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Childism by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was Hannah Arendt’s student and biographer. She also was a brilliant philosopher,  intellectual, and psychoanalyst. Her many books include Freedom and Karl Jasper’s Philosophy, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World,  Anna Freud: A Biography,  and The Anatomy of Prejudices, Subject to Biography: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Writing Women’s Lives.  She had recently completed her last book, Childism, just before her untimely passing on December 1, 2011.

The Arendt Center asked one of our interns, Anastasia Blank, to read Childism and prepare a series of posts highlighting some of the most interesting and compelling insights and arguments. Over the coming weeks, she will provide a chapter-by-chapter look at Young-Bruehl’s book. We hope you are inspired to read along. You can purchase the book here.

Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s final book, Childism, offers stunning insight into the first few years of life that have long since been forgotten. Young-Bruehl, who was Hannah Arendt’s biographer and who died late last year, practiced psychoanalysis for almost thirty years and possessed a strong interest and training in child studies. She was a child advocate and this work is an effort to highlight the persisting injustice that befalls the children of our society, an overarching prejudice that she names “childism.” Motivating Young-Bruehl’s work is the conviction that “Harming children cannot stay the norm, there is no rationalization for this behavior.” The harm of childism does not necessarily refer to physical abuse, but encompasses various acts against children, acts that demarcate them as different and less important that adults.

This is not a contemporary phenomenon, as prejudice against children reaches far back in historical societies. And yet Young-Bruehl does think contemporary American society has seen a rising prejudice against children.  Childism includes abuse, but it extends even to the well-remarked upon helicopter parenting of well-meaning parents who push their children to fulfill the parent’s own desires and needs in developmentally inappropriate ways. Childism is based upon a widespread fallacy, that children are expected to serve the needs of the adults that care for them.

Young-Bruehl identifies the childism stereotype as a foundational fantasy, one that,

“can be defined as a belief system that constructs its target group, ‘the child’, as an immature being, produced and owned by adults who use it to serve their own needs and fantasies”.

While Childism might be thought to be concerned with child abuse, it is more broad in its scope. “Child Abuse and Neglect (CAN)” arose as a field of study in the early 1970’s, encompassing a body of clinicians, advocates, analysts, and researchers. Their aim was to protect children and to bring attention to the existing prejudice against children in social and political institutions. Young-Bruehl contends that in their narrow focus on protecting children from abuse, CAN proponents overlook the parental motivations and origins of the prejudice towards children. Her argument is that when the instigating factors behind “childism” are uncovered, there arises the potential to protect America’s children as a group, instead of the lucky few who come under the attention of child protective services or have access to therapy.

Childism explores the negative view our society has taken towards children; the children within our society are falling prey to the “projections” of their caretakers.  Young-Bruehl argues that too often parents’ inner pain suffered when they themselves were children is now being taken out through violence or neglect on their own children.

She asks that we take a look at our own inner conflicts and try to understand the motivation for the type of action and beliefs one holds toward children.  The common belief in “the natural dependency of children,” is, she writes,

one of the key reasons for the prejudice against them not to be recognized as such or its being so easily rationalized. Adults who argue that children do not and should not have rights, for example, base their arguments on children’s natural dependency, making assertions about their lack of agency or capacity for choice, expression of interest, or reason. But such arguments are prejudicial against children’s development; by declaring that children do not have these capacities, the arguments are really contributing to the difficulties children have in developing the capacities.

As an adult, a caretaker, or a caring person, it is our duty to offer guidance, support, and love during a child’s development. Believing that children are incapable and dependent, whether intentional or not, leads to projections of a specific dependencies for the child and accords to adults the role of guide and authoritarian ruler. It is this prejudgment about the adult-child relationship that Young-Bruehl asks that we consciously reevaluate.

I invite you to read through this book with me over the coming weeks and investigate the critical question, “Why do parents sometimes turn against their children?” This is not to say that many parents are innately evil or should not have children. It is instead an inquiry into the motivations behind their prejudiced behavior. The book asks: how can identifying significant prejudicial feelings lead to a change away from childism.

-Anastasia Blank


Posted on 3 April 2012 | 1:22 pm

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