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.  

Adult attitudes and Childism

Adult attitudes

The feeling that other people are judging you by what your child does or what you let her/him do is very strong.  When Charlie was about 15 months we went to IKEA and he loved getting in and out of the cupboards, it was a great game, I posted a lovely picture of him popping out of a wardrobe on Facebook.  I was relaxed about it and so was his Mum.  IKEA is actually a child-friendly place and it was safe and easy for him to play in the shop (is there a connection between this and the fact that Sweden is said to have the happiest children in Europe?) Our experience is in contrast to the more common ones I have had when parents respond harshly to similar events in other shops.  The child is happy and moving freely about, doing no harm, looking at things, touching things and enjoying themselves. The parent has their eye on them, they are safe, but then the parent notices other people are looking and feeling judged puts on a show of authority, “Come here, stop running around, don’t touch.”  Sometimes this will be accompanied by a smack or a yank on the arm and the result is often tears.  This raises questions for me. i would like to know what you think. 

  • Why is it that parents feel that other adults will judge them if they see their children enjoying themselves in such ways?
  • Why do adults express their disapproval of parents who allow this freedom with looks of disgust?
  • Why don’t our shops and other public places make themselves more child friendly like the IKEA store?
  • Is these examples of how our childist society curbs spontaneity, joy and pleasure in the young and polices their parents?

Reflecting on the way parents often talk to their children in public places I wonder:
  • Why is it that adults feel they can talk to children, their own and other peoples, as they would not dare to talk to an adult?
  • Is the way many people speak to children an illustration of a childist society?

Friday, 30 March 2012

Charlie and Sam and Childism

It was coming to the end of a lovely day, Charlie’s Mum, Sam was baking meringues, Charlie’s Dad, Mark was oiling the garden furniture, I was sitting on the garden bench drinking tea and Charlie, aged 23 months was playing in the garden.  Covering the ground at the bottom of the garden beyond the lawn, next to the garage and stretching up to the back gate are small stones.  Charlie fell on the stones and began to cry, “Mummy”.  Sam came out of the kitchen and thinking that he was not really hurt said, “Up you get Charlie”.  But on this occasion Charlie was not going to get up and continued to call, “Mummy”.  Sam judged that he wanted her to pick him up. She ran down the garden, scooped him up in her arms and, cuddling him like a baby, strolled back down the garden saying, “Do you want a cuddle Charlie, do you want to be Mummy’s baby? Ah, what a lovely baby.  Look at my lovely baby Nana, look at my lovely baby Daddy.”  Charlie was soon laughing and giggling.  Sam put him down near Mark and myself and returned to the kitchen.  A few minutes later Charlie went back to the stones and pretended to fall over accompanied by wails of, “Mummy”.  Sam looked out of the kitchen and made a judgment about Charlie’s needs at this time and again ran down the garden, scooped him up and repeated her actions, cuddling him like a baby and kissing him she said, “Oh, my lovely baby, look at my lovely baby.”  Charlie laughed and relaxed in her arms.  She then put him down again and drew his attention to Daddy and Nana before returning to the kitchen, “Look at what Daddy’s doing Charlie, he’s oiling the chairs. Look at Nana Charlie, she’s having a lovely cup of tea.”  Charlie watched Daddy for a while and then ran down the garden and ‘fell’ in the stones and again called for his mother.  Sam again responded and the whole scene was repeated two or three more times.  

Whilst I was watching this it occurred to me that I was having two possible reactions. I could hear my own mother’s voice in my head, “You’ll make a rod for your own back. He’s just manipulating you. He’s not hurt – leave him – he’s got to learn.  He’s only pretending.”  The second voice comes from my wiser self, the self who wants to understand Charlie, the self who has been observing Sam and Mark’s parenting and reading about child development and reflecting on what a toddler can do.  The second voice won and in this blog I am exploring why I know that my daughter and not my mother have the best understanding of how to raise a small child.

We know that context is everything; to understand a child’s actions we need to know about their life.  Charlie’s mum is having another baby and we all talk to Charlie about the new brother he is going to have.  “Edward is in mummy’s tummy.” When we see other babies we tell Charlie, “you’re going to have a baby like this, a baby brother”. My daughter is also finishing her PhD and is working hard to get it done before the new baby comes.  Charlie goes to nursery three days a week, spends Thursday with his Mum and Friday shared with his Dad and his Grandpa. Recently at weekends Sam works on Saturday and Charlie spends the day with Daddy.  In the two weeks before this incident occurred, I had visited to look after Charlie on Thursday and Friday one week and Friday and Saturday the following week.  We all noticed that Charlie found it hard to cope when all three of us were there together; he was crying and fretful.  I found it better to stay out of the way first thing in the morning when we were all in the house.  Once his parents had gone and we had waved goodbye at the window Charlie was fine.  He didn’t cry and played happily enjoying the things we did together.  I wondered if his fretfulness was because he knew that if I was there, both Mummy and Daddy were going away. 

Sam knows that Charlie misses her and she misses having time with him and when she decided to join in with his game and make him ‘her baby’ I believe she made a decision to do what she always tries to do – validate his feelings.  She was telling him it’s OK to want Mummy to come and pick you up and cuddle you, you are still my baby, this is a game we can play together. 

My own mother would have seen this as manipulation, something not to be encouraged.  I can remember being conflicted myself as a young mother with my instinct to ‘give in to the child’ and guilt that I would ‘ruin her’.  As a grandmother I have the time to reflect and to try to understand this most complex of relationships between parent and child.  I have the pleasure of watching and learning from my daughter who has very clear ideas of how she wants to parent.  And to this observation I also bring the voices of researchers like cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik[1] and psychologists Terry Brazleton and Stanley Greenspan[2] and the new sociologists of childhood who are able to tell us so much more about the developing child than either myself as a young mother or my mother knew. 

Charlie was doing what toddlers do; he was playing, using his imagination to create a game and using that game to manipulate the world around him.  Gopnik documents how from around eighteen months toddlers are able to start pretending and can present counter-factuals, imagining the way things might be different from how they are.  Charlie was pretending to be hurt in order to get his Mum to pick him up and cuddle him, he was imagining a world where his Mum was totally available to him and when she responded to his game and ‘pretended’ he was a baby, he responded. It became a collaborative game.

What does this tell us about Charlie’s development?  He obviously has a good understanding of both physical and psychological causality.  If you fall on stones, you can be hurt.  If you cry because you are hurt, someone will comfort you.  He was using play to experiment, ‘if I pretend to fall and be hurt, will my Mum comfort me?” Charlie was trying to get his mother to give him what he wanted, her attention and comfort through his pretend game.  He has a theory of mind; he knows that other minds are different from his and that he can influence them.

Charlie also knows what the people around him are like.  He understands the psychology of his mother; he knows that his mother and father always try to validate his feelings (even if they don’t always succeed). Since he was a baby he has been watching her and listening to her, he has learned that she will respond to his needs. We can’t fully understand Charlie’s behavior without considering the psychological, social and cultural influences on him.  The nurturing environment that Charlie has grown up in has influenced his behavior.

Charlie’s feelings and behaviours, like all toddlers are complex and Sam’s ability to empathise with his feelings and respond compassionately to his behavior is nurturing his capacity to feel empathy and compassion.  Brazelton and Greenspan argue that nurturing emotional relationships in this way is the most crucial primary foundation for intellectual and social growth. 

Sam and Mark seek at all times to develop a secure, empathetic and nurturing relationship with Charlie.  I believe that his behavior in the garden shows he has learned to communicate his feelings, reflect on what he wants and share that with his mum.  In sum, I would argue that Charlie’s actions demonstrate his ability to be an active agent to get his own emotional needs met.  By responding to Charlie as she did, Sam shows him that it is OK to ask for her attention.  She is helping him to build his mental understanding of relationships through their emotional interactions.  Just as Charlie learnt as a small baby that he can cause other people to smile by smiling at them, he has learnt that pretending to be sad can cause his mum to comfort him.  We know that the ability to understand another person’s feelings and to care about how they feel is learnt from the experience of such nurturing interaction. 

In recounting this story to others I have found that lots of people react like my mother would have done; they believe that in responding as she did Sam was not doing the right thing.  I disagree. I believe that this experience, along with many other similar experiences will help Charlie to grow up able to feel empathy because his parents have been empathetic and caring with him. 

Let’s for a moment consider what it would mean not to validate Charlie’s feelings at this time.  What is it we saying about children if we are to deny their feelings and override them with our own interpretation of what they mean.  What if Sam had decided not to respond to Charlie’s call for comfort and justified this by saying, ‘it’s for his own good; ignore him, he’s only trying to manipulate me, if I give in this time, I’ll set up a pattern and make a rod for my own back’ etc etc.  Following recent work by Elizabeth Young-Bruehler[3] I would now name such attitudes as childist.

If Sam had denied Charlie’s feelings she would be saying her needs as an adult should be privileged over the needs of her child.  It would reinforce the view that Charlie as a child couldn’t know his own mind, that as a child his emotions were somehow less important than hers.  It denies the ability of the child to judge their own emotional states and needs and denies children’s agency and competence. Such attitudes position children as ontologically different from adults and that ‘difference’ is couched in terms of children being somehow incomplete, which allows adults to justify their behavior towards them in terms of the adults they will become, not the children they are. It legitimizes the exertion of adult power over children, as adults are both judge and jury in deciding what emotions/behaviour should be attended to and which not. It reinforces an adult view of how children’s lives should be lived, how they should develop and respond to events in their lives.  Such attitudes render individual children invisible and legitimate children’s subjugation to the world of adults.  It means that the needs of children are not met.  This is what I mean by childism. However, such childist attitudes are so embedded in our culture that we find it difficult to name them as such.  The most recent research from sociology, child development and psychology shows us that children have been underestimated and this has led to childist attitudes. We know differently now and our job is to unpick these attitudes, realise they are based on false information and change them. 

From Charlie’s point of view, it is his parents’ attitudes toward him that matters most.  However, he is growing up in a society where childism is prevalent and he will encounter many, if not the majority of adults who have childist attitudes and will deny him his right to be heard and fail to meet his expressed needs.  Confronting childist attitudes and naming them as such has to be both a personal and a political act.  I am on that journey – join me.


[1] See the wonderful book by Alison Gopnik, “The Philosopher’s Child” (2010).
[2] Brazelton, T. B. & Greenspan, S. I. (2001) The Irreducible needs of children. Perseus Publishing.
[3] Elizabeth Young-Bruehler (2010) Childism

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Childism and Love

Childism and Love

This is my first blog on childism. Let me know what you think.

Let me lay my cards on the table. I believe that our society is childist. In the same way that racism discriminates against people of colour and sexism against women, childism discriminates against children. Childism is a prejudice against children by adults that objectifies children and uses them to serve adult needs. Because childism is so deeply embedded in our society it will be hard to convince people of its existence. Adults who behave in childist ways are not accused of childism because their behavior is not recognized as such. Society condones and legitimates childist behavior because childism is so embedded in our society it takes on the appearance of behaving naturally, but I believe that childism is a prejudice against children that means their rights are not respected and their needs are not met. We have to name it, examine the prejudices that legitimate it and seek to eradicate it. I will argue that childism is deeply pervasive and damaging and denies the right to be fully human to the youngest members of society.

There are plenty of examples of children being treated badly that can be cited to illustrate childism and most of us will disassociate ourselves from such behavior and believe it is the minority that behave in such ways and claim it is not illustrative of society as a whole. In thinking about the concept of childism I what to start not with hatred of children, but with what most of us would recognize as love of children. I want to think about how something as seemingly innocuous as bestowing affection on a child is actually a manifestation of childism in action, and reveals how widespread childist views are. Recognising this does not make for comfortable reading, it challenges the very core of how we behave with children. I struggle with it and the more I explore the concept of childism the more I find myself standing in the dock and pleading guilty. I ask you to come on this journey with me as I share my thoughts and ask you to examine the role of childism in your life.

Most people have never heard the term childism, even less know what it means and hardly anyone sees it as a problem. In seeking to name childism I want to uncover the systemic institutionalization of childism in society and begin the long journey to eradicate it. I hope you will join me and together we can create a movement to end childism and childist exploitation which I believe will benefit us all – adults and children alike.

Let me start by asking you to think about when you were a child. I wonder how many of you, like me, remember with feelings of revulsion the relative who expected us to hug or kiss them; of being told by our parents to ‘give aunty or uncle a kiss or a hug’ and furiously resenting it. I believe that such behavior is an example of adults exploiting children for their own purposes. They are using children as love objects. In such circumstances most people in my experience think the needs of the adult to bestow their ‘love’ on the child should be prioritized over that of the child. I want to question this – why should a child give way to the adult demands?

I am a grandmother and I love Charlie, my first grandson. At the time of writing this Charlie is almost two and when I am with him I have strong feelings of wanting to hug him and kiss him and am delighted if he offers to hug me. But what about Charlie, does he want my signs of affection? What does he feel about being hugged and kissed? What right do I have to impose my desire for cuddles and kisses onto Charlie? If a male or female relative of mine thought they had the right to hug and kiss me regardless of whether I wanted to be hugged or kissed or not I would be very uncomfortable. It is time to name this behavior as childism.

What does it say about an adult who puts their own feelings of entitlement to a ‘hug’ before that of the child’s feelings? Many adults don’t even notice if the child is reluctant, or even worse do notice and do it anyway. How many parents admonish the child, ‘just give Gramps a kiss’. This signals to the child that their feelings don’t count; if a relative, or even an adult stranger, wants to touch them (pats on the head are common) they should comply. What does this say about our general attitudes to children, if the child’s feelings are allowed to be over-ridden in this way?

When I watch Charlie at play I am delighted by his spontaneousness, his playfulness, his energy and enormous capacity for wonder and delight. I am also moved when he is sad or angry. But what right do I have to indulge these feelings and bestow physical affection or comfort? I am not trying to say we should not hug and kiss and comfort children, but I am saying we need permission from the child first. We do not have the right to move into a child’s space without his/her permission. We all feel threatened if another adult moves into our comfort zone, why should this be any different with a child? Children should have the right to refuse to be the focus of someone’s physical affection and not be made to feel bad about this. We need to allow them to set the ground rules on how our relationships with them proceed.

If children are expected to give and receive tokens of love on demand, how will they develop the capacity to express what they really feel? If we think we have the right to be affectionate to children whether they like it or not, and if we think that imposing love and affection on them is how we teach them to be affectionate and loving, we are wrong. They have to be able to say ‘no’. Children must be accorded the right to refuse to smile, or hug or kiss; we can’t freely give love if we don’t have the unquestioned right to withhold it.

I think many people will find this hard to understand. Don’t children need love, lots of it; surely we can’t give them enough love. Don’t children who aren’t loved grow up damaged? I am not denying that babies do need a lot of human contact and will suffer if they don’t experience it. But by the time they are four-six months, they have their own well-developed purposes, needs and preferences. They like some people and not others. They may enjoy play on the floor, but don’t want to be picked up. They will show us by their responses what they like and don’t like. And we must respect that. We must recognize children’s capacity for being active agents and judges of what is good for them, learn how to read their signals and respect them.

So, this is my starting point – I shall go on to argue that the way we treat children in society is prejudicial to their capacity to grow and develop. I firmly believe that children from a very early age have the capacity for choice and expression of interest and that we should respect that capacity. When we impose expressions of ‘love’ on children and expect them to reciprocate we are guilty of childism. Please let me know your responses to my first tentative step into finding answers to the question, “What is Childism?” I hope you want to be fellow travellers.