Is society against children?

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (29/04/12)

We're all familiar with the axiom that children are the future. And it stands to reason that, as they will someday inherit the places of their parents and members of the older generation, society should protect their health and provide them with ample opportunities to better themselves.

Yet psychotherapist and author Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was aware of a disturbing truth. She believed that children as a group have been victims of systemic oppression and prejudicial policy for years in her home country of the United States. She dubbed it "childism."

Young-Bruehl wrote a book about the subject entitled Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, but died last December before it was published. It's out now, and Carol Gilligan, a psychologist and professor at New York University, as well as a supporter of Young-Bruehl, says it's a "breakthrough book" and hopes it will draw attention to the issue like never before.

"It's really hard to get one's mind around it, which is how come in the United States, which is one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest nation in the world, how come we were the only ones who didn't sign the U.N. convention to protect children," Gilligan told The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright during a recent interview.

"How come we have such a high rate of children living in poverty? And such a disparity in the quality of education between children who are advantaged and not? And these rates of child abuse? It's almost incomprehensible. And Elisabeth Young-Bruehl says this is a reflection of a systematic prejudice that targets children."

It's a psychologically complex issue because discriminating against children is not like discrimination against any other group. After all, we were all once children and should be able to remember what it was to be young and vulnerable. We know exactly what it's like to walk in their small shoes. Young-Bruehl postulated that part of the problem may be how some societies value qualities that aren't necessarily associated with children, Gilligan says. To become an adult, many of us are told, means having to let go of "childish" behaviour or open feelings of dependency.

"If you have a society that values independence and children are dependent, then we have to, in a sense, disassociate ourselves from our own needs for comfort and relationships and love."

childism-cover.jpgIn other words, adults may see in children what they used to be, and have since left behind. It's an unsettling conflict, especially because humans have proven to be nurturing creatures when it comes to their offspring, Gilligan says.

"It's really in our nature to care for our children. That's our future. On the face of it, it doesn't make any sense to treat children badly, and yet one of the surprising things in her book is she talks about how even advantaged parents, you know, can be guilty of childism. So you have to look at its personal/psychological roots, also what's going on in the society as a whole."

According to Young-Bruehl, the roots of modern anti-child policies can be traced to the early 1970s, when U.S. President Richard Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act that had been passed by both the House and Senate. This bill would have led to the development of a multi-billion-dollar national daycare system that could have reduced pressure on the welfare system by making it easier for single parents to work and take care of their children. Young-Bruehl, Gilligan and other critics contend that this was a backlash against the civil rights movements of the previous decade and that the government of the day wanted to maintain the status quo (i.e., white patriarchy).

"It promoted a kind of societal ethos, you could say, where adults were told 'You don't really have to care about children.'"

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl believed that prejudice against children will only end when children are brought into the conversation. Gilligan notes the book's point that progress came in the battle against racism and sexism when the voices of the groups that were targeted were included. What adults need to do, Young-Bruehl had argued, was start listening to children.