When we read in the newspaper that a child in New Jersey has died from neglect from an untreated broken leg, or that a child in Florida’s protective services could just disappear without a trace, or that molestation of children has been covered up in yet another diocese of the Catholic Church, we do not say there is prejudice against children at work. Abuse, neglect, sanctioned pedophilia — we don’t put these together in our minds with stories about child abduction and enslavement, child trafficking, inadequate schooling, malnutrition and junk-food-induced obesity, cigarette advertising to minors, child pornography or the rising numbers of child soldiers worldwide. But we should.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. Unfortunately, the messages about child abuse will not be grounded in an understanding that it arises out of prejudice against children — the way Black History Month in February reminds us of prejudice against people of color. Similarly, sexism is understood as an ideology and a prejudice, and all kinds of discrimination and violence against women are united in our minds by the concept.
Why don’t we have a similar understanding of the root of child abuse? In 1989, the United Nations issued a Convention on the Rights of the Child, which brings together in one document descriptions of many forms of maltreatment but does not make us think of children — all the world’s children — as a group. It is about “the Child,” an abstraction.
Childism is the hardest form of prejudice to recognize because children are the one group that, many of us think without thinking, is naturally subordinate. Until they reach a stipulated age, they are the responsibility of their parents or guardians — those who have custody. But what does custody permit? What distinguishes it from ownership? One of the essential ingredients of childism is a claim by adults to the effect that children are ours to do with exactly as we see fit, or children exist to serve, honor and obey adults. These claims make a subordination doctrine out of natural dependency, out of the fact that children are born relatively helpless and need to be taken care of until they can take care of themselves. It seems normal to insist “honor thy father and thy mother” without any reciprocal “honor thy children.”
Childism takes many forms. In the half-century-old field called Child Abuse and Neglect (CAN), four main types of child maltreatment have been identified: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and emotional abuse. But these categories do not reflect how frequently the four types are combined in a given case. Listening to my adult patients in psychoanalysis who were maltreated as children, I have heard basically three stories: they were not wanted, they were controlled and manipulated or they were not allowed to be who they felt they were. So I have come to think in terms of childism that intends 1) to eliminate or destroy children, 2) to make them play roles no child should play or 3) to dominate them totally, narcissistically erasing their identities. Survivors make it clear that the worst part of their experience — the most difficult to heal from, the least forgivable — was that no one protected them from it. They often make it clear, as well, that they have internalized the prejudice and direct it toward themselves.
Childism, sexism and racism share many arguments about natural subordination. Similarly, these prejudices share the ingredient that the targeted group is in some way bad or defective. Like women and people of color, children are said to be born wild, sexually anarchic, in need of punishment to keep them in line (“Spare the rod, spoil the child”). Some who are prejudiced against children consider them a burden; they are mouths to feed and too big a drain on financial or emotional resources. Neglect often follows from this assumption, and poverty and neglect are highly correlated. In economically secure homes, neglect and parental depression are highly correlated, as they are in homes where unemployment has suddenly and disorientingly erased security.
But unlike most of those who suffer from racism or sexism, children are not yet political thinkers and actors. They depend upon adults for the articulation and protection of their rights, and they depend on adults for survival and loving care. Every adult citizen is, in this sense, a representative for children. It’s a social and political responsibility for all adults — and it is childist to shirk that responsibility. It is time for us to stop being blind to the prejudice that fuels, justifies or even sanctions child abuse and neglect. Giving it a name is the first step.