult males are at or near the top (religious prejudice has God and his flunkies at the very top, of course), and nature/other species are at the very bottom, with people of lower status being metaphorically framed as being of even lower status (humans being framed as animalistic or objectified).
The infantile and adolescent models provide a great framework by which to analyze childist prejudice, both in its positive form (as represented by the infantile model) and negative form (as represented by the adolescent model). What I am saying is that both the infantile and adolescent model can be used against any child of any age: little children as young as two or three years old can be portrayed as sexual (esp. by the Freudians), cunning, rebellious and inscrutably silent, and teenagers, at least the few “good” ones, can be portrayed as good-natured and obedient, asexual and naive.
Like gender and race, domestication is not just a basis for prejudice but also a model against which all children are measured. A “good child” is one which follows the infantile model and a “bad child” is one which follows the adolescent model. But whether they are “good” or “bad,” all children are by definition undeveloped persons: only adults are fully developed persons.
This means that children do not have full human rights and cannot have full human rights, as only fully developed persons “deserve” human rights and the human rights of children must be suppressed in order to further their development. The objective of pedagogy is to use children’s lives as means to an end, this end being the future person they will become once they are developed. Whatever method is used to develop a child’s character, demanding and strict or relaxed and permissive, the desired end goal is always a well-adapted, productive person (well-adapted and productive according to social standards).
A thornier issue is that of ownership. Parents resent the suggestion that they own their children. Indeed, the main objection I got to my entry on misopedia was that my equation of children with slaves was outrageous. The funny thing is that I made no such equation. It’s when people complain about something you didn’t even write that you know you’ve hit a sore spot.
What I did, however, was make the analogy that parents treating their children well does not prove the absence of child-hatred any more than slaves having been treated well, and even paid, proved that they weren’t slaves. This is hard for parents to accept because they genuinely want to believe that their good intentions are enough to make them “good parents.” This of course should be properly identified as a form of subjectivism: feeling as if you’re doing the right thing is not equal to doing the right thing.
This whole belief system is so normalized and implicit in our societies that pointing it out may seem unnecessary: I’ve just formulated it in a more general way than most parents would. No one would outright say that children don’t “deserve” human rights, but few parents respect their children’s rights. You may observe behaviors against children in public such as physical assault, sexual assault, emotional blackmail, disregard for a child’s concerns, or using toys as bribes, and this is treated as perfectly normal, if a bit distasteful.
Humiliating children is a social media staple (there is even an astonishing new trend of “kidshaming“). In general, invalidating children’s feelings is commonplace. We label child anger “tantrum” in order to trivialize it and to ignore its causes. For instance, I’ve observed a mother bribe her child with toys, continue to ignore the child’s concerns or hit the child, and then take the toys away based on the “tantrums” that followed. I am not saying that all “tantrums” are the result of neglect, but it is a cause.
One may argue that there are laws against physically assaulting children. This is true, but laws made to protect children, and general opinion about what’s right, are two entirely different things. A large majority of American parents (anywhere from 60% to 80%, depending on the question) support spanking. Who’s going to stop them from doing it in their own homes, when, in a capitalist society, we believe that the home is inviolable and where such abuse is considered not only good but necessary? The inviolability of the home, the perceived necessity of the family structure, and the ownership of children combine to create an omerta, a conspiracy of silence, around child abuse.
That being said, while I’ve written against parenthood, I do not want to make anyone think that I believe that parents are the sole authority over children. Children are subject to one main sphere of influence, the home, and other spheres of influence, such as the schooling system, child protection agencies, the justice system, the capitalist system and the mass media. All these spheres has independent childist agendas which, as we know, are not always harmonious. For example, many parents try (and fail) to fight against the mass media’s influence on their children.
All prejudices engender their innateness-based or biology-based rationalizations, and childism is no different. Because childism is not really an issue and there is no movement against it, the rationalizations are still simplistic:
* Children are not physically developed, therefore they are not mentally developed and are incapable of moral reasoning, decision-making, figuring out what’s true and what’s not, and so on.
* Children are dependent on adults for their survival, therefore children are inferior, therefore children must be controlled for their own good.
* Children are inherently gullible and believe anything their parents say, because evolution made them that way.
All rationalizations work best when there’s some superficial truth behind them, and this is also true here, so I don’t mean to say that none of that makes sense. Yes, children are physically developing and they are dependent on adults to survive, but none of the conclusions follow. The last argument, especially, is completely wrong: scientific studies have recorded epistemic distrust in children as young as 16 months old, and that by the time they are three years old they are able to outright reject demonstrably false claims (Clément, 2010). Children are not inherently gullible. This is a lie used to cover up the fact that parents control the information that reaches their children and, most of the time, use that control for purposes of indoctrination.
It is also false to say that children cannot perform moral reasoning unless they are taught. Children as young as 12 months old help adults by pointing to the location of a displaced item, and children as young as 18 months old help adults at baby-accessible tasks (Michael Tomasello, Why We Cooperate). Furthermore, since morality is the result of a priori, evolutionary intuitions, babies possess it as much as any adult, they just haven’t yet learned the language necessary to formulate them.
Dependence doesn’t imply inferiority or the need for control. It does imply the need for help and support, which is not inferiority. People who are ill and who need medical help and support are not thereby inferior and do not need to be controlled. People who are disabled or handicapped are not inferior and do not need to be controlled. So the argument simply doesn’t work. Nothing in the concept of helping a child life and flourish implies inferiority or control.
Obviously I think that we need to keep children out of harm, especially when they are not aware of those harms. I also agree that children should not be tried as adults, not because children do not understand right from wrong, or are stupid, but because their parents are to blame.
For this entry, I would like to make a short list of the different ways in which childism is expressed in a society.
1. Childism provides the justification for innumerable immoral or criminal acts (verbal and physical violence, incest, forced labor, coercion).
All around the world, the inferior social and legal status of children is used as a justification for crimes which would be illegal if committed against adults. And most of these acts do not have any value in terms of child development: most of the time they obviously serve the interests and the ego of the parents or other authority figures.
Whether parents like it or not, the only frameworks that help us understand why these crimes have been, and are being, committed are the frameworks of objectification and ownership. The child is seen, not as a human being with needs and values, but as an emotional, sexual and labor resource. This resource is under the control of the family, which can dictate how it’s used. After all, the child should not have any say about its life, as it is undeveloped, devoid of good judgment, and cannot possibly know what’s best for itself.
The child is not just a resource for its parents but also for social institutions, which see children as a future reproductive, financial or labor resource. This mentality underlies things like the forced enrollment of children in public schools and the “stay in school” mentality, the neurotypical bigotry manifested in the mass drugging of children, and the religious promotion of strict gender roles. These attitudes are reflected in the way parents indoctrinate their children to become breeders and successful workers.
Here is a good example of this kind of childism:
When your competitors are insisting that their children master higher mathematics, to the exclusion of many of the fun aspects of childhood, you are not doing your children any favors.
Your well-rounded fun-loving creative child will not be able to compete against a cohort that has mastered multivariable calculus and convex optimization.
This misopedist, and probably racist as well (it’s hard not to read this as being about asians in some way, given the existing stereotypes), believes that children are not human beings but rather are means to an end: the end of having a competitive economy to beat our “competitors” (i.e. other races or nations, designated by the aggressive word “cohort”). To him, children are a future labor resource which must be prepared correctly (i.e. learning the things he thinks are important to be “competitive”), and their values or desires are irrelevant; in the same entry he ridicules children’s values and desires (“fun” is pretty much the most generous way he describes them), something which I will talk about in point 2.
Childism, as reflected in our pedagogies, teaches children to respect authority figures (know their proper place in the hierarchy) and that love is expressed by punishment as well as affection (love is control). Both these precepts make children more vulnerable to abuse from other authority figures, and even strangers. Furthermore, abusers often use the child’s family as emotional blackmail against the child revealing the abuse (“if you tell anyone, I’ll kill your parents!”), which entraps children in repeated abuse.
Genderism, racism and other prejudices intersect with childism to compound the violence done to children. One cannot overstate the intellectual stunting of girls, the persecution of girls, and gynocides, committed around the world. One cannot overstate the child slavery and human trafficking, for which imperialism is in no small part responsible, being perpetrated around the world.
Although less harmful in themselves, but not to be neglected in any examination of the crimes committed against children, children’s stories have traditionally served the role of threatening punishment to children for failing to obey: threatening children with death, kidnapping or beatings is a criminal act. We do not consider these threats criminal because we consider narratives to be silly things on the whole, only important at all if they qualify as “art.” Otherwise they are just harmless, edifying stories for children. Fortunately, we’ve left these kinds of narratives behind, and modern children’s stories are, on the whole, benign. Woman Hating, by Andrea Dworkin, explores the misogynistic aspects of these children’s stories.
2. Childism provides the justification for the complete control that parents exert over a child’s life.
Regimented parental control over a child’s existence in time and space (and by extension the same control exerted by schools) is justified by the child’s supposed lack of judgment. Children don’t know what’s best for their development, so parents (and other authority figures) must decide for them what activities they should be occupied with, the spaces they should use to do so, and how they should use those spaces. Generally, this control is not exercised arbitrarily or capriciously, and no parent thinks they give such orders arbitrarily, despite the fact that they generally have no experience or expertise in the area of child development.
One cannot make specific statements about this control because parents vary wildly in their pedagogic styles and families wildly differ in living arrangements. Some children cannot have friends their parents disapprove of, and others can. Some children are very limited in how they can spend their free time and some are not so limited. Some children are “in the system” and bandied from family to family, some are split between two divorced parents, and others are rooted to one home.
But it’s not hard to pinpoint the nature of the control: the constant invalidation of the child’s beliefs, values, preferences and feelings. Whether the parents are operating under Strict Father morality or Nurturant Parent morality, it’s always the parents’ values and evaluations that count, not the child’s.
If the parents believe that their child should be free to choose something, then they will be, but this does not mean that the child is thereby free. A “right” that can be taken away at any time is a privilege, not a right.
Furthermore, since all pedagogies can only become popular by appealing to parents, not children, it is an inherent property of pedagogies that they must appeal to the ego of the parents and cannot upset the childist hierarchy. This is why no pedagogy, no matter how well intentioned, can be “on the side of the child.”
The primacy of the parent’s values and evaluations is accompanied by a number of rationalizations. One is, as I’ve already mentioned, the belief that the parent knows how best to help the child develop (in the way the parent believes the child should develop). Another is that children’s beliefs and desires are trivial or wrong; that a free child, left to its own devices, would desire “skittles for breakfast,” “a pet triceratops,” or “a nuclear bomb that kills all the cooties” (to quote the childist and racist moron linked above).
This sort of nonsense plays on the stereotype of childishness and child’s imaginative play as a form of irrationality and gullibility. Childists seem to have a great deal of contempt for child’s play.
One could, with some truth, claim that the evils of civilization are due to the fact that no child has ever had enough play. To put it differently, every child has been hot-housed into an adult long before he has reached adulthood…
[F]ear of the child’s future leads adults to deprive children of their right to play. There is more in it than that, however. There is a vague moral idea behind the disapproval of play, a suggestion that being a child is not so good, a suggestion voiced in the admonition to young adults, ‘Don’t be a kid.’
A.S. Neill, Summerhill School
A.S. Neill rightly understood that play is a vital and essential part of child development, and that therefore it is properly understood as a human right, that depriving a child of play is a very concrete harm against that child’s future.
To finish off on the issue of invalidation, I will say that it is easy to invalidate children’s desires and beliefs in the same way that it is easy to invalidate the desires and beliefs of any human being who lacks any control over their life and therefore cannot aspire to anything but the trivial. So you point at their triviality and say “see? see? that’s why they’re inferior!” But that’s getting the causality backwards.
Another rationalization that’s bandied about is the nonsense that the child is really in control and the parents are the servants (or, as I’ve seen it said once, the slaves) of their children. I’ve already discussed such nonsense in my recent entry “The rhetoric that the inferiors are “really” in control.” The fact that parents have to fulfill the needs of their children does not mean that the children are in control; at best only the government can hold the parents accountable, but the children certainly cannot.
Finally, it is part of the childist hierarchy that children are followers and adults are leaders: the concept of children as leaders simply does not compute and is interpreted as “letting children run amok.” But as A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School has demonstrated, children being given leadership in the areas of their lives that they care about does not lead to disaster, rather the opposite. Like anti-feminists who associate matriarchy with women controlling men, and capitalists who associate anarchism with mob violence, childists associate the idea of children as leaders with children having power over adults. Opposition to equality is justified as fear of role reversal.
3. Childism provides the justification for forcing children to live in ways which hinder their physical, mental and moral development.
This is an extension of point 2, because it is the complete control that parents, and other authority figures, use against children which makes possible the stunting of their development (often done in the name of that development).
One could talk a great deal about forced labor and child slavery, which are massive worldwide issues (more than 200 million children live under forced labor, for example). These issues are not solely childist and misopedist issues, but prejudice against children and hatred of children is a part of them. But one must also extend the conversation beyond forced labor and child slavery, to untold generations of children who have had to work for their parents’ welfare under parental pressure or intimidation.
One can also look at children raised under the shadow of religious sects or cults. They are raised in a harmful environment, subjected to extreme brainwashing, and most of the time remain isolated from mainstream culture, all because they are considered owned by their parents (and since the parents owe allegiance to the cult, it is assumed that the children do as well).
By accident of birth, a child may be subjected to brutal or violent parents for its entire childhood. A child may be subjected to verbally abusive or manipulative parents who confuse or psychologically damage it, to the point where that child later becomes a drug addict, a prostituted woman, suicidal or self-destructive, and so on (but one must not, and cannot, blame the child or the adult it becomes, for the blame falls entirely on the parents). A child may experience a devastating, damaging childhood, and has no recourse against the parents who imposed it.
But even if the parents are well-intentioned, accidents happen. A parent may die or become injured, unable to work or support the child. Jobs can be lost, financial situations can turn bad. Even though this makes little sense logically, more than one-fifth of American children live in poverty. The standard excuse for poverty is that the individual deserves poverty for being lazy or otherwise unproductive; surely there is nothing a child can do to deserve to be poor, but child poverty is a fact nevertheless, again because we believe that the ownership claim over the child is more important than its well-being.