If you’re not familiar with childism, you aren’t alone. Most of the people I talk with aren’t familiar with it. Some even scoff at the idea as though the concept of prejudice against children is so preposterous, it could not possibly exist. If you’re struggling to see how we systemically discriminate against children, consider the following ways, as described by Happiness is Here, in which we treat children differently from adults:
It’s every time a parent is asked ‘is she hungry?’ or ‘does she like strawberries?’ instead of the question being directed at the child who is very capable of answering.
It’s every time a child’s emotions elicit laughter instead of empathy.
It’s withholding food/water/affection until a child says ‘please’ to satisfy an adult ego.
It’s adults believing they have the ‘right’ to physically punish people because of their age.
It’s countries where hitting children is legal and there are guidelines as to where and how you can smack them. Guidelines for hitting your wife would be abhorrent, but age somehow changes perspectives.
It’s a general intolerance for childish behaviour interfering with an adults desires, and the view that children should be ‘seen and not heard’.
It’s adults making decisions about cosmetic alterations to their child’s body such as circumcision, ear-piercing, haircuts, without consent.
It’s forced affection or ‘give me a cuddle or I’ll be sad and cry’, sending the message that a child does not get to make decisions about their own body.
It’s whenever a child’s photo is posted online in an effort to shame them as a way of getting them to submit to an adult’s will.
It’s adults who believe they deserve automatic respect (most often defined as ‘obedience’) for nothing more than their greater age.
It’s children’s emotions being dismissed or stifled for adult comfort.
It’s every time children are talked about in a conversation as though they are not even in the room.
It’s rejoicing in their absence when it’s back-to-school time.
It’s developmentally inappropriate coercive education systems.
It’s finding it acceptable to use punishment and rewards to manipulate a person’s behaviour to meet your needs, if that person is a child.
It’s a world where there are books, tv shows, and blogs devoted to teaching parents how you can ‘train’ your child, often by means of ignoring their needs.
It’s needing research to prove that abandoning a child so that they will learn to ‘self-settle’ is detrimental, instead of just treating babies like humans.
It’s reading this list and dismissing it as ‘over the top’, ‘ridiculous’, or ‘not a big deal’.By Sara at Happiness is Here
The term childism was coined in the early 1970s after which it remained a relevant concept within the realm of children’s rights. However, the term didn’t really enter mainstream discourse until the late psychotherapist and children’s rights activist, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, wrote her groundbreaking work, Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, which was published posthumously in 2012. Her mission in proposing that our culture adopt the word childism was not to “launch an inquiry into prejudice against children” but rather to establish a term that would “have political resonance, something that [could] operate as sexism did to raise our political consciousness” (page 8). According to Darcia F. Narvaez Ph.D., Young-Bruehl’s solution to childism can be summarized in four actions:
- Understand the ideas and institutions that perpetuate childism. See how it is manifest in individuals, families, institutions and the wider culture.
- Educate society about the causes and meanings of these prejudices, and the harms they have done and continue to do.
- Create program [sic] to repair the damage of childism, secure the progress that has been made and continue to work to eradicate the prejudice.
- Demand full and equal civil and political rights for children.
Here, I need to pause and explain a disagreement among children’s rights advocates. Some people take issue with the way Young-Bruehl defined childism. They prefer the term adultism to mean “prejudice against children,” and they view childism as akin to feminism in that it is a term of empowerment for children. While I understand the arguments for using childism in this way, my fundamental disagreement rests in the systemic nature of childism which I use as akin to sexism. Children can both reinforce and internalize prejudice against themselves in addition to that prejudice being levied by older people. I believe that the term adultism risks suggesting that the issue is adults disliking children. That is not the case. Childism requires a cultural breach of humanity and is bolstered by harmful influences like White Supremacy Culture. You may disagree with me and that’s ok, but I do want to make clear why I use childism in the way I do.
Origin of the Scale
I’ve been thinking about developing an anti-childism scale for years. It’s been a long time coming. I initially got the idea from the work of Dr. Barnor Hesse, Associate Professor of African American Studies, Political Science, and Sociology at Northwestern University, who produced a scale of white identities that increasingly cultivate genuine anti-racism. For a text version of this list of The 8 White Identities, check out this post.
Based on Dr. Hesse’s work, I set out to form a similar scale toward the neutralization of childism that borrows from the Transtheoretical Model to foster growth and behavior change.
My scale is meant for personal reflection and self-improvement purposes only. I would be disappointed to see it used as a weapon against people who do not agree with my belief system. My hope is that it will get people thinking and give them an idea of where they stand with respect to embracing or rejecting childism.
The Anti-Childism Scale
The following six identities increasingly represent an anti-childist worldview and indicate the level of action a person is willing to take in opposition to childism.
- The Dominator: Believes children must be controlled by adults and must be respectful of adult authority. Grants only minimal rights to children.
The Dominator aligns with traditional cultural values in which children effectively live their lives at the pleasure of the adults around them. This person has no insight into their own childism. Moving from this stage may prove the hardest as such movement requires a significant worldview shift.
- The Inquirer: Questions the power dynamic between children and adults and is open to discussion. Continues to behave as Dominator-lite.
The Inquirer has realized something isn’t right and works to determine if childism is worth investigating or if it is nonsense. Moving through this stage may be frustrating as it sits on the cusp of full understanding.
- The Convert: Accepts that children face discrimination at the hands of adults. But may be uncomfortable taking action beyond discussion.
The Convert is the first stage of intentional anti-childism work. This person is convinced that childism is unacceptable but is either uncertain or uncomfortable taking action. This person likely discusses actions and attitudes toward kids and validates the reality of children’s lived experiences.
- The Critic: Regards children as deserving of protection from discrimination. Expresses beliefs when safe, but may not speak out when the cost is too high.
The Critic wants to help and is willing to speak up if doing so will not result in blowback. For instance, Critics may debate childism online but may not speak up in real life even when they know something is wrong. Moving from belief to action can be scary, but this person is making progress.
- The Embracer: Recognizes children as equals in humanity and chooses inclusion whenever possible, even in the face of open criticism. Retains unexamined childism.
The Embracer actively advocates for kids and speaks up no matter who is listening. This is a transitional stage where we learn how to do what needs to be done and gain the courage to do it.
- The Subverter: Elevates children in word and deed, believes children deserve equal rights as adults, understands that children have varying capacities to manage freedoms, meets children where they are, and encourages others to do the same. Seeks out and actively resolves internalized childism.
The Subverter is a powerhouse for kids, working alongside children rather than in place of them. This person understands that children are not helpless or unaware. As such, the Subverter seeks out the needs and wants of children and works toward true allyship. This is the person who speaks up when others don’t and boldly treats children with respect even in the face of chastisement from other adults. This person works to change societal views toward children and undermine institutional childism. This person is capable of starting a chain reaction up The Anti-Childism Scale and effects change through discussion, action, and activism to help others achieve elucidation.
Working Through the Scale
The Anti-Childism Scale is not strictly linear nor is it neat. There is transmutational space between each of the identities where we work through the discomfort of growth and struggle against our fears. Even as we take big steps, we will have moments when we slip back into a more comfortable state. It’s crucial to remember that this is not an all-or-nothing metamorphosis. Our choices matter, moment-by-moment, for life. Each new stage we enter brings us self-awareness and self-improvement, and it elevates children at the same time.
Some of the things we can do as caring adults to ensure the rights of children are:
- Read and understand the 54 “Rights of the Child” as adopted by the United Nations. These are children’s most basic rights. We can do even better with a little effort.
- Share the 54 “Rights of the Child” with our children so that they understand the standards to which they should hold all adults.
- Consider how our choices affect our children and ask them for their input.
- Respect our children’s names and avoid using them as a threat. (Most of us know what it means to be called your full name by a parent.)
- Accept our children’s unique identity and genuinely see who our children really are.
- Listen to our children’s opinions and be open to negotiation.
- Recognize that children are intelligent. Assume competence and protect our children’s freedom of expression.
- Give our children adequate privacy and access to information. Where issues of safety arise, work it out with the child, not for the child.
- Find ways to teach and coach our children that do not involve punishments.
- Provide our children with ample opportunities to play and rest.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about. You can expect more posts from me on childism and how to root it out. For now, I’d love to find out where you see yourself on the scale. And, of course, please feel free to share it to give others the same opportunity for self-exploration.
Check out the post Rights Versus Freedoms for a deeper dive.