Sunday, September 16, 2012

There's a Name for That

It is fashionable these days to talk about how spoiled children are, and to speculate about the causes of the spoiling (see, for example, Elizabeth Kolbert's "Spoiled Rotten: Why Do Kids Rule the Roost?" from the New Yorker, and this popular Facebook meme).

It is less fashionable to point out, as Alfie Kohn did in a 2010 Washington Post essay, that Americans have been churning out nearly identical complaints about children since the early 1900s.

And if one wants to be so unfashionable as to be considered radical?  He or she might note that all of these discussions about spoiled kids do a really good job (as they have always done) of calling attention away from the fact that many of our beliefs about children are self-serving.

Here are some of the beliefs I'm talking about:
  • Children's needs, feelings, and preferences are less important than the needs, feelings, and preferences of adults.
  • Children have it easy compared to adults, and we should frequently remind them of such.
  • It is appropriate for adults--even strangers--to correct children's grammar and quiz them on their reading ability.
  • Children who aren't spanked will become entitled adults.
  • There is nothing wrong with stores and public facilities holding children to rules different from the ones to which adult patrons are held (e.g., only two teens allowed in store at a time; even older children can't handle merchandise that adults are permitted to handle).
  • Children shouldn't have any say in what, when, or how they learn, because they can't possibly know what's good for them.
  • Children are lazy; if we don't force them to complete the lessons we provide, they won't learn anything worthwhile.
  • Going out for recess, talking during lunch, and getting drinks of water are privileges that children in school should be required to earn.
  • Religious groups have the right to evangelize children, even those who have not reached the age of reason, and even without the children's parents being present.
  • It is okay to laugh at children when they do something that strikes us as cute (e.g., mispronouncing a word, making a mistake in a play or performance, confusing some idea that most adults understand).
  • Because children are so cute, it is okay to dress them in uncomfortable clothing, spray them down with hairspray, and enter them in contests where they compete with other children to determine who among them is cutest. 
This list is my own, but my thinking on the subject has been influenced by the work of John Holt, a teacher-turned-unschooling advocate best known for the books How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967).  Holt's lesser-known 1973 book Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (out of print but still available in used copies) is arguably the most thorough examination of how harmful attitudes toward children affect public policy, parenting methods, and children's well-being.

In Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, published posthumously in January of this year, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl provides a name for the problem.  Praised by such diverse thinkers as Diane Ravitch, T. Berry Brazelton, and Carol Gilligan, Childism focuses primarily on how prejudice toward children is embedded in public policy (i.e., institutionalized), and at work in cases of abuse and neglect.  Young-Bruehl's argument is complex, and I don't share all of her conclusions.  Nonetheless, I think that the book is important, and that her justification for adopting the word childism is spot-on:

The history of the word "sexism," coined in 1965, shows how important it was to put under the same conceptual umbrella different acts, attitudes, and institutions that targeted women as a group.  If you understand that domestic violence against women and wage discrimination against women are similarly rationalized or legitimated by a prejudice--sexism--you can develop ways to explore the prejudice and resist it.  Without a synthesizing concept, you do not see that child poverty and child abuse are both rooted in and rationalized by prejudice against children.  (Young-Bruehl, from the book's page)
Respecting children's rights takes both time and energy, which is why it seems so much easier just to spank children, or take away their recess, when they won't do what we want.  And while honoring children's rights in no way diminishes the rights of adults, it tends to undermine adult privilege, which is another reason childist attitudes are so easy to justify--even when we, as former children, should know better.


  1. As the quintessential man-child, here are my thoughts on your article.

    First of all, the world's favorite finger is the index finger. Everybody loves to point and talk about everybody (anybody) else.

    I think that generally, people do the best thing that they can think to do at that time. I am not a parent, so who am I to comment on the challenges that parents face. I'm sure it is a very difficult job. I do not think that spanking is a good policy, however, I do know a few adults that could use a good ass kickin'.

    Do adults have the right to call children spoiled when they sit them in front of the idiot box that indoctrinates them into the world of consumerism? Do we then blame them for wanting what the idiot box told them will make them cooler?

    When you say "spoiled," I'm assuming that you're talking about material possessions, yes? I suggest you take a look at "The High Price of Materialism," and stuff's relationship to happiness.

    On another note, these wars have saddled them with so much debt that if I was a child today, I would be asking what they were thinking back in 2003. But I was practically alone in my thoughts then. When I comments in disgust at all of the military vehicles on display at the SB airport and my disgust that we had gone to war with Iraq, my mom chastised me saying "Jeff, your grandfather fought for this country in WWII." I said "Iraq is no WWII." And here we are 9 years later.

    I do not think American children are spoiled. I think they have been duped into believing things that are not true.

    But you can only hope to point them in the right direction.

    J. Jahkrovsky

    1. J. Jahkrovsky, you raise some important questions. You ask for clarification about what I mean by "spoiled." I would never use that word to describe an entire generation of children. So the question for me is, what do those who write books and articles and Facebook memes about spoiled children mean? Kolbert's article does touch on materialism, but that certainly isn't the focus. She spends far more time talking about the books that portray children as unhelpful and teens as incompetent. The Facebook meme suggests that kids will be incompetent and unmotivated if they aren't spanked and taught a mindset of competition. There is no evidence for this; in fact, Alfie Kohn and others have amassed some impressive evidence to the contrary. I share your concerns about our culture's materialism; for three years in my twenties, I was part of a voluntary simplicity support group, and read extensively about the environmental, social, and emotional costs of having too much stuff. I would argue, though, that adults concerned about such costs should spend more time reflecting on their own lifestyles and values, and less time pointing the finger at children, who certainly aren't responsible for the degraded state of the earth they inherited (or our national debt, as you point out). Also, we can help children become good stewards of the earth, and active participants in a democracy, without spanking them, or treating them like pets, or creating for them an educational system that emphasizes obedience above critical thinking and respect. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

    2. My apologies for the single paragraph!