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Book Review

Childism: Confronting Prejudice against Children

From the introduction: “Let me give you an example of American society’s prejudice against children—the subject of this book—and ask you to think about it. The example is a fact, a shameful fact: America incarcerates more of its children than any country in the world. Half a million American children are currently in juvenile detention centers (juvies), where many of them are victims of abuse and neglect, as many of them were victims of abuse and neglect before they arrived.

“Some of the ‘delinquents’ are there because they were arrested for a crime and are awaiting trial. They will be tried in courts that are permitted to sentence children convicted of homicide to life without parole in adult prisons. Until a recent Supreme Court decision, the courts could have sentenced them to death. Others were incarcerated without arrest; they were simply found on the streets, sometimes homeless, sometimes mentally ill, and judged to be out of control and dangerous ‘to themselves and others.’ No one knew what else to do with them.”

Politicians and parents profess to put children first, and many people believe today’s children are overindulged. Yet 20% of American children are poor. We imprison children at a higher rate than any other country, and we are the only nation except Somalia that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Some 900,000 American children are abused and neglected each year, and every night 200,000 are homeless. Our social and economic policies require future generations to shoulder the burdens—environmental and financial—of present endeavors, privileging today’s adults over their offspring.

In this book, Young-Bruehl argues that today’s children are seriously harmed by widespread and largely unrecognized prejudice against them. She insists we cannot address the actions and policies that are harming children unless we acknowledge the beliefs that motivate and legitimate those actions and policies. Just as the concept of sexism provided a framework for understanding many different issues affecting women, CHILDISM—prejudice against children—is the lens through which we must understand the many forces that oppress children today.

The author argues that CHILDIST beliefs—that children are burdensome and absorb more than their share of resources, that they should serve adults, that they are property, that they lack reason, that they are rebellious and must be broken through harsh discipline—do not reflect current scientific about children’s development, capabilities, and needs. It is CHILDISM when adults interpret children’s dependence as inferiority, and thus deny children rights. We are CHILDIST when we transform adult responsibility to care for children into an excuse to exercise unchecked power.

Because we do not recognize the prejudice against children, we approach their problems piecemeal, failing to meet their real needs and enabling too much of the maltreatment they experience. Young-Bruehl explains with great specificity what she sees as the three basic forms of prejudice against children and how they operate in real children’s lives. Just as prejudiced beliefs about black people and women were once accepted without question in America, she argues, prejudice against children is taken for granted, and that must change.

The concept of CHILDISM, in Young-Bruehl’s view, could provide a rallying point for a movement dedicated to raising awareness and ending prejudice, a movement analogous to the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement. Because children cannot create their own movement, adults must recognize children’s needs and rights, identify instances of prejudice against them, and work together on their behalf.

The past 40 years have marked a dramatic decline in the well-being of children by many measures. This book shows why, despite our rhetoric about valuing children, this troubling trend continues. In a book that is sure to be controversial, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl provides a new way of looking at the problem, new ammunition in the struggle for children’s well-being, and a manifesto for creating a better future.