Does anti-childism means leaving children unprotected or letting them do anything?

She’s a baaaaaad egg. This must be the fault of anti-childists somehow.

I have been writing a lot about childism (the prejudice that children are inferior to adults), as well as about my own anti-childist position. I haven’t really discussed misunderstandings of the theory before, for a simple reason: childism has received so little attention so far, apart from a book written by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, my blog, and one other blog out there, that there actually hasn’t been enough engagement from others to start generating misunderstandings. However, I have seen a few reactions to childist theory, and there seems to be some common threads, so I thought I might as well address them right now and hopefully reduce their importance in the future (hope springs eternal, and all that).

The general belief I’ve noted is that anti-childism will lead children to become either unruly and uncontrollable, or that they will be in danger because there’ll be no one to protect them. I think this maps very well with the two models of childhood, the infantile model and the adolescent model. The infantile model, according to which children are innocent, pre-rational, and in need of guidance, implies that, should that guidance be taken away, they will be in constant danger. The adolescent model, according to which children are rebellious and aggressive, implies that, without strict controls, they will become uncontrollable criminals. Whichever view is adopted by a critic probably depends on which model is more salient to them.

Let’s start with the belief that childism is needed to protect children. When said this plainly, it doesn’t make much sense: how can prejudice against children help protect them? Aren’t childists, people who believe children are inferior and deserve to be abused, more likely to harm children than anyone else? Does the belief in someone’s inferiority make you more, or less, likely to attack them?

The implication, I think, is that “childism” is a code-word for the parents, and that what they’re really saying is that a child should have parents. Apart from the arbitrariness of such a position (why does an adult need to be a parent in order to protect a child from danger?), it’s not a valid substitution: childism is an ideology, not a relation. Anyone can be childist, even a child, just like a woman can internalize sexism or a POC internalize racism.

This assumption also underlies the other belief, that anti-childism is basically another term for permissive parenting, that it means just letting children do whatever they want. It mystifies me how anyone could think anti-childism is just another form of pedagogy. It just goes to show you how they can’t even think about dealing with children without thinking of it as some kind of pedagogy. So to them it turns into an attack against parents, when actually I, for one, am not at all interested in engaging with parents. Childism is not about parents but about an attitude that anyone can have towards children, including parents. I don’t dispute that most parents are childists, but it’s not just about parents, it’s about an entire society that puts children’s values last.

To come back to the issue of “leaving children unprotected,” we hear a lot of nonsense. Here’s what a spanking advocate has to say on the subject:

[I]f you oppose, on principle, the exertion of any physical force on a child, you’re going to have to explain WHY. And then you’re going to have to figure out a way to maintain that absolute principle while not precluding yourself from grabbing your kid before he runs into the street, or picking him up and carrying him out of the store when he’s having a tantrum, or forcing him to hold your hand when you cross the road. All of these things are physical exertions imposed on a child against his will.

So, take away childism (in the form of the belief that children should be subjected to criminal assault) and you can no longer justify protecting children from getting run over. But this is a terrible argument. As I’ve pointed out before, there is a huge difference between saving someone’s life and controlling their life, between helping someone and punishing someone. We think it is great for firefighters to rescue people from burning buildings, but we wouldn’t support firefighters punching people in the face as a punishment for not following proper home safety. Preventing a child from getting run over is like the former, and spanking them is like the latter.

Everyone should oppose, on principle, the exertion of physical force on another human being, and children are human beings. Assaulting any human being is wrong, no matter who they are, except in defense of self or others, and even then we recognize some degree of proportionality is necessary (you shouldn’t kill someone for stepping on your lawn). Saving a person from a fire or from getting run over is not assault by any standard, so the reasoning I quoted is disingenuous at best. It is silly to state that we save people’s lives “against their will.”

Now, there are times when people clearly state that they don’t want to be saved, mostly in medical situations. And since our medical system is engineered to serve ruling class interests, not the interests of the patients, their desires are ignored. I agree that such actions are undertaken against someone’s will, and are just as wrong as assault. But that’s not the kind of actions we’re talking about here.

Again, the underlying premise here is that childism (or the acceptable use of “physical force on a child,” especially spanking) is the only reason why we’d protect children from getting run over. But even from the parent’s perspective, that just makes no sense. The parent does not pull their child out of the street because they enjoy using physical force on their child, they pull their child out because they don’t want the child to be harmed. So the conclusion here is simply not true: pulling a child off the street is not “physical force” on the same level that spanking is.

Here is a similar sort of reasoning, but from someone who is, I think, sympathetic. Note that many people use “childism” to describe what I would call “anti-childism,” and this is the case here as well (I follow the convention used for Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s book of using “childism” to designate the prejudice).

The motto of childism is “children can parent themselves because they can’t do a worse job than us” implies that there are no consequences to actions unless they have learnt them by themselves. A fire will burn… they’ll learn this through burning themselves.

I agree with the good intentions displayed here, but the way it’s formulated reflects some negative biases. For one thing, saying that childism means “children can parent themselves” implies, again, an inability to think outside of the prison of pedagogy, that if parents can’t do it then children should do it to themselves. That is probably not the intention of the commentator, but that’s how it comes off. Also, the concept that children must learn all consequences to their actions might give some hateful bigot (like the one I quoted above) the leeway to say things like “I knew it! You really do want children to get run over!” In practice, children simply can’t learn every consequence of their actions by themselves. It’s unreasonable to ask anyone, no matter the age, to proceed entirely by trial and error in all areas of life.

Acknowledging the fact that children are dependent upon adults is not childist, it’s a fact of reality. While we are all dependent upon other people to a certain extent, this is far more true for children than anyone else (not to mention, completely true for babies and toddlers). The correct, just, egalitarian response to that fact is to do our best to accommodate the dependent people’s needs (e.g. handicapped people, the mentally disabled, people who struggle with disease), not to leave them to die. Children (again, especially babies and toddlers) should not be treated as if they are adults, or as if they are merely future human beings. They should be treated with dignity and with respect, like all human beings deserve.

What that means in practice is that children should not willfully be put in situations where they could be harmed, and that they must be informed of the risks of harm, when they are able to understand such risks. Like other human beings, children are able to make decisions about things that are relevant to their lives, if they are correctly informed. If a child is about to be harmed (as in the standard “about to get run over” scenario), then it is the responsibility of their caretakers (which may be, but are not necessarily, the parents) to at least try to prevent that from happening.

I already mentioned that anti-childism is associated with permissive parenting. I won’t spend too much time on this subject, since I’ve discussed it extensively: basically, childists believe that children are innately “wild” and must be trained in order to live in society and be “successful.” What astounds me is the belief that people speak against childism because they want to change parents’ attitudes or actions. I’ve seen that premise many times.

It’s about as silly as claiming that communism is about changing the attitude of CEOs or feminism is about changing the attitude of conservative politicians. Obviously that would be nice, but that’s not the point, and these ideologies should not construct themselves around appealing to their enemies. I’m not stupid enough to believe that parents will willingly relinquish their privileges. Childism theory aims at understanding how childhood is constructed by the dominant ideologies, how we treat children, and what principles should regulate the interactions between children and adults. As for any other prejudice, if there is a solution, it lies in consciousness-raising and forcing parents’ hands, not in appealing to parents’ benevolence.

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