An Ism Is Born

Are we all secretly kid-haters at heart?

To the tally of those requiring protection from the constant, corrosive prejudice of the dominant culture, another group must now be added. It turns out that American children—whose wants and whims support untold industries and whose very existence causes property taxes to rise in the neighborhood of a better-than-average middle school—are victims of a previously unidentified ism: childism, the widespread but unfounded belief in the inferiority of children. Or so contends the late psychoanalyst and scholar Elisabeth Young-Bruehl in a new book. American politics are blindly and destructively childist, as are the most attentive of parents, argues Young-Bruehl in Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, going on to insist that fighting childism is as important as fighting racism or homophobia. Allowed to flourish, she writes, childism not only denies the humanity of individual kids; it damages generations, who internalize the dislike directed at them from the grown-ups who run their lives.

Young-Bruehl traces the roots of contemporary childism back to the social protests of the sixties, when the Establishment began to view youth (broadly defined) as defiant and impolite—a cohort that needed not careful tending but to be quashed, quieted, contained. In 1972, with Richard Nixon’s veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Act (which would have, in Young-Bruehl’s view, made raising and educating healthy kids a social priority), government suppression of children’s holistic development was locked in. As they matured, the boomers, those very people who’d participated in the earlier upheavals, absorbed negative views of the young and became the worst childists of all, prioritizing their own success, stability, and status even as they publicly declared their devotion to the Family. Over five decades, their generation acquiesced to “policies that required future generations to shoulder responsibility for present prosperity and present endeavors … The young have been saddled with a world filled with violence, riddled with economic ­inequality, and endangered by a ­disastrous lack of environmental oversight,” Young-Bruehl writes.

Childism primarily focuses on such societal outcomes. But as a shrink by training, Young-Bruehl is invested in the psychic causes of the broader problems she identifies—and thus she finds a potentially childist self lurking within all parents. Every time parents do not “make paramount or prioritize the needs of their children over their own needs—the needs of future adults over the needs of present adults,” they are being childist. Spanking is childist, but so is too much homework. Ambitious mothers are childist for wanting their children’s accomplishments to reflect well on them (Young-Bruehl calls the Tiger Mom a “full-scale ­obsessional-narcissistic” childist), as are fathers who retreat to the couch for a moment’s peace.

It is on this individual level that her argument melts like a 2-year-old overdue for a nap. Because there’s a difference between childism and other isms, and it’s that its victims are children. Until taught to do so, kids can’t dress themselves, control their emotions, or distinguish between concepts like “today” and “tomorrow.” They are, by nature, “unreasonable and selfish,” in the words of Thomas Phelan, author of the parenting classic 1-2-3 Magic. “Inferior,” in fact, seems like a fair word to describe them. Perhaps Young-Bruehl’s got it the wrong way around. Only by seeing themselves for what they are—older and wiser, superior to their offspring—can parents begin to do the job right.