In 1989, the United Nations issued a Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by more governments than any other UN Convention. The Convention does bring together in one document descriptions of many of the forms of child maltreatment we read about daily in the newspaper, but it does not make us think of children—all the world’s children—as a group. It is about “the Child,” an abstraction.
And there is no indication in the Convention that there is a form of prejudice against a group—children—at work in all the forms of maltreatment. We might call it “childism,” on analogy with “sexism,” which was coined in 1965 on analogy with “racism.”
Childism is a hard form of prejudice to recognize and conceptualize because children are the one group that, many assume, is naturally subordinate. Until they reach a stipulated age, children are the responsibility chiefly of their parents or guardians—those who have custody. But what does custody permit? What distinguishes it from ownership? One of the essential ingredients of childism is a claim by offending adults to the effect that “these children are ours to do with exactly as we see fit,” or “children are here to serve, to honor, and obey adults.” These claims make a subordination doctrine out of natural dependency, out of the fact that children are born relatively helpless and need to be taken care of until they can take care of themselves. It seems normal to insist, “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother” without any reciprocal “Honor Thy Children.”
As the opposite of growth promoting altruism, childism takes many forms. In the half a century old field called “Child Abuse and Neglect” (CAN) four main types of child maltreatment have been identified and described: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. These categories are now used for all statistics gathering in the field, but they do not strike me as very illuminating. They do not reflect how frequently the four types are combined in a given case, for example. And they do not prompt inquiry about the subordination purposes served by maltreating—as a classification of wars by the types of weapons used would not prompt inquiry into the purposes served by war.
Listening to my adult patients in psychoanalysis who were maltreated as children, I have heard basically three stories: they tell me that they were not wanted, that they were controlled and manipulated, or that they were not allowed to be who they felt they were. So I have come to think in terms of childism that intends (1) to eliminate or destroy children; (2) to make them play roles no child should play; or (3) to dominate them totally, narcissistically erasing their identities. These three broad categories capture the forms of childism from the child’s and the adult survivor’s point of view. Survivors make it very clear that the worst part of their experience—the most difficult to heal from, the least forgivable—was that no one protected them from it. They often make it clear, as well, that they have internalized the prejudice and direct it toward themselves.