I recently got my hair cut. And I mean CUT cut. It was halfway down my back and now it’s just above my shoulders! I knew I’d love it so was pretty confident when the time came for the big chop.
The hairdresser, on the other hand, was a little wary.
It actually seemed like she didn’t quite trust my judgment and was worried that I didn’t understand the decision I was making. As I sat myself down in the chair and inhaled, ready to launch into an explanation of what I wanted, she broke eye contact and instead asked my husband ‘how would she like it cut?’ He, of course, directed the question back to me, and I explained how much I wanted off.
She got everything prepared, picked up her scissors, held my hair in her hands ready to cut, and then paused… again, turning to my husband, ‘are you happy with this length?’
Now he was really confused and again redirected the question back to me. You know, the actual owner of this head of hair. I replied I was happy with it. With another glance at my husband to double check his approval, she began to cut.
Are you outraged yet? The thought that my husband should get the final say on what I should do with my own body is enraging right?
But what if we replaced me with my 5-year-old daughter, and my husband with me. How do you feel now? A little less angry? A little more accepting?
Why is it unacceptable for my husband to have such a major say in my appearance, but it’s fine for me as a parent to dictate how my child’s body should look?
Because we all recognise men and women are equal (hopefully). We recognise sexism, we recognise racism, we recognise homophobia, but we don’t recognise childism.
You can likely see examples of childism every time you step out of the house or open up the internet. Every day, in many ways, children receive the message that they are less important, less deserving of respect, unequal, and inferior, whether we mean to send that message or not. It is so ingrained into our society the majority don’t even recognise it.
It’s every time a parent is asked ‘is she hungry?’ or ‘does she like strawberries?’ instead of the question being directed at the child who is very capable of answering.
It’s every time a child’s emotions elicit laughter instead of empathy.
It’s withholding food/water/affection until a child says ‘please’ to satisfy an adult ego.
It’s adults believing they have the ‘right’ to physically punish people because of their age.
Its countries where hitting children is legal and there are guidelines as to where and how you can smack them. Guidelines for hitting your wife would be abhorrent, but age somehow changes perspectives.
It’s a general intolerance for childish behaviour interfering with an adults desires, and the view that children should be ‘seen and not heard’.
It’s adults making decisions about cosmetic alterations to their child’s body such as circumcision, ear-piercing, haircuts, without consent.
It’s forced affection or ‘give me a cuddle or I’ll be sad and cry’, sending the message that a child does not get to make decisions about their own body.
It’s whenever a child’s photo is posted online in an effort to shame them as a way of getting them to submit to an adult’s will.
It’s adults who believe they deserve automatic respect (most often defined as ‘obedience’) for nothing more than their greater age.
It’s children’s emotions being dismissed or stifled for adult comfort.
It’s every time children are talked about in a conversation as though they are not even in the room.
It’s rejoicing in their absence when it’s back-to-school time.
It’s developmentally inappropriate coercive education systems.
It’s finding it acceptable to use punishment and rewards to manipulate a person’s behaviour to meet your needs, if that person is a child.
It’s a world where there are books, tv shows, and blogs devoted to teaching parents how you can ‘train’ your child, often by means of ignoring their needs.
It’s needing research to prove that abandoning a child so that they will learn to ‘self-settle’ is detrimental, instead of just treating babies like humans.
It’s reading this list and dismissing it as ‘over the top’, ‘ridiculous’, or ‘not a big deal’.
All of these scenarios would be unacceptable if they didn’t contain children. But children, unlike adults, don’t seem to be seen as real people deserving the same level of respect. Children are less developed and less mature than adults, making them naturally dependent. But being dependent does not equate to being subordinate. Just as you should not treat a disabled adult who depends on your care with less respect, the same is true for children. Having a responsibility to guide and care for children, does not equate to ownership over them. Children are people in their own right, with their own minds and bodies, deserving of equality and respect.
‘But children have fewer responsibilities and (arguably) contribute less to the world’ some will say. But rights are not something to be earned. Assuming less responsibility and being limited in contribution does not mean you deserve restricted rights. Rights are not dependent on size, ability, mental capacity, experience, age, or anything else. All people deserve bodily autonomy, freedom of expression, and to not be physically harmed. All people deserve respect, the right to have their opinion heard, and a say in the decisions that affect them. No one deserves to be shamed, coerced, or otherwise manipulated into doing things to meet other’s needs. Everyone deserves to be treated respectfully and equally. No one is the property of another person to ‘do with what they like’ (unbelievably, a common argument when it comes to children and parenting).
So why don’t people recognise childism? Why don’t people believe that it is an issue? Why will people read this and roll their eyes while they exclaim ‘they’re just children! My children are happy and healthy! This is just the way it’s always been and we’re ok’? Maybe because they spent their childhood feeling the same. Inferior. Powerless. And now that they have reached the superior social status of ‘adult’ they feel it is their right to be able to finally wield this power. Compromise, understanding, equality and respect for children might feel like some sort of defeat or relinquishing a title they have waited for.
But power shouldn’t come at the expense of others. And a self-worth based on the oppression of children is a very fragile self-worth indeed. Instead, we can aim for a much more positive type of power. The power to instigate change. The power to protect and be a positive role model. The power to stand up for what is right. The power to choose to parent in a way that keeps our child safe, supports them to develop into the people they were meant to be, models fair treatment of all people, and sets boundaries respectfully when needed. All without sacrificing their rights as humans in the process.
It is possible to parent so that children grow into admirable, competent, respectful adults without control, punishment, or diminished freedom. Respectful parenting is not permissive parenting, and it does not mean giving total control to children. It means we are equal, this is a partnership, and everyone’s voice is heard. If you can have a relationship with your children that is not based on coercion and control, then why wouldn’t you?
“A strategy I have encountered that is useful in visualising this new way of being with children is to imagine that children are beloved adult visitors from another country who don’t know our customs or ways. How would we treat such a visitor? We would give them guidance and support without shame or judgement. We would accept their mistakes, celebrate their accomplishments with them, and cherish the experience of being with them as they explored and gained mastery of our culture. This is how life can be with children if we let go of our fears and control.” -Teresa Graham Brett
Most people love children. The childism ingrained in our society is barely even recognised and often not deliberate. We treat children how we have been socialised to treat them. Maybe you’ve never considered childism as an issue before? But you can take the time to think about it now. You can decide to break habits and remove prejudice from your home. You can talk about it with others and encourage them to consider it too. You can build deeply connected relationships with your children based on equality and respect. You can decide that if something would be considered disrespectful to another adult, then it’s probably not appropriate to do to a child either.
You can show the children in your life with your actions and words that they are important, worthy, significant, lovable, appreciated, adored, and deserving of respect. Maybe they will grow up always knowing their importance and worth? Maybe they will grow up knowing all humans are equal? Maybe they won’t have as much work to do dismantling negative social constructs when they are grown?
You have a choice to do things ‘the way they’ve always been done’, or to make a change. To protect and empower the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society. To give them the respect they deserve.
What will you choose?