With Mother’s Day coming up on Sunday, May 13, and Father’s Day a month later on June 17, we are focused on good parenting, a gift to be commemorated with flowers, chocolate, and cards. Yet in her new book Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl reminds us how, for many children in the U.S. and abroad, good parenting is something that is sorely lacking. Jesse Kornbluth recently wrote about his “shattering” experience with Young-Bruehl’s project for a Huffington Post article titled, “Who’s the Bully?”
In the book, Young-Bruehl, who passed away in December, proposes the introduction of the term “childism” as the first step in identifying and counteracting a prejudice against children that she sees in everything from child imprisonment, fetal alcohol syndrome, abuse, and many more widespread phenomena. Although the author acknowledges that “We do not need more useless social science verbiage,” she cites the 1965 coinage of the word “sexism” as a means for understanding the systemic stereotyping and mistreatment of women, and hopes that “childism” can foster a parallel process of recognition. “Giving it a name is the first step,” Young-Bruehl wrote in an op-ed for Time that appeared last month.
In that same piece, Young-Bruehl argues that “Childism is the hardest form of prejudice to recognize because children are the one group that, many of us think without thinking, is naturally subordinate.” She continues: “It seems normal to insist ‘honor thy father and thy mother’ without any reciprocal ‘honor thy children.’”
Young-Bruehl calls for an effort to work against these assumptions, noting that childism comes in many forms other than the abuses registered by social workers. Children are manipulated, neglected, and dominated by their parents, and deprived access to food, shelter, and education under an entrenched system of poverty. The U.S., Young-Bruehl points out, has thus far failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and national legislation does not adequately defend children’s rights or provide for their developmental needs.
As student at the New School, Young-Bruehl worked with political thinker Hannah Arendt and went on to write both the biography Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World and Why Arendt Matters for Yale University Press. In Childism, she follows in the footsteps of her mentor, offering an incisive and articulate critique. Drawing on her work as a psychoanalyst in addition to legal, philosophical, and even literary sources, Young-Bruehl illuminates prejudices that often go overlooked, drawing her reader’s attention to an injustice that affects an entire generation, and a problem that is crying out to be solved.