The XX Factor

Book of the Week: Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children

In a book published posthumously last month, psychotherapist and author Elisabeth Young-Bruehl posits that American society has failed children to the point that prejudice against them deserves its own “ism.” That’s right, along with racism and sexism and homophobia (not a literal –ism, but a figurative one), we need to add childism.

I was skeptical, given that parents today are so likely to be scolded for overparenting—that we’re helicopter parents, that we’re too indulgent, that we keep our kids overscheduled. At the same time, I suspected that the book had to have a bit more heft than was implied by a snarky Jezebel post headlined “Not Letting Kids Have Their Way is Destroying America,” which implied that Young-Bruehl believed bedtimes are bad,  children should be given pet dinosaurs, and “everyone should ride gleaming white horses with pink manes to work instead of cars.”

But rather than advocating parents raise their kids to be Veruca Salts, Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children is primarily concerned about child abuse—violence against children, sexual abuse, and neglect.

Young-Bruehl points to the social breakdowns of the 1960s and early 1970s as the advent of this –ism. I wondered, though, why Young-Bruehl targeted such a recent start date. If childism, as she puts it, happens when people “mistreat children in order to fulfill certain needs through them … or assert themselves when they feel their authority has been questioned,” if childism is when adults treat children like property, why not point to the 19th century, when slave children really were property and child laborers worked in factories during the Industrial Revolution?

Best I can tell, the answer to that question is that Richard Nixon wasn’t president back then. Young-Bruehl begins her book with a didactic, chapter-long definition of prejudice, and then tells the heart-breaking story of one of her patients, a child of divorced parents who was bounced between homes as a child and was sexually abused by an older stepbrother. Only a little bit later do we see what Young-Bruehl is getting at. If only Nixon hadn’t vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act in 1971, the United States would have had universal daycare in the 1970s, which could have kept children safe from abuse by baby-sitters. Similarly, Ronald Reagan, through his tax cuts and efforts at privatization, was almost singlehandedly responsible for the 1980s’ urban decay, the de facto resegregation of inner-city schools, and an “era of frantic prison-building and incarceration—including the incarceration of youths and even children, especially African Americans.” (Wow, I don’t remember the federal government ever being efficient enough to wreak so much havoc so quickly.)

Young-Bruehl’s book is not merely a diatribe against conservative politics. She expresses disdain for the drugged-out, free-love permissiveness of the late 1960s that left some children being raised by selfish, neglectful baby boomers. And she’s no particular fan of the way that Social Security has lifted the elderly out of poverty only at the expense of future generations. But her solutions are predictable and overly simplistic: more social programs, more government involvement in the family life. Child abuse is a serious problem, and Young-Bruehl deserves credit for taking a serious look at it. But her solutions are mere wishful thinking.