In the marvelous book Childism, Elisabeth Young-Bruel makes an exceptionally persuasive case that not only does prejudice against children exist but that it is extremely prevalent. She begins by explaining three types of child abusers, using what are basically psychoanalytic characterological classifications–narcissistic, hysterical and obsessional. She then explains the concept of projection–that is, that an abusing adult is projecting something onto the victimized child, whether it is a wish to eliminate the child/competition, a need to punish what the adult finds bad in himself, or a desire born of narcissism. She then presents a case study of Anna,  a young woman undergoing psychoanalysis who was the victim of horrific sexual abuse and neglect. Using Anna in part as a template, Young-Bruel goes on to discuss many important ideas about prejudice against children.

I grew up in the late 80s and 90s and so missed a great deal of the important events discussed by the author. I’ve always been aware, for example, of mandatory reporting laws. I had never stopped to wonder how those laws came into existence. As Young-Bruel explains, it was a long process; in the 1960s it occurred to doctors that when very young children were brought into emergency rooms with serious physical injury they ought to consider abuse. Before then, she explains, if doctors were looking at an x-ray of a preverbal child whose arm showed a great deal of damage they would be thinking “bone disease” not “bone disease, or has someone broken this child’s arm multiple times?” This realization was first published in a peer reviewed journal in the late 60s by Dr. Kempe, who had embarked upon a study that aimed to discover just how many young children were being abused. Over the course of his work, Kempe identified several types of abusers and helped bring forward mandatory reporting laws. His work was extremely important. It was also limited: as Young-Bruel points out, it addressed only physical abuse–not neglect, which was added to reporting laws later, or sexual abuse, which was added later still–and it did not offer much in the way of suggestions for helping children or parents. Over the course of the next couple of decades, progress would be made agonizingly slowly–and very often in the manner of one step forward, two steps back.

As the Baby Boomers began raising children, Young-Bruel explained, they were up against the great Culture Wars surrounding Vietnam. This, of course, is when youth activism began to flower in this country: young people protested the war, took over college campuses, staged civil rights sit-ins, and in the case of the Panthers and the Weathermen declared that the time for talking was over and they would now be taking action. Childism posits that it was partially the fear that older adults felt at this youth uprising and partially the response of Republican administrations–Nixon and Reagan– which passed laws, such as social security, that placed a burden on younger generations, that inspired much of this anti-child culture. It wasn’t just social security laws. Although some politicians, especially Walter Mondale, attempted to pass sweeping legislation that would allow for treatment of victims and abusers as well as better funded daycares and opportunities for parents to interact more with their children–basically following the prevention model that had worked for medical issues–it was impossible to get a big bill through Nixon’s Congress. Instead, Nixon and later Reagan announced that any bill that encouraged daycare and government funded parental involvement and support was “anti family.” One remarkable treatise partly quoted in Childism states outright that an attempt by the U.S. government to provide high-quality daycare and parental support is tantamount to the Nazis recruiting in Hitler’s Youth. The implication, in some cases stated baldly, is that any bill that aims to protect children is really the liberal government’s underhanded, sneaky way of taking your children and indoctrinating them against your values. Ironically, the bill that did get passed allowed for the creation of the famous Child Protective Services (CPS) which, with its ability to launch investigations and even remove children forcibly from their parents, is arguably far more government involvement than optional daycare and education. Of course, various other laws and budgets throughout the years have made CPS overburdened, undertrained and basically toothless, but you still won’t find many Republicans arguing against having such a organization–even though some will still target anti-child abuse programs as examples of overspending.

So that, Young-Bruel explains, is how we arrived at our current way of looking at physical abuse. Sexual abuse is a whole different story. As she explains, our understanding of sexual abuse has evolved alongside our larger cultural ability to even say the words. For far too many decades, even psychologists followed Freud’s idea that reported sexual abuse–and of course abuse, like all sex crimes, is almost certainly massively underreported–was merely imagination, or some Oedipal complex coming to play. It took the general public years to believe that women weren’t just making this up wholesale. Then, in the 1980s, a mass hysteria spread, and suddenly everyone was calling the police to report that their child’s preschool was the site of a Satanic cult, that the children were being abused and raped in all sorts of horrible ways, made to drink blood and slaughter animals, often in tunnels under preschools. In one of the more famous cases, an unlicensed psychologist was brought in and essentially suggested to the children how they ought to answer her questions; all charges were eventually dropped, after a multi-year trial. The concept of repressed memory therapy (now almost entirely debunked) caught on, and women everywhere went to see therapists who, either intentionally or not, basically planted memories of abuse that had not actually happened. Today, most Americans no longer believe that Satanic cults involving ritual sexual abuse swept the nation, but it was a compelling narrative.

Young-Breul explains that this rash of mass hysteria came about in part because it allowed people to bend reality to suit their own purposes. As the 80s drew to a close and the last decade of the century dawned, researchers began looking at other traits which might prove important in the discovery and treatment of abused children. One of the ways in which clinicians directed their focus was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD, which had been known previously as gulf war syndrome, gained popular attention in the years after the Vietnam War, when many soldiers–my father among them–returned from Asia bearing lasting psychological scars. Research began to show that trauma need not be a one-time event, e.g. a war, bombing, or rape, but can be the ongoing stress of living in an abusive household. Therefore, clinicians suggested, abused children all suffer from PTSD. As it happens, not all abused children meet the clinical criteria for the disorder, but it nonetheless provides a useful framework for thinking about the lasting effects of abuse; if we look at abuse as something that causes long-term damage as the result of trauma it may open up new avenues for treatment.

Despite all of this focus on children who been hit, starved, raped, molested, malnourished, neglected, shamed, belittled, beaten or ignored, Young-Breul’s book is not an examination of the many facets of child abuse. Indeed, part of her thesis is the important idea that we look at helping and protecting children from far too narrow a lens. We are focused solely on protecting children from abuse, whatever that word may mean in the current cultural context (for example, the book related the story of two boys paddled so severely in school that they required emergency medical care; the Supreme Court decided that they were not guaranteed protection). This is far too narrow a definition. For one thing, what we think counts as abuse serious enough to warrant intervention may well be beyond an acceptable moral threshold. But more importantly, it ignores a variety of other, equally important tasks. We should be protecting children. We should also, though, be providing their parents with education, with tools. And we should  stop tacitly accepting the idea that children are a nuisance to be controlled, or something that, like a misguided view of a wild horse, must be broken. Children are not here to be neither seen nor heard.

Young-Breul’s most persuasive account of doing things differently comes from Sweden, where researchers listened to children and eventually were able to put forth a bill–which then passed into law–that made corporal punishment, including the spankings that Americans remain so disgustingly fond of, illegal. But Sweden did not just say “ok, no more hitting your children!” Instead, extensive, government funded programs were put into place, free for families. These programs educate parents and even offer free therapy for those who struggle not to hit their children. This is in addition to all of the other family friendly features enjoyed by many other countries, such as extensive parental leave, universal health care, and free high quality daycare. These things are not, theoretically, out of reach for Americans either.

What child advocates have come up against, time and time again, is that particular strain of individualism in American culture. Much of the progress put force by advocates has been stymied by those who claim that regulations and laws impose upon parental rights. This is the same strain of individualism that proclaims that we don’t need affirmative action, or Medicare, or Head Start, because in America if you just work hard enough you can always succeed. This is, of course, patently false; a great bedtime story but utterly without merit. There are people powerless enough that no matter how hard they work they will never rise; the system has been created to oppress them. Unfortunately, many children belong to that group. America has a long tradition of ignoring the voices of oppressed people, privileging the powerful, and then claiming that the oppressed group is to blame. As Young-Breul points out, this can be seen clearly enough in the language that we use: in much the same way that we talk about rape as a “women’s issue” we talk about child abuse as an issue with the child. In fact, of course, the issue and problem lies with the abuser. And as the book discusses, surprisingly little research has been done on what motivates abusers of all stripes. Further, the voices of children themselves are absent the conversation. No one is suggesting that we allow eight-year-olds to drink and vote, but a movement must always include the voices of those who need that movement.

In this annotation, I have managed to scrape the surface of this masterful work. A full reading is necessary for any educator, however, who seeks to understand the myriad of ways in which children are disenfranchised and tremendously damaged by the rampant strains of childism that run through American society. Our national commitment to children’s rights must begin soon. We might start by signing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child; we and Somalia are the only countries that have not signed.

As educators, our tasks are many. We must teach writing, reading, math, science, history, social studies. We must also teach manners, good behavior, test-taking, critical thinking, friendship, kindness and creativity. And we must be willing to confront what prejudice expert Elisabeth Young-Breul has named Childism, the prejudice against children.

We must  be brave advocates for the children in our care, and by extension children everywhere. We must be willing to say that children have certain inalienable rights, and that among these are developmentally appropriate care, secure attachments, freedom from violence, and to exist in a world where they are seen, heard and believed. And we must work to make it so. That is our job.


Young-Breul, Elisabeth. (2012).  Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. New Haven: Yale University Press.


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