‘Childist’ Nation: Does America Hate Kids?

There is a sense that children's needs have become too prominent, but the targets of that backlash — its victims — are kids

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Are you a childist?

The word is difficult to say, much less get your mind around. Yet Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, a psychoanalyst and biographer who died this past December, felt strongly that it should become an active part of the American lexicon. Indeed, in her recently published book, Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, she argues that childism — which she defines as prejudice against children — is, and has long been, rife in our society.

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It ran through the work of the 19th century “child savers,” who, she explains, removed impoverished children from their homes and put them in punitive work houses, even sending some off in trains to the West where they lived with foster families and worked for them without pay. It was a pillar of the “family values” movement that, beginning in the 1970s, defended the rights of parents to do what they would with their kids free from government “interference.” It explains why we’ve never had programs aimed at enhancing positive child development — things like Sweden’s ban on corporal punishment; or meaningful government support for high-quality, affordable child care; or the sorts of generous parental leave policies available throughout Europe and in Canada — but instead have massively developed structures, like “juvie” prisons, that punish and remove children from the heart of society.

Childism even, Young-Bruehl believed, brought us No Child Left Behind, which, she convincingly argues, has bulldozed over children’s individuality and “by focusing on test scores and other statistical indicators, ignored the developmental needs of the child.”

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These are potentially radical notions, dramatically stated, and many parents and policymakers will undoubtedly disagree. Yet they’re important ideas that deserve to find an audience much wider than the one her book, published by Yale University Press, is likely to receive. For there’s been a radicalization in our country of quite pointed child dislike in recent years. The New York Times critic Ginia Bellafante first picked up on it in 2005, when she wrote about the insidious level of violence against children running through many popular television shows. She drew a parallel between this “child in peril” programming and the “woman in peril” entertainment that began to fill the airwaves in the 1970s and signaled the beginning of the backlash against the women’s movement.

The new backlash, directed against what’s perceived as the loosey-goosey, self-esteem-obsessed, hypersolicitous parenting style of the past two decades, has brought us books ranging from Hara Estroff Marano’s 2008 book, A Nation of Wimps, to, more recently, Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and even, arguably, Pamela Druckerman’s recent Bringing Up Bébé. It has brought us a new enthusiasm for corporal punishment, which according to Young-Bruehl, is practiced by 94% of the population (and undoubtedly always was, though not, I think, with the same self-assurance that animated many readers’ recent defense of the practice on Time.com). And I would venture to say that it brought us the sorry incident last month when North Carolina dad Tommy Jordan, enraged by his daughters’ posting of an extended whine about his parenting demands on Facebook, emptied his pistol into her laptop and posted a video of himself doing so on YouTube to widespread applause.

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There’s a general sense now that children’s rights, children’s needs, children’s wants and desires have taken on too prominent a place in our family lives. That we’ve over indulged them and now have to tighten the reins. The backlash is, at base, against ourselves — against a form of boomer and postboomer parenting that many agree has gone off the rails. But the targets of that backlash — its victims — are children.

“People as individuals and in societies mistreat children in order to fulfill certain needs through them, to project internal conflicts and self-hatreds outward, or to assert themselves when they feel their authority has been questioned,” Young-Bruehl wrote. We often use children as pillars for our narcissism, she said, and, in particular, tend to use them to provide salve for our narcissistic wounds. The more that we’re wounded — and, I think it’s fair to argue that almost all of us have been wounded in the devastating economic downturn of the past several years — the more angrily we make our demands. The more adults feel “beleaguered and without power,” she noted, the more rage they vent at their kids for not making them feel valued, respected, even loved.

Young-Bruehl noted that the concept of childism can — and should — force us to think differently about the whole range of parent behavior ranging from spanking to child abuse, just like the acknowledgment of sexism in society led us decades ago to think differently about rape. With a heightened understanding of prejudice against women, rape came to be seen less as an outgrowth of unrestrained male libido and more as a perverse manifestation of the abuse of male power: incest too, soon afterward, came to be seen in that light.

Her extrapolation from sexism to childism teaches, then, that we can’t simply think of freakish acts of child abuse — like the case of the 9-year-old Alabama girl run to death by her stepmother and grandmother as punishment for eating a candy bar — as entirely isolated crimes. We have to think of them in a context of prejudice against children — and of diffuse adult feelings of impotence and rage — that is widespread enough that it’s all too easy for an unbalanced parent to cross the line between discipline and abuse.

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