The Radical Notion That Children Are People

I saw this image recently when it flew around facebook like wildfire in response to recent gentle parenting memes. And yes, one of my relatives posted it approvingly.

And so I have to wonder, what is it with this idea that violence against children is something to be treated so lightly, like a joke, or even directly embraced? What is this?! We wouldn’t let people get away with saying “back in the day, when we could beat our wives without being sent to jail, women knew to keep their clothes on and their mouths shut.” We wouldn’t let people get away with saying “back in the day, when blacks had to serve their masters or else face a beating, they weren’t lazy layabouts like today.” So why do people think they can get away with reminiscing fondly about the days when children got an “ass whooping” if they stepped out of line? How do people think this is acceptable?!

The truth is that we live in a society that is not kind to children.

Children are extremely vulnerable. As an adult, I can choose to break off a friendship or even simply leave the room when I am treated unfairly or unkindly. A child has no such option. Children are utterly and completely dependent upon their parents. Technically their parents are simply supposed to be their custodians, their caretakers, but too often people interpret that to mean that children are their parents property. And all too often, parents and other adults view children as a annoying, unwelcome, and burdensome. Obedient children are held up as a standard, and children who dare to question those who control their lives are viewed as a problem in need of a solution.

I have traditionally used the word “ageism” for this collection of anti-child ideas, but that word applies to the old as well as the young. I recently learned that there is a word for prejudice against children specifically. That word is childism.

Childist beliefts—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 knowledge about children’s development, capabilities, and needs. It is childism when adults interpret children’s dependence as inferiority, and thus deny children’s rights. We are childist when we transform the adult responsibility to care for children into an excuse to exercise unchecked power.

Read more in this blog post, titled ‘Childism’—As Utterly Unacceptable as Sexism and Racism. There are pictures and a video given as examples.

It’s often been said that feminism is the radical notion that women are people. When I look at my children, I feel like I take this idea the next step. Children are people too. Children deserve to be listened to. Children deserve to be treated with respect. Children deserve to be treated as independent entities and not as mere extensions of their parents. Children have a right to their own interests, their own ideas, their own thoughts. Children are people.

For me, this understanding manifests itself most distinctly in my effort to always try to see situations from my children’s perspectives. Is Bobby having a meltdown in the store? Well, guess what, I took him to the grocery right after daycare rather than feeding him supper, he’s probably starving. Is Sally pulling on my clothes and whining? Well, guess what, I’ve been ignoring her for fifteen minutes to finish “just one more thing,” and what she really wants os some attention. It’s hard to emphasize just how important this habitual effort to see things from my children’s perspectives has shaped and nourished my relationship with each of them.

I don’t tolerate sexist, racist, or homophobic comments, jokes, or remarks. I won’t tolerate childist ones either. Children are people. They deserve respect. I hear adults say “I survived being spanked just fine, they’ll survive it too,” and I wonder if this is some sort of bizarre hazing ritual. “Childhood is shitty, but if you hold on you’ll make it through and be better for it in the end.” What is this?! Since when did we start hazing children? Why in the world is sitting around the family dinner table swapping stories about hitting children, punctuated with laughter, a thing?

And one thing that bothers me to no end is the extent to which other adults constantly judge, judge, judge. Your kid throws a tantrum in the grocery store? You’re going to get why don’t you just spank that kid and make her shut up looks. Your kid makes too much noise at an event, or is, god forbid, a normal rambunctious child? You’re going to get how dare you take your child out in public looks. How dare you bargain with your child instead of just laying down the law! How dare you let your child wear those mismatched weather-inappropriate clothes! What were you thinking, giving your child choice? How dare you let your child talk back to you like that! Can’t you see she needs to be put back in her place? Judging, judging, judging, and do you know what all that judging does? Well, it pressures us to be “good” parents—or at least, “good” by the ideals of our childist society.

I can’t stress enough how much other adults’ attitudes matter to a parent.

The feeling that other people are judging you by what your child does or what you let her/him do is very strong.  When Charlie was about 15 months we went to IKEA and he loved getting in and out of the cupboards, it was a great game, I posted a lovely picture of him popping out of a wardrobe on Facebook.  I was relaxed about it and so was his Mum.  IKEA is actually a child-friendly place and it was safe and easy for him to play in the shop (is there a connection between this and the fact that Sweden is said to have the happiest children in Europe?). Our experience is in contrast to the more common ones I have had when parents respond harshly to similar events in other shops.  The child is happy and moving freely about, doing no harm, looking at things, touching things and enjoying themselves. The parent has their eye on them, they are safe, but then the parent notices other people are looking and feeling judged puts on a show of authority, “Come here, stop running around, don’t touch.”  Sometimes this will be accompanied by a smack or a yank on the arm and the result is often tears.  This raises questions for me. i would like to know what you think.

  • Why is it that parents feel that other adults will judge them if they see their children enjoying themselves in such ways?
  • Why do adults express their disapproval of parents who allow this freedom with looks of disgust?
  • Why don’t our shops and other public places make themselves more child friendly like the IKEA store?
  • [Are] these examples of how our childist society curbs spontaneity, joy and pleasure in the young and polices their parents?

Here’s another blog post that touches on this same thing:

See, I figure there are two types of people who mock and criticize parents whose children throw tantrums in public. The first is — from what I gathered based on your age (you looked about 19? 20, perhaps?) and what you said in your follow up email — your type: the non-parent who thinks, if they ever have kids, they’ll discover the secret formula that will prevent their hypothetical son or daughter from ever crying in front of other people. Then they promptly scrutinize and chastise real parents for not having this fake, imaginary, impossible, non existent formula. This sort of non-parent doesn’t realize that, unless they plan on using a muzzle and a straightjacket, there is nothing they can do to tantrum-proof their toddler.

Fine. Ignorant non-parents, who don’t know what they’re talking about, imposing ridiculous standards on actual parents because it makes them feel superior. I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it. As bad as you people are, you’re not nearly as horrible as the second type: actual parents with grown children who judge other parents, as if they haven’t been in the exact same situation many times. I had an older guy complain to me recently about babies that cry during church. He said: “Back when our children were babies, you didn’t have this problem.” Interesting. Apparently babies didn’t cry in the 50′s. The whole “crying baby” thing is a new fad, it would seem. These folks who had kids a long time ago seem to have a rather selective memory when it comes to their own days of parenting young kids. They also tend to dismiss the fact that modern parenting presents unique challenges, some of which didn’t apply several decades ago. I always love the older folks who lecture about how THEIR kids weren’t as “attached to electronics” as kids are nowadays. That’s probably true, but mainly because, well, YOU DIDN’T HAVE ELECTRONICS. You had a toaster and a black and white TV with 2 channels, both of which were pretty easy to regulate. But, sure, congratulations for not letting your kids use things that didn’t exist. On that note, I have a strict “no time machines or hover-boards” policy in my home. It is stringently enforced. I’m thinking of writing a parenting book: “How to Stop Your Child From Becoming Dependent Upon Technology That Isn’t Invented Yet.”

Sometimes, I am just tired, very very tired. We as a society pretend we’re oh so child-friendly. We’re not. We’re really not. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people talk about how gross and annoying and disgusting children are. Why do we do this?! We recognize now that saying these kinds of things about other groups is wrong, so why do we think it’s okay here? Is the idea that children are people who deserve respect really that difficult to grasp? Why is it okay to make fun of children? Why is it okay speak wistfully of violence against children? Why is it okay to publicly shame kids? Those out-of-control teenagers just need a good kick in the pants—what is this?! Children are people. How is that so hard to understand?

But let me close with a meme offering a more positive note.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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