When I say that a lot of Western societies, including the United States, ignore children, I am not talking about political rhetoric. People always talk a big game with “what about the children,” when it suits their aims. We call crimes against children “heinous.” We’re good at pretending to care about children. But that’s all it is, playing pretend. Most of the time, it doesn’t translate into actual rights for children or actual policies that help children.
Why has childism remained unidentified for so long? There are some differences between childism and other prejudices which make it harder to acknowledge. For one thing, all adults have been children previously. Childhood is considered to be a “phase of life,” which (presumably) precludes it from being a social status. Prejudice is usually seen as a hatred and an underlying ideology aimed by one dominant group against a subservient group. If we start from the premise that childhood is some tangible thing that exists within all of us, then it makes no sense to say that the group of “everyone” is dominating the group of “everyone.”
The problem with this view is that childhood is also a social status which affects certain individuals and not others. at any time, there are some people who are children and some who are not. Factually, there are people who are oppressed because they are children. and children as a class have an inferior status in society. The fact that they will become adults later does not change that fact, any more than a fetus being able to become a child changes its status of not being a child.
Because of this view of childhood, people refuse to identify childism as a prejudice, but rather as a technical and arcane issue. They analyze child abuse from a pseudo-scientific perspective: “will this or that punishment make them less functional adults?”, even though such questions are totally off-topic. No one asks whether crimes against adults will make the victims less functional or not, and any ideology based on this would be considered pseudo-science. The abusers themselves, of course, see children as their property and don’t care what the pseudo-scientific perspective has to say on the subject at all.
As of yet, there has not been any public, massive movement for the rights of children. There has not even been any awareness raising on the subject. The movement to identify and fight against childism, as a specific prejudice, is still in its infancy (no pun intended). One obvious reason for this is that children are (at least, not yet) a self-identified, politically-motivated group. Children (like women) are isolated in their households, and (unlike women in modern times) they do not have records of a shared culture, or even the awareness of a shared culture. They are fully absorbed by the family unit and by the schooling unit.
From the point of view of childists, the prejudice against children is a natural feature of the world (this, of course, is true of all bigots). This is exacerbated by the fact that children have a natural dependency upon adults for their survival and well-being. This fact alone does not, and cannot, demonstrate the truth of childism (in the same way that it does not prove prejudices against physically or mentally disabled people, for example), but it provides a reality-based rationalization from which childist prejudice can be intellectually defended.
Regardless of whether childism is identified or not, why do our societies fail to support child development and rights? Certainly there has been a great deal of improvement in that regard, but, as for sexism and racism, all that the improvement has done is illustrate how much more way we have left to go. While we should applaud any positive change, we should not equate childism to the narrow band of prejudices which have been eradicated (such as the belief that children are sexual objects). This, by definition, would mean that we modern people cannot be prejudiced, which is a ridiculous basis for an argument. We know very well that modern Western people are still very much sexist and racist, amongst other things.
It is difficult for most people to advocate for children, because we don’t want to acknowledge what has been done to us. Even those of us who were victims of severe child abuse want to believe that our parents were doing “the best they could.” A lot of talk is made of forgiving your parents and empathizing with their own problems. In all cases, the parents are never held responsible. It seems that only those people who have gone through a literal Hell on Earth are able to detach themselves from their parents enough to recognize that they were abused as children. This makes the identification of childism, a hierarchy with adults as superiors and children as inferiors, extremely difficult. It also makes acting on it, and supporting children, equally difficult, because no one (except some child development experts) dares to speak up about what needs to be done. The inability to identify and name a problem precludes the search for solutions. Alice Miller is a notable exception in this, and she has done tremendous work in identifying the aggressors.
According to psychohistory, child sacrifice, child assault, and child abuse are the foundations of Western history. Whether this is correct or not, it certainly seems credible to me, but being anti-childist does not necessarily mean we must agree with such a position. But I think it is undeniable that our societies are built upon the exploitation of women and children: most importantly, that women were exploited because of children. These two forms of oppression have been linked since the beginning of gender hierarchies.
There is also the bare fact that there are far more adults who are parents than adults who are not parents (let alone adults who care about children’s rights). As long as that holds true, parental power over children will never be substantially challenged. Children cannot defend themselves because they have no political power and they have no class awareness (then again, only the power elite has much class awareness these days, so that’s not saying much). Our neo-liberalist societies are built upon “divide and conquer,” and no one has any incentive to cooperate with children. They are widely seen as a means to an end for the parents, for the religion, for the country, for the economy.