Saturday, 31 March 2012

Defining Childism


A number of people who have written to be about my blogs on Childism are asking for some clarification of the term.  This blog attempts to do this.  As far as I know the first person to name adult prejudice against children as childism is Elizabeth Young-Bruehler (2010) in her book ‘Childism’.  She says that when children are mistreated by adults, “they rely upon a societal prejudice against children to justify themselves and legitimate their behavior.” (P.1) Young-Bruehler asks us to think about prejudices against children and she argues for the term childism to describe such prejudice. 

As she points out, we are accustomed to thinking about prejudice against women and people of colour as sexism and racism respectively.  I would add that more recently we have become aware of heterosexism and ageism and of course we are all familiar with anti-Semitism.  In all of these ‘isms’, children, women and men are discriminated against.  Childism only affects children, although the perpetrators of childism are displaying prejudicial views and this, I would argue is damaging for everyone.

A key premise of her argument is evidence to demonstrate that children are the victims of childism and she cites the state of the world’s children to support her arguments and provides a number of facts and figures.  One compelling piece of evidence that applies to America is the number of children incarcerated in goal.  She asks us why is it not considered abusive to put a child in a prisonlike facility and bewails the fact that America has incarcerated so many of its young men.  She argues that this is evidence that American society believes that children are dangerous and burdensome and that childhood is a time when discipline is the paramount adult responsibility and that this reflects society’s prejudice against children.

She further argues that anti-child social policies and individual behavior is directed against all children daily and claims that when childism pervades a society, even people who genuinely want to make the world better for children may find it hard to realise that it exists.

Whilst she doesn’t see prejudice as the sole or immediate cause of child maltreatment, she does think it is the condition sine qua non, and we need to understand its various features if we wish to recover the specific cause of maltreatment in any given instance.   She calls on us to explore childism as a prejudice, which could guide explorations of how and why adults fail to meet children’s needs or respect their rights.

She raises a number of questions that she considers:

·    Why do children remain in poverty?
·    Why do adults feel justified in attacking children?
·    Why does our society fail to support the development and well-being of its children?
·    Why do we refuse to recognize prejudice against children as a prejudice?
·    Why have we refused to name that prejudice as we have named other prejudices? 

By introducing the concept of childism she believes it could help identify those issues that are the result of childism: child imprisonment, child exploitation and abuse, substandard schooling, the reckless prescription of antipsychotic drugs to children, child pornography, and all other behaviours or policies not in the best interest of children. 

Young-Bruehler believes that an inquiry into prejudice against children could spur political consciousness and political meaning and could function as a guide for political action.  It is important that adults do much of this work, as unlike any other group that has been targeted with prejudice, children cannot be direct political actors, they need adults to consult them about their needs and to represent them in the political arena.

The existence of the UNCRC already lays out the internationally agreed obligations adults have towards children and highlights where we have failed to meet these obligations.  The Articles of the UNCRC all relate to one of the 3Ps:  Provision, Protection and Participation.  She claims that America is failing in all these instances (the only country now who is not a signatory to the agreement).  

In Wales in the UK where I live, Article 12 of the UNCRC (the right of a child to participation) is actively promoted by the Welsh Government; however this policy has provoked opposition.  I have been involved in training educators across Wales in Pupil Participation in schools and have found much opposition to the idea, as well as much support.  However, championing the rights of children is one thing, actually naming and challenging childism is another.  I believe that the assumptions underpinning adults’ opposition to Article 12 can be explained by childism but there will be much resistance to the concept.  Until Elizabeth’s book I had been using the concept of adultism or even ageism to name this prejudice, but having read her book I now believe childism is the right word to use.

Elizabeth Young-Bruehler is a psychotherapist who has treated many adults who are the victims of childism.  In her book she addresses the following questions:


  • ·  What motivates childism in individuals and groups? 
  • ·  Why do adults deny children have rights? 
  • ·  Why do adults refuse to provision, protect or encourage participation?
  • ·  Why do adults discriminate against their young – the future of their societies – in order to favour adults?

By presenting case histories of some of her patients she seeks understanding of the experience of childism and what the abusing adult believed that caused him or her to justify the abuse.  In the process she uncovers pervasive prejudice against children. 

In writing these blogs on childism I am interested in how the other disciplines might address the issue of childism.  What can sociologists, cultural theorists, philosophers and psychologists do to illuminate the concept of childism?  I am also interested in how as an educator and grandmother I can raise my own consciousness of how childist I am and seek to challenge that in my dealings with children in schools and among my family and friends. 

I hope this brief definition and explanation of the origin of the world helps those who have requested clarification.  

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