According to the late Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, the well-respected psychoanalyst and biographer of Hannah Arendt and Anna Freud who died on Dec. 1, all of these problems have similar roots — a disregard for children’s developmental needs so widespread and so destructive that it should be seen as a form of discrimination akin to racism, sexism and homophobia. She labels this prejudice childism.
Part of the problem, in her view, lies with parents who do not treat their children as individuals. There are the angry, frustrated narcissists who treat their children as extensions of themselves and as instruments for fulfilling their own needs. There are the repressed, rigid obsessives, given to faulty generalizations, including a belief that children lack reason and must be punished physically. Then there are the dependent, depressed hysterics who project their authority issues and aggressive impulses onto children.
Childism, however, isn’t simply confined to authoritarian parents who regard children as “wild animals that should be physically controlled.” Whenever adults treat children as possessions or expect the young to conform to exaggerated ideals of innocence, they, too, are guilty of childism. As Young-Bruehl astutely observes: “People as individuals and in societies mistreat children in order to fulfill certain needs through them, to project internal conflicts and self-hatreds outward, or to assert themselves when they feel their authority has been questioned.”
“Childism” combines case studies, which graphically describe how abused children experience their mistreatment (and their sense of being unwanted, manipulated and denied the right to be who they are), with capsule histories and critiques of the academic study of child abuse and of federal efforts to combat child maltreatment. The book closely examines how child abuse got caught up in the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, and how the discrediting of charges of satanic ritual abuse in day care centers and of recovered memory therapy left many people baffled about how to distinguish true and false claims of abuse. The book concludes with a clarion call for programs of parent education and abuse prevention, for expanded parenting support services, and for closer attention to children’s voices.
Among the book’s key insights is that many behaviors that we don’t think of as abuse are in fact abusive because they place parental needs above children’s developmental needs. For example, there are the overly ambitious helicopter parents who push their children intellectually and socially before they are developmentally ready. There are the educators and physicians who are too quick to label normal childish behavior as pathological. There is an aggressive commercial culture that colonizes children’s imagination, distorts their body image, and encourages precocious sexuality, rampant materialism and unhealthy eating habits.