Childism, Chapter 1 - Elisabeth Young-Bruehl04-11-2012
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's final work, Childism, was published soon after her untimely passing in December of 2011. In the book, Young-Bruehl, a long time psychoanalyst and child advocate, focuses on the pervasive prejudice she feels overshadows many children in our society. Be it abuse, or the modern day phenomenon of helicopter-parenting, she felt these injustices served to demarcate children, marking them as less worthy than adults. The resulting consequences result in unhealthy and damaging parent-children relationships.
Arendt Center intern, Anastasia Blank, is reading Childism and providing us with a chapter by chapter review, highlighting some of the most interesting and compelling insights and arguments. Her first post last week, provided us with an overview of the book and its themes. Today, she shares her thoughts and impressions of Chapter 1. We hope you are inspired to read along. You can purchase the book here.
Chapter One of Childism argues that prejudice emerges from a “we” against “them” mentality. This way of thinking not only separates a target group, but also defines the group as distinctly other from oneself. When this separation appears between children and adults, it is easy for the adult mind to think of children as immature and helpless. The child is projected as a feeble creature, produced by the adult, and thus owned by the adult; this is where the childism prejudice arises. By viewing children as a group incapable of independence, children come to be seen as needing adults to look after them, to rule them.
Young-Bruehl reminds us that children are in a stage of development where they are developing independence and maturity. The turning of children into objects to be governed only stunts this development process and breeds further division between children and adults. Young-Bruehl iterates the pervasive belief that, “Children are ‘childish’, which is a negative adjective marking something an adult should not be. Being a grown-up is imagined as separating from what is childish by denigrating it and calling it shameful”. Many adults tend to intentionally separate their child and grown-up identities, which makes difficult the recognition that children are constantly forming who they will become as an adult. The separation between youth and maturity is not an abyss one leaps over on their eighteenth birthday, it is a bridge we build through our years of development. If one is lucky, this bridge will never be torn down; for those who are prejudiced towards children, it seems such a tearing down or suppression of their own youth is what makes them a “real” adult. This is where the fissure in the understanding of what children need arises.
This first chapter of Childism provides a sweeping review of the field of prejudice studies looking as far back to Aristotle’s assumptions about children as possessions, and culminating in the present day. Young-Bruehl offers a definition of prejudice:
Prejudice corrupts understanding through a combination of partiality and defensiveness by setting up a hierarchical binary ‘on the grounds of X.’ A prejudgment that one class of beings is privileged over another extends to the idea that the class is superior, and fit to rule or dominate over another.
Prejudice blinds one from a view of equality and replaces it, in the case of childism, with the idea that an adult’s needs should be honored before a child's. Someone who thinks this way ignores the fact that we all exist among one another as like beings, together in the search for happiness and well-being. We all desire respect and wish for our needs to be appreciated, so it does not seem to follow that one person’s needs should be superior to those of children, simply because they are older.
Such biased thinking, however, is exactly how a prejudiced person thinks. A childist adult believes their needs are privileged over the needs of the youth and this arises through neglect, abuse, and the hunt for subservience, which in turn creates a suppression of healthy development. Young-Bruehl takes care to point out that, “a prejudice is a belief system, not a knowledge system about the group”; prejudices are beliefs, they are not facts.
One reason for this prejudice is the projection of unwanted aspects of oneself onto the child. According to Young-Bruehl, people project onto children features of themselves that they wish to get rid of. We deem children immature, but this may be because we fantasize about remaining children ourselves. We call children burdensome, but this may be because we cannot handle the burden of our own lives, our adult lives. It is possible that much of childism arises from a jealousy of something we can never return to. Or maybe the belief that we can never return to this time is a result of that prejudice. Either way, a disconnection has developed between adults and children that has caused us to view ‘childish’ as bad and ‘adult’ as good. I think we would be well served to reevaluate this created value system.