Childism: The Unacknowledged Prejudice Against Kids

Racism and sexism are understood as ideological prejudices. Why don't we have a similar understanding of the root of child abuse?

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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.

(MORE: Why Is the U.S. Against Children’s Rights?)

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.”

(MORE: Childist Nation: Does America Hate Kids?)

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.

(MORE: How Bullying and Abuse May Age Children Prematurely)

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.

MORE: 10 Ideas That Are Changing Your Life


Shooters:the most common pre-incident indicators is violence in one’s childhood:

Regarding another shooter:Something we’ve also been seeing first hand in the news reports from the Aurora tragedy, are interviews from people who knew James Holmes as a quiet guy, or someone who kept to himself. De Becker talks about this too as a hackneyed myth and a more accurate statement should be “neighbors didn’t know anything relevant,” but instead news reporters present non-information as if it’s information.

De Becker states by the frequency of this cliché, you could almost believe that normalcy is a pre-incident indicator for aberrant crime. It isn’t.

***However, one of the most common pre-incident indicators, is violence in one’s childhood.



Understanding the cycle of abuse:Humiliations, spankings and beatings, slaps in the face, betrayal, sexual exploitation, derision, neglect, etc. are all forms of mistreatment, because they injure the integrity and dignity of a child, even if their consequences are not visible right away.

However, as adults, most abused children will suffer from these injuries… ***AND make others suffer as well.

By Alice Miller, Ph.D.:



First, the presence of his book, To Train Up a Child, and the presence of his other teaching materials on “biblical chastisement,” in the homes of homicidal parents, is purely circumstantial. It makes no more sense, Pearl argues, to blame To Train Up a Child for discipline-turned-abusive-turned-murderous than to blame Alcoholics Anonymous brochures in the home for deaths due to drunk driving, or weight-loss materials in the home for obesity.

As Anderson Cooper pointed out, this defense is illogical. AA literature says not to drink, especially while driving.

Pearl literature emphasizes inflicting physical pain on children in order to break their wills and achieve total obedience to parents. In the Cooper interview, Pearl talks about physically chastising to “get the child’s attention.” What if your child still isn’t paying attention?


Childism:Confronting Prejudice Against Children

In this groundbreaking volume on the human rights of children, acclaimed analyst, political theorist, and biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl argues prejudice exists against children as a group and it is comparable to racism, sexism, and homophobia.

This prejudice—“childism”—legitimates and rationalizes a broad continuum of acts that are not “in the best interests of children,” including the often violent extreme of child abuse and neglect.

According to Young-Bruehl, reform is possible only if we acknowledge this prejudice in its basic forms and address the motives and cultural forces that drive it, rather than dwell on the various categories of abuse and punishment.


Abuse of children is the number one public health concern

Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, who’s a professor of psychiatry at Boston — University of Boston, says the neglect or abuse of children is the number one public health concern.

A recent study from Notre Dame by a psychologist there has shown the optimal conditions for child development (hunter-gatherer societies provided for their children, which are the optimal conditions for development), are no longer present for our kids.

And she says the way we raise our children today in this country is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well-being.


The United States stands virtually alone among developed nations in allowing schoolchildren to be assaulted and battered by teachers.Polite terms for the practice are “corporal punishment” and “paddling.”

Most Americans are unaware this happens legally in the schools of 20 states. The number of recorded incidents hovers around 1/4 million per year, give or take. 

Spanking causes intense stimulation of the buttocks - a major erogenous zone. As a consequence, spanked children are at risk of having their sexual development permanently deranged.

That’s good for the pornography and prostitution and dominatrix industries, but it’s not good for children.