Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children
by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
Yale, 368 pages, $28
With three pre-schoolers in her home at the time of her death last December, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had good reason to reflect on the welfare of children in the United States. Was she correct in arguing that most Americans are prejudiced against children as a group?
A practicing psychoanalyst who earned a doctorate in philosophy (Hannah Arendt supervised her dissertation), Young-Bruehl often wrote on topics of interest to political theorists and is the author of a critically acclaimed biography of Arendt. In her final book, she develops the idea of “childism” as a heuristic or umbrella concept for understanding the social position of children and evaluating different policies affecting them, and she argues that certain policies that harm children result from widespread and ingrained prejudices against them.
The argument is provocative but untenable.
Broadly likening prejudice against children to racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, she defines childism as “a prejudice against children on the ground of a belief that they are property and can (or even should) be controlled, enslaved, or removed to serve adult needs.” Childism is the conditio sine qua non of the mistreatment of children.
Despite marshaling an eclectic body of evidence, she offers confused arguments and fails to substantiate key assertions. (Her editors should have insisted on footnotes or endnotes instead of countenancing a “bibliographic essay.”) She also fails to consider sympathetically the views of political opponents.
In defining childism, for example, she gives no definitive evidence, like surveys or social-science research, to show that Americans view children as a form of property. She does not cite laws or policies that affirm or imply that children are some kind of property, and her one attempt to cite a relevant contemporary example fails badly: In a curious and strained digression, she holds that the pro-life movement in the United States relies on various (unstated) claims of public ownership of prenatal life.
Later, she claims that children are owned not only by families but also by governments and even by corporations and religious institutions that allegedly act as proxies for families or the state. But simply because adults and institutions have authority over children does not mean that they are possessions.
Where, then, does she derive the idea of adult ownership of children?
Drawing from her knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, she contends that adults fantasize about controlling, enslaving, sexually abusing, and eliminating children. Even if these fantasies rest on some notion of ownership of children, she fails to show that adults engage in such fantasies in socially significant numbers.
Like others in the psychoanalytic tradition, she displays much fondness for the ideas and literature of the pre-Christian world, especially classical Greece. But she passes over intellectual developments after the birth of Christ and before the emergence of psychoanalysis—developments that are germane to the book’s principal themes. The idea of the freedom of children had a long gestation period in Christian Europe, with thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and events such as the Anabaptist controversy contributing to their development.
Consider the following statement, which could be taken as the culmination of centuries of reflection about an important matter. In his Philosophy of Right, published in 1821, Hegel asserts that “children are potentially free and their life directly embodies nothing save potential freedom.” For this reason, he denied all claims to the ownership of children, like those in classical Rome, where fathers could sell their sons. Among modern political theorists, John Locke, J. S. Mill, and T. H. Green agreed with Hegel in denying parental ownership of children.
Young-Bruehl gives scant attention to such matters. (She does mention Locke but refers to him only in a single sentence.) As written, her book gives the impression that scarcely anyone in the modern world was aware of the special needs and status of children before the United Nations produced its two documents on children’s rights in the mid-twentieth century.
Trying to establish the similarities between childism and racism and anti-Semitism does not help her argument. It is hard to imagine a large number of persons harboring and publicly voicing prejudices against children as children, not least because every adult was at one time a child. It is equally hard to imagine a political or social movement organized to oppose the basic interests of children. That some people are racist and anti-Semitic does not suggest that people are in great numbers “childist.”
In moving from a general description to normative questions about the treatment of children, she offers more coherent—but not entirely cogent—answers. She summarizes her goals for American children as the “3 Ps.” “Provision” refers to ending child poverty in the United States, “protection” to stopping child abuse, and “participation” to freeing children from stifling institutions and conventions.
To judge from the allocation of space, she considers child abuse the most urgent problem of the three and believes that it can be reduced or alleviated through policy initiatives, including mental-health care and social-work services for all. To that end, she summarizes the history of public policies in response to child abuse, the “foundational moment” being the publication in the early 1960s of C. Henry Kempe’s articles and book on battered children.
In an effort to show the consequences of different forms of childism in family life, she also discusses case studies from her clinical practice. Her sensitivity to the victims of different kinds of abuse is never in doubt. One need not agree with every interpretation she offers as a psychoanalyst or share her great optimism about the potential of psychoanalysis as an instrument of public health to appreciate her desire to help the victims of abuse.
The goals associated with “participation” and “provision” are less laudable. Young-Bruehl recognizes the dangers in the children’s “liberation movement” of the 1970s and does not advocate lowering the voting age or the age of sexual consent. But her praise for several Supreme Court decisions that extended free-speech and due-process rights to minors—cases such as Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969) and In re Gault (1967)—appears to rest on her support for the policies mandated by those decisions rather than on consideration of constitutional principle. By essentially treating adolescents as adults, the rulings in cases such as these also provide some support for the goals of the “Children’s Liberationists”—a point the author evidently misses.
Espousing “social democracies,” she would likely insist that she is not a liberal. In any event, she does not believe that adult rights presumptively trump competing social interests relating to children’s welfare. Thus, to her credit (and unlike many contemporary liberals), she concedes some of the problems that widespread divorce causes for children. Nonetheless, she thinks like a liberal on others topics, holding familiar views on adolescent sexuality and abortion and betraying a thinly veiled wariness of religion, especially Christianity.
The author’s commitment to social democracy simplifies various economic problems relating to children, at least in her mind. She seems to have difficulty accepting the need to establish rough priorities in policy, especially economic policy.
Her easy faith in the capacities of the welfare state is both naive and a bit annoying, in that she almost seems to imply that a person’s concern for the well-being of children can be measured by the degree of his or her enthusiasm for a larger welfare state. She seems uninterested in whether the federal government actually has the constitutional authority to launch ambitious projects to promote children’s welfare, such as the Comprehensive Child Development Act (vetoed by President Nixon in the early 1970s), or whether, alternatively, most child-welfare programs should be undertaken by state governments.
She also dismisses fears about the welfare state portending an ever-more-intrusive federal government. The growth of the American welfare state caused some worry to Hannah Arendt, but Young-Bruehl deems such fears symptomatic of the culture wars and resting on outdated views. One has little difficulty imagining her response to the Affordable Care Act lawsuits and the HHS “contraception mandate.”
Thus, despite a desire to address matters of universal importance, Young-Bruehl did not write a book of wide appeal. The book is apt to interest only “progressive” academics, uncritical proponents of “children’s rights,” and persons with some connection to psychoanalysis. Though I cannot see the word “childism” becoming part of American political discourse, perhaps the word will find its way into academic discourse, notwithstanding the problems behind the concept.
Against Young-Bruehl, I would argue that the diminished welfare of so many children today derives not primarily from widespread prejudice against them, but from an attenuated sense of adult duties towards children. Those duties relate both to domestic life and the broader moral environment, requiring public attention to matters such as family structure and the regulation of pornography. But vast numbers of Americans have bought into an idea of personal freedom with minimal duties, even as that idea operates to the detriment of many young people.
Child abuse, however, is a qualitatively different matter. Still, under American law, not every flawed statute or bad policy is unconstitutional, and in the lives of children, not every personal misfortune or defective policy affecting them is a manifestation of social prejudice against them. Promoting the latter idea is not really in anyone’s interest, and it is regrettable that a scholar of some distinction advanced such an argument in her final book.
David L. Tubbs is associate professor of politics at the King’s College in New York City and author of Freedom’s Orphans: Contemporary Liberalism and the Fate of American Children.