What we need, according to two recent books, is an entirely new attitude toward children. Both books point to engrained notions about children that view them as a subservient class in the same way as we Americans once viewed slaves, and both show how these attitudes cause harm to children and to our society.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s book, Childism: Confronting Prejudice against Children, notes that only two countries–America and Somalia–refused to sign the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which among other things forbade the imprisonment of children. Bruehl contends that imprisoning children, rather than looking at the societal and parental attitudes (prejudice) that are at the root of juvenile delinquency, is one of the many manifestations of childism.
Eileen Johnson takes a different approach in The Children’s Bill of Emotional Rights, but she comes to a similar conclusion. Johnson calls children “The last unheard minority,” and proposes a bill of rights for children that would treat them not as a subservient class but as equals. That is, she proposes that their rights are just as legitimate as those of adults and should be legitimized, perhaps by laws.
It seems that unless a political movement comes along that forces people to take notice of a prejudice, the prejudice remains unnoticed and unmitigated. The civil rights movement forced people to confront racism; feminism forced people to take note of sexism; and the gay rights movement made people aware of homophobia. Unfortunately, there is no political movement to compel adults to confront this prejudice toward children.
Popular sayings such as “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” and “Children should be seen and not heard,” serve to put children in a subservient position. And then there is Herbert Hoover’s famous quotation, “Children are our most valuable resource.” Such sayings stereotype children as a group, view them as a possession, and fail to consider children’s emotional needs.
Children are virtually defenseless until a certain age. Hence adults can have whatever attitude they want toward them and there is nothing children can do about it. And over time the adult’s attitude–even an abusive one–will seem normal. If you are rude to another adult, there will be consequences. If you are rude to a child, the child’s response can easily be ignored. And if parents teach children that they have a right to be rude to them–in the guise of discipline–children learn that they do not have the right to defend themselves against rudeness.
Young-Bruehl and Johnson are not advocating permissiveness or suggesting parents give children the last word on how they are treated. Rather, they are saying that we should consider children’s feelings just as we consider the feelings of other adults. Recently, for example, I heard a mother addressing her little boy as if he were a monster. “If you don’t stop asking me that I’m going to knock you down! All you want to do is make me miserable.” This mother was not treating the child as she would want to be treated. She was taking out all her pent-up frustrations on him. He was simply an object to her, not a human being.
Parents have total power over their children up to a certain age, and that especially holds true of younger, more vulnerable children. Children cannot withstand the excesses of parents by themselves, nor can they even know what those excesses are. These excesses can involve loss of temper as illustrated above, or that can take many other forms. Parents are human beings and humans often don’t realize the meaning of their behavior or its impact on their children. They convince themselves they are good parents no matter what their excess is. If they are permissive, they tell themselves they are giving, loving parents. If they are punitive, they rationalize that they are doing it because their kid needs discipline.
Calling the unconscious harm parents may do to children a form of prejudice–childism, as Young-Bruehl terms it–may sound harsh. Isn’t prejudice something that is only associated with hateful bigots? Actually prejudice comes in a range of colors, some glaring and some subtle, and people who are aware of their prejudices are rare. Parents are no exception. They may view their prejudice toward children, which may manifest itself in a feeling that they are always right and the child is always wrong, as normal.
Childism is something that is passed on from generation to generation. When the current generation of children is raised to think prejudice against them is normal, it will in turn replicate the same attitude toward its children.
Childism can only stop when we adults become aware of its existence.
Johnson, Eileen (2011), The Children’s Bill of Emotional Rights. Lanham, Maryland, Jason Aronson.
Young-Bruehl Elizabeth (2012), Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. New Haven, Yale University Press.