Childism: Is The USA Structurally Anti-Child?

Are you a childist? Elisabeth Young-Bruehl says that the USA is anti-child. 

It’s child abuse prevention month. But the focus has been primarily on preventing physical abuse, a focus that is too narrow according to Elisabeth Young-Bruehl in her book, Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. She points out that most children who are traumatized suffer from neglect; others are also emotionally abused and some are also sexually abused. Most traumatized children suffer from multiple forms of abuse. And it all stems from childism.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl is a scholar of prejudice. Prejudice forms against a “target group… one whose members share characteristics and conditions that those prejudiced against them seize on and distort for their own purposes” (p. 19). Prejudice defends one group against another, charging that the other group is “not us.”

Those in the discriminated group need to be controlled or dominated by the privileged group (whether men over women, Christians over Jews, heterosexuals over homosexuals). The subordinate group becomes a scapegoat for problems of the dominant group that are not examined for their real roots or causes.

What makes childism fit into one of the prejudices of our time? “The natural dependency of children has been one of the key reasons for the prejudice against them not being recognized as such or its being so easily rationalized” (p. 55). Childism is a prejudice that represents adult immaturity—the capture of adults by their own childhood trauma.

Prejudice against children may be the most widespread of prejudices (likely the one from which all others spring).

In the USA, the anti-child trend began in the early 1970s and has escalated ever since. Vance Packard noted in his 1983 book, Our Endangered Children, that the USA had gone backwards on respect and support for children after a improvements post-WWII. See the film, The War on Kids, for some current stark examples of childism.

Below, you can see the questions and results of a poll (now closed) I put together based on Young-Bruehl’s theory. I also discuss the types of maltreatment that many children face, according to Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.

In her book, Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl identifies three types of child mistreatment encouraged by childism. See if you find your history in here or of others you know. I know I do. (I use “she” for parent and “he” for child.)

1, Narcissistic identity erasure—role reversal; children serve adult needs; their needs are minimally acknowledged and often dismissed. The parent is so self-absorbed (shifting between grandiosity and depletion) that she cannot relate to or empathize with others. The child learns to have no identity of his own.

2. Obsessional elimination—the child is viewed as mean and ungrateful, bad and burdensome; various acts of abuse or neglect convey this message. This tends to create an obsessive, anxious and needy personality.

3. Hysterical role manipulation—the family has routine invasions of privacy and boundary violations; there are regular crises, attention seeking, depression and sexualized roles. Children can shift from role to role (caretaker, provider, talisman, martyr, financial providers, problem solvers).

Young-Bruehl points out that abusing parents have in common an underlying attitude of demand and criticism ( p. 119), often called role reversal—the children are to give the parents the love and attention that the parents never received from their own parents.

Young-Bruehl believes that mental health professionals also exhibit childism, demonstrated by the epidemic of prescribed medications to children who do not do what wounded adults want them to do (e.g., ADHD diagnoses for kids who won’t sit still or who complain too loudly).

The Childism Poll

The results of the childism measure and 988 people took are ready to display. How do these non-random, voluntary responses stack up against Young-Bruehl’s claims that the USA is anti-child? See the table of item ratings and two descriptive charts. (Note: The software is not always showing them so I’ll give some word description.)

They actually show lower rates among these respondents than would be implied by Young-Bruehl. The range of scores can be 15-75. The average score (mean) across all respondents was 26.89.

There are too few under 18 (n=29) and over 60 (n=14) to draw any conclusions about those groups. But notice the general trend that males have higher childism scores than females for all age groups (672 18-35 year olds, 272 36-60 year olds), except among the under-18 year olds where the trend is reversed. But then notice that parents (24.96) have a lower mean than non-parents (32.09).

Can we draw any conclusions from the data? Only that extreme anti-childism is not apparent in this group of respondents. So does that mean it does not exist? No. It’s not a random sample. And one always has to be a little skeptical of surveys—people’s attitudes don’t always match up with their behavior, and people don’t always know what they believe (actions speak louder than words). And, more importantly situations, structures and systems can make people behave in more anti-child ways than they would if they had a free choice. So maybe we should look at those kinds of influences.

Is Childism in the USA structural?

The Convention of the Rights of the Child, signed by all nations in the UN except for the USA, Somalia and the new nation, South Sudan, was established in 1989 after 30 years of scientific and political research.  It lays out specific obligations that adults have toward children and are summarized by the “3 Ps” Provision, Protection, and Participation.

In comparably developed countries that have lower rates of child abuse and neglect than those in the US, there is much less reliance on Child Protective Services because children have a range of preventative and development-oriented services: universal healthcare, health services, and parent support services in homes after the birth of a child; maternal and paternal leaves for infant care; developmental preschool programs; after-school programs; and economic welfare supports of various kinds” (p. 138). In fact,in the USA, nothing can be done till a child is reported on to child protective services on suspicion of abuse (then invasive government kicks in). And we know that many children are maltreated below the level of visible “abuse.”

Young-Bruehl suggests that recognizing “childism could help identify as related issues child imprisonment, child exploitation and abuse, substandard schooling, high infant mortality rates, fetal alcohol syndrome, the reckless prescription of antipsychotic drugs to children, child pornography, and all other behaviors or polices that are not in the best interests of children (p. 7).

How to end childism according to Young-Bruehl

1. Understand the ideas and institutions that perpetuate childism. See how it is manifest in individuals, families, institutions and the wider culture.

2. Educate society about the “causes and meanings of these prejudices, and the harms they have done and continue to do.

3. Create program to repair the damage of childism, secure the progress that has been made and continue to work to eradicate the prejudice.

4. Demand full and equal civil and political rights for children.

She also points out that child advocates are often accused of subverting parental rights, as if the adults need protection and are children themselves. I think I see that in some of the comments of my posts that advocate for babies and young children.


(scores can range from 15-75)

Scale is 1=Strongly disagree, 2=Disagree, 3=Neither agree nor disagree, 4=Agree, 5=Strongly agree

There were 29 respondents under 18, 672 18-35 year olds, 272 36-60 year olds, and 14 respondents over 60.

Mean (standard deviation)          Item           

1.66 (.848) Parent rights are more important than children’s rights.

1.53 (.879) Children are possessions of their parents.

2.79 (1.22) Parents have the right to determine children’s freedom and access to resources.

2.23 (1.19) Adults should rule over children.

1.60 (.768) Children’s lives should revolve around the needs of their parents.

1.66 (.854) Adult needs trump children’s needs.

1.94 (.967) Children lack reasoning and must be coerced to do the right thing.

1.92 (1.06) Children are wild unless you keep them in line.

1.40 (.756) If you don’t spank children, they won’t be tamed.

1.73 (1.03) Spare the rod and spoil the child.

1.34 (.654) Children are wild animals that need to be physically controlled.

1.19 (.508)Children’s spirits must be broken or they will not be obedient.

2.51 (1.29) Children cost adults their resources.

1.61 (.949) It is not society’s job to provision and protect children.

1.78 (.899) Societies should not give participatory rights to children.

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