Thursday, 20 August 2015

Challenging Childism through Narrative Self-reflection

In previous blogs I have argued that childism is akin to sexism and racism, a prejudice against someone because of what they are: a child, a woman or a person of colour. In the case of sexism and racism the adults who are discriminated against are able to start the process of resistance by campaigning, raising awareness and arguing their case to convince those who perpetrate sexism or racism that it is unjust and demeaning of humanity. We know from history that this process of getting sexism or racism accepted as real phenomena involves great struggle and courage. The ongoing history of feminism, for example, is the story of how feminists deconstruct the patriarchal attitudes towards girls and women that creates a gendered distortion of power to the disadvantage of females. Deconstruction by feminists and anti-racists alike has led to calls for a reconstruction of society to be more equal, to end the injustices inflicted on women and people of colour. The struggle is ongoing and has gained support from those who are advantaged by such inequalities because they want to live in a more just society. Men identify as feminists and white people as anti-racist. How then do we recruit adults to oppose childism?

It is important that we do, because like women and people of colour, children are historically powerless and in the case of childism it is unrealistic to expect children to initiate and lead campaigns unsupported.  A positive advantage is that whilst only women can truly understand sexism against women and only people of colour can understand racism, when it comes to childism all human beings are capable of understanding it because we have all been children and all experienced childism at first hand. It follows that if childism is to be recognized as a prejudice then we have to raise awareness of what it is and who better to do this than adults whose lives have been shaped by it?

I am arguing that an important step on the journey to end childism is critical reflection by adults on their own experiences as children who were oppressed by childism. I am calling for adults to give their own testimony on the impact of childism on their lives because I think that will contribute to the process of raising awareness of childism and could lead to a change in the behaviour of adults towards children now. As adults we have to take responsibility for our own attitudes and behaviour towards children and we can start by reflecting on our own experiences of being children and raise our own awareness of childism’s power. If our testimony is made available in the public domain I believe it can help disrupt behaviours which are childist in outcome, if not in intent, as a step towards transforming existing social practices that impact negatively on children’s lives.

Childism renders children susceptible to injustice; we can start to uncover that injustice through our own stories of childhood. The stories will also contribute to the process of uncovering stereotypes of children that are present in the social imagination as well as being personally instructive. Narratives that help others understand how prejudice against children structures our thinking is an important way of challenging prejudice. If the stories are convincing then they will provide evidence to support the case for dismantling childism and help to change the collective social imagination which contains a myriad of prejudices and stereotypes of children.

If we wish to effect social change then we have to start with raising awareness of childism and how it affects our perceptions, attitudes and behaviours. If adults can be persuaded to engage in critical auto-ethnographic reflection on their own childhoods then it might foster a commitment to ending childism as well as helping to establish a more principled understanding of the wrong that is done to a child by childism.

In this blog I want to begin that process of critical reflection on my own childhood, how I experienced childism and the impact it had on me. I hope it will inspire others to embark on their own self-reflective journey and to make their narratives public.

Critical reflection on my childhood
I was born in 1950, and brought up in an aspiring working-class family that held values that were traditional at the time. My father was a tool-maker and my mother had worked as a typist in a typing pool before marriage. They were married for seven years before I was born and my mother focused on what she saw as her housewifely duties: cooking, cleaning etc. My father worked in a factory but had ambitions and rose to foreman and then went into partnership to set up his own small tool-making business and eventually owned his own business employing 8-10 people. He had middle-class aspirations and sought to acquire the cultural capital his own upbringing had denied him by learning French and joining MENSA and attending elocution lessons. My mother aspired to a more middle class consumer lifestyle and focused on expanding her repertoire of cooking to include ‘foreign’ dishes such as spaghetti bolognaise and food cooked with wine.

The eldest of two children, my brother and I were brought up to defer to adults and authority. My natural exuberance was frequently met with, “Children should be seen and not heard”; “don’t be cheeky”; “respect your elders”; “listen and you will learn”; “don’t be rude”. The key message was all about deference to adults. When I was naughty I expected and received punishment. Although I was only hit two or three times I was treated crossly; my mother shouted a lot and frequently threatened me, “wait until your father comes home, you’ll be in trouble.” My father indulged in heavy criticism of my character and behaviour and my appearance; I constantly felt I fell short and wasn’t good enough. When I was naughty I was sent to my room, denied food, not allowed to watch a favourite TV programme or left behind with grandparents whilst the family went off for a much looked forward to treat. The weight of disappointing my parents hung heavily over me. I dreaded disappointing them. The atmosphere I grew up in was never relaxed, I was unsure when my behaviour would be judged as ‘naughty’, but I grew up knowing I was regarded as a ‘naughty child’, a disappointment.

My father was verbally very articulate and could be very cruel. I learned early on that it was impossible to win any arguments with him. He laid down the law every day at the dinner table and his word was always the last word. I grew up with a dread of conflict and found it difficult to be assertive or to defend myself if treated badly. I had a recurring dream as a teenager of being attacked and not being able to defend myself, in my dream I would stand rooted to the spot, unable to respond. Other dreams that continue to this day involve me being unable to speak. I am in situations where it is vital that I explain something, but the words won’t come out, they are trapped in my throat. Sometimes I can whisper, but so quietly that no-one can hear me. I wake from those dreams feeling scared and powerless.

As long as I can remember my response to conflict is to metaphorically take myself to my room, to run away from it and hope things ‘blow over’. I am frequently convinced I have really upset people when in fact I haven’t. I am super-sensitive to nuances of feeling in others and try hard to please. To protect myself I avoid disagreement and acquiesce too easily. I now believe this has limited my life. Feelings of anxiety regarding confrontation is a strong theme of my life that often cripples me, sometimes quite literally as I can’t even get out of bed. Fortunately such intense reactions have lessened over the years but still have the power to affect me.

When I was 12, I started keeping a diary in which I made lists of the kind of parent I would be. I remember writing that I would listen to my children; I wouldn’t make them feel anxious, guilty or unhappy. I wouldn’t punish them. I remember promising my unborn children that I would respect their views and listen to them. As I child I always felt that anything I had to say would either not be listened to or would be dismissed because I was ‘just a child’. I had to bend to my father’s will or reap the consequences.

My parents, in particular my father, used what I now see as a Childist discourse centred around giving commands. He was authoritarian and required obedience, his was a punitive style of parenting that relied on punishment and fear to control me. I wanted to please him and tried to be good, but somehow always seemed to be judged as bad. This style of parenting impacted negatively on me, but was certainly not unusual at the time. My father never hit me; he had been subjected to physical chastisement as a child and as a result, had decided never to hit us. However, he had not abandoned the belief that children needed a punitive approach if they were to be properly socialized and an authoritarian style of verbal interaction and consequential punishment was deliberately adopted. His model of childhood was that of the unruly child who had to be taught to behave appropriately, which for him meant total compliance. I’m sure he regarded himself as a good parent, particularly in contrast to his own father who was a drunken tyrant. I remember him telling me I would thank him one day for instilling good behaviour into me.

My father regarded me as a possession that he had the right to mold as he saw fit. Unlike his father he did think I had the right not to be physically chastised, but still asserted his right to punish me in other ways. As an adult myself, a parent of grown up children and grandmother I firmly reject the right of adults to behave towards children as if they are possessions, to ignore them, neglect them, silence or punish them just because they are not adults and can’t hit back. I never had close relationships with either of my parents and that was a definite barrier to my happiness. My voice was always silenced.

What have I learned from this reflection?
I don’t believe that coercion and intimidation is helpful to a child, they cause anxiety and fear which has a huge effect on how you grow up. Such an approach to a child is a barrier to happiness. When your voice is silenced, when there is no chance for dialogue or negotiation, only rules to follow and punishment for non-compliance then you are devalued as a human being. I realise I was shaped by the normative expectations of my father and of the times and I want to challenge those norms, to change the social imagination so that children are accepted as full human beings deserving of the respect and care adults take as a right.