Childism and Love
Let me lay my cards on the table. I believe that our society is childist. In the same way that racism discriminates against people of colour and sexism against women, childism discriminates against children. Childism is a prejudice against children by adults that objectifies children and uses them to serve adult needs. Because childism is so deeply embedded in our society it will be hard to convince people of its existence. Adults who behave in childist ways are not accused of childism because their behavior is not recognized as such. Society condones and legitimates childist behavior because childism is so embedded in our society it takes on the appearance of behaving naturally, but I believe that childism is a prejudice against children that means their rights are not respected and their needs are not met. We have to name it, examine the prejudices that legitimate it and seek to eradicate it. I will argue that childism is deeply pervasive and damaging and denies the right to be fully human to the youngest members of society.
There are plenty of examples of children being treated badly that can be cited to illustrate childism and most of us will disassociate ourselves from such behavior and believe it is the minority that behave in such ways and claim it is not illustrative of society as a whole. In thinking about the concept of childism I what to start not with hatred of children, but with what most of us would recognize as love of children. I want to think about how something as seemingly innocuous as bestowing affection on a child is actually a manifestation of childism in action, and reveals how widespread childist views are. Recognising this does not make for comfortable reading, it challenges the very core of how we behave with children. I struggle with it and the more I explore the concept of childism the more I find myself standing in the dock and pleading guilty. I ask you to come on this journey with me as I share my thoughts and ask you to examine the role of childism in your life.
Most people have never heard the term childism, even less know what it means and hardly anyone sees it as a problem. In seeking to name childism I want to uncover the systemic institutionalization of childism in society and begin the long journey to eradicate it. I hope you will join me and together we can create a movement to end childism and childist exploitation which I believe will benefit us all – adults and children alike.
Let me start by asking you to think about when you were a child. I wonder how many of you, like me, remember with feelings of revulsion the relative who expected us to hug or kiss them; of being told by our parents to ‘give aunty or uncle a kiss or a hug’ and furiously resenting it. I believe that such behavior is an example of adults exploiting children for their own purposes. They are using children as love objects. In such circumstances most people in my experience think the need of the adult to bestow their ‘love’ on the child should be prioritized over that of the child's wish to reject it. I want to question this – why should a child give way to the adult demands?
I am a grandmother and I love Charlie, my first grandson. At the time of writing this Charlie is almost two and when I am with him I have strong feelings of wanting to hug him and kiss him and am delighted if he offers to hug me. But what about Charlie, does he want my signs of affection? What does he feel about being hugged and kissed? What right do I have to impose my desire for cuddles and kisses onto Charlie? If a male or female relative of mine thought they had the right to hug and kiss me regardless of whether I wanted to be hugged or kissed or not I would be very uncomfortable. It is time to name this behavior as childism. Does that feel harsh to you? If it does I think this shows how prevelant childist attitudes are and I know many if not the majority of people would want to disagree, but stay with it.
What does it say about an adult who puts their own feelings of entitlement to a ‘hug’ before that of the child’s feelings of not wanting the hug? Many adults don’t even notice if the child is reluctant, or even worse do notice and do it anyway. How many parents admonish the child, ‘just give Gramps a kiss’. This signals to the child that their feelings don’t count; if a relative, or even an adult stranger, wants to touch them (pats on the head are common) they should comply (I cringe as I write this - I know that I have had overwhelming urges to pat small children on the head). What does this say about our general attitudes to children, if the child’s feelings are allowed to be over-ridden in this way? If I can feel it is OK to make the child an object of my affection. Awareness raising is definitely needed.
When I watch Charlie at play I am delighted by his spontaneousness, his playfulness, his energy and enormous capacity for wonder and delight. I am also moved when he is sad or angry. But what right do I have to indulge these feelings and bestow physical affection or comfort? I am not trying to say we should not hug and kiss and comfort children, but I am saying we need permission from the child first. We do not have the right to move into a child’s space without his/her permission. We all feel threatened if another adult moves into our comfort zone, why should this be any different with a child? Children should have the right to refuse to be the focus of someone’s physical affection and not be made to feel bad about this. We need to allow them to set the ground rules on how our relationships with them proceed.
If children are expected to give and receive tokens of love on demand, how will they develop the capacity to express what they really feel? If we think we have the right to be affectionate to children whether they like it or not, and if we think that imposing love and affection on them is how we teach them to be affectionate and loving, we are wrong. They have to be able to say ‘no’. Children must be accorded the right to refuse to smile, or hug or kiss: none of us can freely give love if we don’t have the unquestioned right to withhold it.
I think many people will find this hard to understand. Don’t children need love - lots of it? Surely we can’t give them enough love. Don’t children who aren’t loved grow up damaged? I am not denying that babies do need a lot of human contact and will suffer if they don’t experience it. But by the time they are four-six months, they have their own well-developed purposes, needs and preferences. They like some people and not others. They may enjoy play on the floor, but don’t want to be picked up. They will show us by their responses what they like and don’t like. And I believe we must respect that if we want them to experience autonomy and independence. We must recognize children’s capacity for being active agents and judges of what is good for them, we must learn how to read their signals and respect them.
So, this is my starting point – I shall go on to argue that the way we treat children in society today is prejudicial to their capacity to grow and develop. I firmly believe that children from a very early age have the capacity for choice and expression of interest and that we should respect that capacity. When we impose expressions of ‘love’ on children and expect them to reciprocate we are guilty of childism.
Please let me know your responses to my first tentative step into finding answers to the question, “What is Childism?” I hope you want to be fellow travellers.