Tag: child welfare

For Mothers AND Fathers, On Parenting, On Making Big Change: Childism

With Mother’s Day coming up on Sunday, May 13, and Father’s Day a month later on June 17, we are focused on good parenting, a gift to be commemorated with flowers, chocolate, and cards. Yet in her new book Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl reminds us how, for many children in the U.S. and abroad, good parenting is something that is sorely lacking. Jesse Kornbluth recently wrote about his “shattering” experience with Young-Bruehl’s project for a Huffington Post article titled, “Who’s the Bully?”

In the book, Young-Bruehl, who passed away in December, proposes the introduction of the term “childism” as the first step in identifying and counteracting a prejudice against children that she sees in everything from child imprisonment, fetal alcohol syndrome, abuse, and many more widespread phenomena. Although the author acknowledges that “We do not need more useless social science verbiage,” she cites the 1965 coinage of the word “sexism” as a means for understanding the systemic stereotyping and mistreatment of women, and hopes that “childism” can foster a parallel process of recognition. “Giving it a name is the first step,” Young-Bruehl wrote in an op-ed for Time that appeared last month.

In that same piece, Young-Bruehl argues that “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.” She continues: “It seems normal to insist ‘honor thy father and thy mother’ without any reciprocal ‘honor thy children.’”

Young-Bruehl calls for an effort to work against these assumptions, noting that childism comes in many forms other than the abuses registered by social workers. Children are manipulated, neglected, and dominated by their parents, and deprived access to food, shelter, and education under an entrenched system of poverty. The U.S., Young-Bruehl points out, has thus far failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and national legislation does not adequately defend children’s rights or provide for their developmental needs.

As student at the New School, Young-Bruehl worked with political thinker Hannah Arendt and went on to write both the biography Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World and Why Arendt Matters for Yale University Press. In Childism, she follows in the footsteps of her mentor, offering an incisive and articulate critique. Drawing on her work as a psychoanalyst in addition to legal, philosophical, and even literary sources, Young-Bruehl illuminates prejudices that often go overlooked, drawing her reader’s attention to an injustice that affects an entire generation, and a problem that is crying out to be solved.

A Conversation with the Late Elisabeth Young-Bruehl on Childism

With heavy hearts and minds, we said good-bye to Elisabeth Young-Bruehl at the beginning of December, who, over her career as a psychoanalyst, writer, biographer, and philosopher, contributed immensely to our understanding of humanity and modern social conscience. In the Chronicle Review, Peter Monaghan wrote a poignant tribute to her life and culmination of her career’s work in her last book Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, posthumously published at the beginning of the month. The book has found its moment, creating a “clarion call for urgent action” among those most affected by the treatment of children—social workers, psychologists, pediatricians, and of course, parents. Headlines about spanking-related deaths and autistic children stuffed into duffel bags have only fueled the need for this timely address of prejudice and child welfare.

Upon completion of the book last fall, we had the chance to interview Young-Bruehl on the main issues presented in the book, and how “childism” is positioned in current discourse about child abuse and related policy decisions affecting our understanding of children as a group that are discriminated against like any other.

 

Yale University Press: Why are you proposing that we need the word and concept “childism”?

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: The history of the word “sexism,” coined in 1965, shows how important it was to put under the same conceptual umbrella different acts, attitudes, and institutions that targeted women as a group. If you understand that domestic violence against women and wage discrimination against women are similarly rationalized or legitimated by a prejudice—sexism—you can develop ways to explore the prejudice and resist it. Without a synthesizing concept, you do not see that child poverty and child abuse are both rooted in and rationalized by prejudice against children.

YUP: Does prejudice against children—childism—operate like sexism?

EY-B: All prejudices are rationalizations of actions. Prejudiced people think that their actions against a target group are right, necessary, normal. But not all prejudices are alike, nor are all prejudiced people alike—there is no “prejudiced personality.” In this book I argue that there are three basic forms of prejudices. Basically, people want to get rid of the members of a group; manipulate them into being servants; or erase their identities. The forms are usually to some degree intermixed, but sexism is fundamentally of the third form. Childism, on the other hand, comes in all three forms. This is one reason why it has been so hard to pinpoint.

YUP: Childism focuses in many different ways on “child abuse and neglect”—why is that?

EY-B: First, abused and neglected children come, as children or as adults, into therapy situations where they can feel safe enough to tell their stories and talk about how they understand their abusers. Understanding their abusers’ motivations is crucial to them; they take a listener right to the topic and to how they have internalized the abusers’ motivations. They need to be cured of their internalizations as much as they need to be helped with external conditions that disrupt their growth and development. But—and this is the second reason—the field of Child Abuse and Neglect was, from its inception in the 1960s, set up in such a way, I believe, that it could not hear the experiences of abused and neglected children. It was focused on the types of acts they suffered—physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse—and children were classified by these types of acts. Treatment and prevention strategies are organized around these types of acts to this day. This has been very harmful for children. It matters how you think about children! Just as it matters how you raise them, and sponsor their growth and development—or fail to.

YUP: You are Anna Freud’s biographer—is this is an Anna Freudian book?

EY-B: I use many of Anna Freud’s key insights, particularly those she came to when she directed a children’s residential nursery in London during the Blitz. The children she cared for were traumatized, and they had a good deal to say about what they experienced. The Best Interests of the Child, the book Anna Freud wrote late in her long life, with two colleagues from the Yale Child Study Center, was designed to teach lawyers and judges how to listen to children in the course of trials—custody trials, abuse trials. Clearly, she was writing about childism, how to recognize it and how to prevent it. I take her wisdom as a model. But I am writing for all who are concerned with children’s well-being—in diverse professions, in policy-making positions, but also as parents.

 

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was a psychoanalyst and the award-winning author of Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, Anna Freud: A Biography, and Why Arendt Matters, all published by Yale University Press. Her last book Childism is available now.

Childism Continues

In the past weeks, we covered the deaths associated with a book on childrearing, bringing it into conversation with Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, a new book by psychoanalyst and writer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. All too sadly, it was not long before we shared the news that Young-Bruehl passed away at the beginning of the month.

Both the book’s subject and its author stay at the forefront of our minds, as recent news headlines continue to show the necessity of Childism. On Friday, the Associated Press reported on the case of an autistic schoolboy stuffed into a duffel bag; this was a disciplinary action conducted by his teachers. That he was autistic seems irrelevant to his treatment: in Kentucky, where the incident occurred, “there are no laws on using restraint or seclusion in public schools, according to documents on the state Department of Education’s website,” writes Bruce Schreiner for the AP.

Engaging deeply rooted ideas in our culture, Childism invites us to look at the societal thinking that allows this structure. In its final chapter, “Education and the End of Childism,” Young-Bruehl writes:

[T]here will always be people and societies that act against the principle Aristotle articulated in his Nicomachean Ethics: “The parent gives the child the greatest gifts, its existence, but also cherishment and education; . . . and because the child receives, it owes the parent honor and helpfulness.” Adults who do relate to children according to the natural principle, provisioning them for healthy growth and development, protecting them, preparing them for participation in family and community life, will never be able completely to change those who behave immaturely and harmfully toward children. But they can influence the conditions that provoke, permit, and even encourage such behavior. And they can work to identify and address the prejudice, childism, that legitimates it.

Who could imagine “disciplinary action” against an adult in this manner, autistic or not? Without debating the typical “cruel and unusual,” we seem to carry out those more imaginative and sadistic punishments on children, both as a reflection of our own insecurities and as an exercise of control in their lives. This is the book written to confront the culturally embedded devolution of the natural relationship between parent and child into identifiable prejudice and abuse, and how we must all work together to improve the welfare of children.