Children Are People: Take Two

It’s been a few days since my last post on this subject, which seems to have struck a nerve with many readers who found their way to my blog. A big thank you to all of the readers who have engaged in thoughtful and detailed conversation (critique included). It does not seem like good blog policy to try and respond to each comment individually (nor do I have the time!). But there were a few themes – particularly issues raised in dissenting comments – that I want to reflect on with more depth. So here is "take two."*

One of the oddest complaints, it seems to me, is the charge that calling attention to the dehumanizing language adults often use toward children as children is somehow indicative of white, elite, academic, heterosexual, privilege.


Last I checked, childhood is about as universal an experience as we human beings can claim. It is not as if children are only born to white, upper-class heterosexual adults with advanced degrees. The assumption that because I write about young people I belong to these categories says more, it seems to me, about the invisibility of the world’s children than it does about my own identity.** If “child” to a person who reads this blog automatically means white, rich, ivy-league-destined, non-queer child raised by white, rich, straight, ivy-league-educated parents, where does that leave the children who do not fit into that identity? Invisible? Irrelevant?

Children are a prime example of what feminist scholars sometimes refer to as intersectionality: they belong, as all of us do, to multiple human groupings, none of them mutually exclusive. Children are born into families of all income brackets and into families of all racial and ethnic backgrounds; children are born with all gender identities and sexual orientations. The argument that children are people, and deserve our respect as such, in no way implies that they are more marginalized because of their age than they (or an adult) may be marginalized by any other "ism." That is not the point. Instead, being mindful of the ways children are marginalized because of their age can help us to be mindful of the many other forms of discrimination they contend with. Just because a child experiences hatred or dismissal because of their age, does not mean they do not also experience hatred or dismissal in other ways. Being aware of children's rights, and challenging ourselves to think about children as part of the human community, means we should be paying more attention, not less, to all kinds of oppression.

Likewise, I am confused by the number of comments that suggest I am playing Oppression Olympics (a game of my-oppression-is-greater-than-your-oppression) or somehow belittling the experience of those who struggle with sexism, racism, or homophobia by using these examples as an analogy for the way I see children treated. By using these widely familiar types of othering, I am suggesting that the framework we use to understand those types of marginalization is also useful in understanding the experience of children as children, and childhood as a culturally-constructed space and set of social expectations. This is not a game of either/or but of both/and.

It is also important to remember that children are institutionally disenfranchised because of their age – there are many privileges of adulthood that we only grant to children when they reach a certain age (and, presumably, maturity), such as the right to vote. We also recognize the power differential between adults and children by writing protective legislation in areas such as child labor and sexual consent. Regardless of whether or not we believe these laws to be appropriate, their existence does mean we do treat children, legally, as a separate class of persons who have to earn many of the privileges adults take for granted.

Therefore, I don’t believe it is somehow wildly inappropriate to think about children as a group of people who are vulnerable to stereotype and marginalization based on their shared characteristic: age.

Finally, I would point out that my original post was not written in defense of particular parenting choices. I have my own very strong feelings about what children need from adults who care for them in order to thrive. From the examples given by many of you, I imagine we may disagree about what the best choices are. Yet regardless of the quality or kind of parenting they receive, children deserve – as do all human beings – our compassion and respect. Children have no control over what families they are born into, or what sort of adult modeling they see in the world around them. If they are on the receiving end of some of the anger expressed on this blog, I invite you to think about how that interaction will shape their idea of what it means to be a grown-up.

*Takes three, four, five, etc. may appear as invited or conceived of.

**Which, I would like to point out, most of you who posted are not in a position to make knowledgeable comments about. Like most of you, I am made up of a complex mix of insider/outsider identities and experience. Some of those are evident on this blog, some are not.


  1. ~~~One of the oddest complaints, it seems to me, is the charge that calling attention to the dehumanizing language adults often use toward children as children is somehow indicative of white, elite, academic, heterosexual, privilege.~~~


    None of the criticisms were that "calling attention to the dehumanizing language adults often use toward children as children is somehow indicative of white, elite, academic, heterosexual, privilege". The criticism was that comparing that language to racist language IS indicative of white privilege.

    This is just one of your quotes that got me pissed off:

    - The question here is why people such as b.g. feel perfectly free to refer sneeringly to young human beings as "feral . . . apes" in a public space (this blog) when presumably, they would not feel free to make a similar remark about a black person. Or if they did, they would be held accountable. -

    How dare you belittle the impact and prevalence of racism! You've never experienced it. You will never experience it. Don't make comparisons about things you don't know.

    Get it straight: Racism is different than sexism. Sexism is different than ableism. Ableism is different from ageism...etc. etc.


  2. You're right, childhood is sort of universal experience-everyone starts smaller. Though, as we've seen in the past post, I'm going to posit that whatever someone thinks of as "childhood" shouldn't necessarily be assumed to be universal-compare my early experience with weddings and Lu Labu's. And I've previously asked about age-I'd look up studies about exactly what effects there are for any specific instance, but I'm just going to posit that it is, in fact, morally right to deny 5 year olds sex with an adult because it causes more harm to the 5 year old than it does to an adult. or that it's not a good idea to let a child developing motor skills drive. This does change as you get into teenage years. so I'd appreciate clarification about how age should play into this discussion. I see children and think under 10. this may not be what you intend. It's also a lifetime experience 0% of the time, which is substantially different from all the other "isms" you mention. I am not a person of color, so I suppose I can't answer this with complete confidence, but I'd ask how many people stop being black. or any other race.

  3. While your desire to protect children is laudable, you cannot fight against ageism by employing racism. This is "othering" behavior and completely ignores the fact that children come in all races.
    The experiences of childhood are not the same regardless of race, gender, or class, a point you continue to fail to realize.

    they would not feel free to make a similar remark about a black person. Or if they did, they would be held accountable. -

    The referential black is an expression of privilege and it is highly offensive. In one swoop you managed to erase the experience of all blacks of all age groups.

    This erasure is something that from your position of privilege may seem harmless but to the black children that are routinely shuffled into non academic streams, grow in poverty, and are subject to daily humiliations, it is damaging in a way that words cannot express. Continue your fight for children but without intersectionality it is just another project to maintain white hegemony over bodies of color.

  4. one more point I forgot-those protective laws represent physical and experiential differentials more so than othering children. Which self-correct, and do more damage if they're not accounted for than if they are.

  5. It seems appropriate to add this now, and I wish I had mentioned it earlier: age discrimination (of various sorts) is not the sole property of the elderly and the very young. Even to this day, middle-aged people still feel as if it is appropriate to condescend to me, based on nothing more than relative youth. It has hit me a few times that you're fair game for condescension until middle age (i.e. 40s and 50s), after which, you're fair game again on account of being too old. While it does not have nearly the social or legal implications as does other forms of ageism, it is bothersome and slightly ridiculous.

  6. Angel H & Renee,

    Your points are well taken. It was never my intention to appropriate any one group's experience. I did not in any way mean to suggest that age-based prejudice against children (of any racial background) is more harmful than race-based prejudice. The point I was trying to make (and clearly made poorly) by saying that we, as a culture, hold people accountable for racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., remarks, is that we as a society have recognized that these types of prejudice exist. We are clearly a long way from addressing them adequately, and I never meant to imply that we have. My main arguement is that I don't hear people (many of them involved in social justice activism) similarly recognizing the way children as a group are treated in ways that discount their humanity specifically because of age.

    In the quote that upset you above, I was thinking specifically of instances on feminist blogs where commenters have been derogatory about children (using language similar to b.g.) and have not been challenged. Whereas, if they had made sexist, homophobic, or racist statements of a similar kind (referring to women as "sluts" for example) they would have been labeled a troll and probably had their comments deleted.

    I could have limited my comparisons to, for example, sexism -- and perhaps you believe I should have. But despite the fact that each "ism" is undeniably different, there are ways to analyze how discrimination works that does cut across different types of prejudice. From a feminist perspective, I have learned that it's wrong to speak of sexism, for example, in isolation. I deliberately wrote using multiple examples in order to make the point that this is not a direct comparison but rather an observation of a similar phenomenon.

  7. I'd appreciate clarification about how age should play into this discussion. I see children and think under 10.

    Good question, kb. I purposefully didn't try to tackle that in this post because it's complicated and I'm still not sure how it plays into the discussion. Obviously young people are dependent on their elders for protection and support. Part of respecting them as human beings is creating a space in which they can thrive -- and because they're still developing, that means taking particular needs into account that are different than adult needs (to some extent). Obviously those needs will change as children grow older and their abilities change.

    Some of the hatred I've seen expressed toward children has been very much directed at small children and infants for being noisy, energetic, etc. Yet I see common themes in complaints about young children and teenagers alike. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on control of children, and policing of space in which children and young adults move so as to cause minimum disruption of the lives of adults. I think this emphasis on control is also related to fear of what children would do in the absence of such heavy-handed control. As some of the posters on the previous thread pointed out, this assumes that the two options are authoritarian control or completely hands-off neglect. If our starting point, however, is that children are people and should therefore be nurtured rather than managed or controlled, then that becomes a false dichotomy.

  8. well, first off, I'm going to point out that claiming people would be called on racist remarks is sadly not universal at all. That's how it should be, yes. and some spaces/blogs are good about that. some not so much. Good point about age not mattering in terms of words-it's hard(at least to me) to come up with any coherent argument for why 5 year olds can be called feral apes and 8 year olds can't. You do also talk about denying rights, and there age, I think, should play into it-there are things that are can be proven to be harmful to small children(or growing bodies/growing minds) that aren't to adults. I admit that I'm coming from a moral perspective that harm protection/minimization should be more important than absolute fairness/total freedom. Which may not be everyone's. I'm also not sure why you seem to be arguing that nurture is different than management. I think they're related when it comes to children-nurturing children inherently involves some teaching of control and behavior. It involves teaching them to recognize and follow-or at least consciously understand why they deliberately aren't following-rules of behavior in public spaces. Maybe you disagree, this is kind of getting into what the role of a parent is.

  9. For something more substantial, albeit rambling:

    CNN recently reported that an elementary school in Georgia banned sugar, changed its menu, and saw dramatic improvements in their students' performance. The thing was written for the anti-sugar-in-schools audience, but also included an interesting tidbit: the students do an hour of physical education every morning.

    Of course the students were happier and causing less trouble! Kids have a lot of energy. We can expect them to act like middle-aged people, or we can understand that they have a lot of energy, channel it constructively, and then sit them down in classrooms.

    On a more civil rights note, if you'll allow a bit of a libertarian rant: your criticism about this emphasis on controlling children and managing the situation sound a lot like the criticisms of police officers. If you read Fourth Amendment cases, there is always this commentary about the police officer's need to control the suspect, the driver of the car, the occupants of the house, etc. This invariably results in some deprivation of rights and some pretty lousy behaviour on the part of the officer. The implicit idea - that someone in authority must control everyone else - is a noxious one, and one destined to deprive people of their civil liberties and human dignity.

    To me, it is sensible to control the situation, but not the person.

  10. Anna, thank you for your comments. One thing I think that didn't come across is that I do agree with your position that children are disenfranchised in many ways. (I just didn't agree with the way the argument was presented.)

    Keep up the good work and best of luck in the future.

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