Childism, Chapter 4 - Elisabeth Young-Bruehl05-03-2012
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 previous posts about the book can be read here. Today, she shares her thoughts and impressions of Chapter 4. We hope you are inspired to read along. You can purchase the book here.
Is it fair to harm or neglect a child because of a parent's own anxieties? Many parents struggle with the responsibility of parenting and fear for the type of human being they are raising. These feelings are present in the adult; the child does not implant them there while their parents are sleeping. We can neither deny these feelings nor blame children for them. What, then, is to be done?
In Chapter Four of Childism, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl describes the way that parents and children often want very different things, a difference that yields a conflict of generations. She writes, “[The] conflict of generations is a conflict over the child's identity. Parents often want, narcissistically, to impose an identity on their children; children want to claim their own identities. The conflict embraces those identities, those the young wanted to assert and those adults wanted to erase.”
Young-Bruehl argues that parenting should be about raising a child who is able to integrate into society. Too often, however, parents resent the way the child is developing and often imagine the child as a rebuke to themselves. Images of children as being rebellious and ungrateful have permeated the thinking of many adults. Such stereotypes play upon a fear of adolescence and a worry that as children reach the brink of adulthood, they inherit power to disobey and reject their parents. The parent challenges rebellious youth, often viewed as possessing a disregard for authority and anti-traditional attitudes.
So how does childism shape one’s thinking in dealing with this fear? Here we must distinguish between adults who are prey to childist thinking and those who are not. Childist adults fear development, so they attempt to stifle it through neglect and abuse. They fear a child’s growth because they expect their children to serve their own needs or conform to their own views, to admire them, to abide by them. This expectation often hits a brick wall come adolescence. Children begin to form their own opinions and put their wants before the approval of their parents. This does not indicate immaturity; this designates a transition into an autonomous self.
Children can simultaneously serve their own needs while abiding to the rules set by adults. However, it is near impossible to have one’s needs fulfilled (be it through one’s self or one’s parent(s)), if they are being repeatedly physically or sexually abused or neglected. This is harmful to a child because it confuses their identity. This confusion is one of the aims of childism. When an adult asserts their power through abuse and/or neglect, the child loses their sense of self because they feel helpless. The child becomes a subject on whom the needs of the adult are projected.
This chapter of Young-Bruehl’s book made a distinction that the previous chapters had been leading up to: childism indicates an immaturity within the adult. A Childist wants to assert his or her ownership over a child. However, there is something fundamentally wrong with a human being owning another human being. Thinking of this sort is terribly skewed and probably results from a lack of incomplete thinking or underdeveloped perspective. Those who believe that they can or should harm a child to fulfill their own wants and needs have obviously not considered the deconstructive implications this will have on a child’s self-image and capability to be a happy and functional adult. Further, Young-Bruehl hopes to clarify that abuse is not limited to physical harm, which she demonstrates with cases of verbal abuse and emotional neglect:
[The abuse] consistently serves one purpose: eliminating or eradicating the child irritant, the source of headaches, the child needing and expecting love, the child viewed as draining away limited material and emotional resources and as refusing to parent the neglector.
In the realm of the family, parents fear the position of their patriarchal or matriarchal “rights.” The child threatens the power of the parent; suddenly one’s self-needs are challenged by the needs of another. In the political realm, those who currently possess power often fear the counter-cultures of the youth and a new wave of opinions that will threaten the current structure.
It is rash to “eliminate the threat.” Children grow up, this fact is inevitable. In whatever way a person yields to childism, be it physical or emotional abuse or neglect, the child subject to prejudice will still grow up. It is the adults’ responsibility to nurture growth, not stunt it. The greatest gift a child can receive is hope. Hope for the future, hope that they will figure out who they want to be, hope that they will be happy. Sure, an adult can eliminate this hope and belittle the child’s selfhood, but this merely breeds confusion. It is not a child’s goal to “take down” their parents, as often as children may interrogate their parent’s motives. Children are growing, learning, testing, and questioning; this is not to be confused with revolt. By “eliminating” the child, adults are just reproducing the shame and insecurity manifest in themselves. Neither the older nor younger generation should fear one another; childism is sadly another reason why they do.