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.
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 Amazon.com 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.