not-so-quick hit: bigotry towards children

Via Molly @ first the egg comes a passionate articulation of the right of children to be treated as human beings, rather than as a subspecies to be "liked" or "not liked" en masse. Sybil Vane @ Bitch PhD writes

Now, maybe I meet someone who doesn't necessarily dislike Little V in a personal way but who is "not really a kid person." And here I mean not necessarily someone who doesn't want to have kids or who doesn't have any experience being around kids or someone who lives a lifestyle that doesn't produce any exposure to kids. I mean someone who is expressive about a "I don't really like kids" attitude or a "I hate going to restaurants or museums where kids are making noise" attitude or a "of course it's fine for other people to have kids but I don't want to be around them" attitude. This sort of thing is a deal-breaker for me. I've gotten pretty rigid about it in recent years as I become more assured in my certainty that it's an anti-feminist attitude and you suck if you hold it. Kids are a vulnerable, disempowered, inevitable portion of the human community and you do not get to "not like" them or to wish that weren't a part of your public space. Not allowed. I invite you to swap out "kids" for any other disempowered community in the above phrases ("women," "schizophrenics," "hispanics," "the blind") and notice what an asshole you sound like.

You can read the whole post over at BitchPhD.

I've blogged about this before (last year in what turned into a two-part post here and here and in passing on Saturday in my blog against disableism post).

The first time I wrote about it, I realized I was coming down hard on someone who sounded like an asshole in comments (they'd left a post on my blog calling young people "feral, shrieking little carpet apes"). But I was largely unprepared for the backlash I got on the post, where people resisted mightily the possibility that there might be parallels between dehumanizing children (based on age) and dehumanizing other segments of society based on other group characteristics (such as race, national origin, gender, etc.). People made all sorts of assumptions about my socioeconomic status, my personal background, my status as a parent, and suggested that being an advocate of children's humanity is only the province of privileged, solipsistic white mothers with ivy league educations.

So let me be clear, here. I'm not a parent. At this point, it's unlikely that I will ever be a parent. The reasons for this are personal, relational, ethical, sociopolitical and economic in nature -- too complicated to delve into in this post. But the point is: not a parent. And to tell you the truth (contrary to popular opinion re: women and infants) I'm okay with that.

There was a time (I won't lie) when my fondest dream (at age nine) was to set up an orphanage with my best friend and spend my days nurturing a vast brood of Anne Shirleys who otherwise would not have caring adults to call their own. But I've grown and changed, tried quasi-parenting for a while (I spent a year as a live-in childcare provider), and realized that is not where my primary interest lies.

There are even days when I'm not just "okay" but incredibly relieved by the idea that I will never -- unforeseen crises not withstanding -- be the 24/7 primary caregiver of a young person. Even with a willing and able partner, that job seems prohibitively daunting. Particularly in a culture where meaningful support for caregivers (of the elderly as well as the young) is so thin on the ground.

But the point is: none of these personal decisions or experiences absolve me from the responsibility of including children in the human community. They don't absolve me from the responsibility of treating them with the same courtesy and respect with which I expect folks to treat me, and with which I treat adult members of the human community. As Molly writes @ first the egg

I actually am not “a kid person” in any normal sense of the term -- I’m not that whipped up about children just because they’re children, I’m generally much more interested in a puppy or kitten...or adult person...or this here computer screen...than a baby I don’t know personally -- but they’re people.

The awesome thing about this is, in my experience, that young people thrive on being taken seriously. On being treated with a straight-ass, no bullshit attitude. Speaking from my own remembered experience as a child, I had zero interest in being fawned and fussed over, having my personal space invaded by adults who thought of themselves as "liking children" and were subsequently pissed when I failed to delight in their cosseting.

I wanted to be taken seriously, to be leveled with, and to be given a seat at the table with all the adults around me who discussed interesting and complicated things, had wicked skills for creating things and exploring the world, and who might possibly share that experience with me.

It's true that children, by virtue of their still-developing brains and bodies, do not always meet the requirements set forth by our culture's model of ideal able-ness and imagined self-sufficiency . . . but then, as I pointed out last Saturday, neither do we. Children need help meeting their material needs, need spaces and resources to explore the world and gain material, cognitive, and emotional skills to become more independent. Not every adult is prepared to provide on-the-ground assistance to children in this way, just like not every adult provides eldercare around the clock. But as members of the human community, citizens of the world, we can recognize that all of us matter -- and treat those whose paths we cross accordingly.

And the sooner, the more ardently, we can impress upon young people that they matter just as much as the next person, the more likely it is that those young people will grow into older people who -- no matter how privileged, how able, they become -- will remember that their able-ness is not what imbues them with worth: it is their membership in the human community. Just as that membership in the human community grants the person sitting next to them on the subway, or standing in line behind them at the coffee shop, or playing on the swings at the park, intrinsic worth.

And hopefully, just maybe, this belief in the worth of humanity will make the world a richer, more compassionate, less threatening, less defensive, more bountiful world to live in for us all.

*image credit: Christmas Day Morning by Carl Larsson @ the Carl Larsson Gallery.


  1. I think you and I could have a very enjoyable cup of tea together. You know, sharing stories about our culture sucking.

    For instance: it never ceases to amaze me how people--people who 'love children' or 'just can't get enough of' my son--want to be cuddled or amused when they feel like it ... but seriously expect him to sit silently at the table while adults have conversations that exclude him entirely. I don't mean that we all need to talk about 'kid things' (whatever that would be), but that we need to include him in the conversation just like we'd include any adult friend who happened to join us. It's only polite to explain things when he asks, tell him who people in the story are when he hasn't met them, and ask him questions every so often. It would be obviously rude to sit and have a long conversation that involves all but one adult at a meal ... and it's obviously rude with this child who is my friend, too. (This may be more disconcerting to me because this child is very articulate and polite--so it's pretty clear that the exclusion is based on his physical smallness and lack of social status than on, say, his whininess or desire to discuss Barney or anything.)

    It's hard for me to understand why that feels normal to so many otherwise very enlightened and thoughtful adults.

  2. Hi Molly,

    Hehe! I like the idea of swapping stories about "our culture sucking" . . .if you're ever in the Boston, Mass. area drop me an email and maybe we can meet for that cup of tea :).

    Your example about how your son is treated at the dinner table is exactly the gist of my post. The idea that children have nothing to contribute to a mealtime conversation, or that it is beyond the pale for them to ask for clarification about an issue they don't understand is exactly that sort of systemic behavior that marginalizes children from "important" or "real-world" activities because of the assumption that they're not interested and/or not old enough to meaningfully contribute.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. For years i've been the "not really a kid person" person, but that had less to do with children & more to do with others who claim to love kids.
    Their attitudes for years made me feel as though my limited experience & awkward interaction with children, was grounds for my self-classification as 'anti-child' or something.
    It was easier to make those kinds of statements than to get into my real problems which ranged from detesting the superficial "kids as an accessory" types, having to bite my tongue when people just stuck a telly in their kid's bedroom, instead of reading to them
    & the fact that I just can't talk down to kids.

    Interaction with my kindergarten aged cousin recently surprised my family & some friends, because of their assumptions about my attitudes. He was occasionally rather hyperactive, but also very eager to discuss his random observations of the world (such as how much better the world would be if androids lived among us)& I genuinely enjoyed spending time with him.

    The fact that i'm only 24 aside, my belief is that Having a child & raising one are not the same thing. I'm not prepared for either, which is why I tell people "I don't want kids" because it's easier than "I don't have any idea when I would be in the best place financially or mentally to be even a decent parent"

  4. OMG. This post is empowering. I could never pin-point why i'd get so upset when I heard some jackass go on about how kids should not be allowed on airplanes and so on.

  5. @Arran, thanks for visiting and commenting! I really do agree with your observation that deciding not to parent is a very different thing from not treating children with respect as human beings. I think because in our culture we're expected to either fawn over children as adorable objects OR ignore/revile them, when someone says "I don't want to have kids" or "I can't see being a parent" people often hear "I hate children."

    And to be fair to them, there are certainly people (particularly in the online universe) who are pushing back so hard against the pressure to be parents. Because if you don't want to be a parent you must be, the narrative goes, a selfish, antisocial, sick and twisted soul. I'm really appalled sometimes by the language that is used in online comments to refer to young people (the issue that prompted my original post on the subject a couple of years ago). BUT, I absolutely believe it is possible not to want to parent, not to want to be a caregiver for young people, and still treat the children one meets in public spaces with kindness and courtesy.

    It's frustrating that society so often ignores this third option (possibly because media loves opposition and mudslinging? and the parent vs. non-parent narrative makes for great copy?).

    @Ryan, glad you dropped by again :). And I agree with you about the airplane issue. It IS frustrating to be stuck on a trans-continental flight with a kid who's airsick or whose ears refuse to pop. But I always think it's only going to make the situation worse if we hate on the parents who are struggling to care for the child, because they're most likely going to take it out on the kid and nothing will resolve itself. I don't think any parent would fly with a young infant unless they absolutely had to -- and in this era of global mobility, often the only way for relatives to connect is through plane travel.

  6. So we're doing a bit of a late comment here; I just came here via link from another post.

    I am 22 now. Like entirely too many of our young women, I was a teenaged abuse victim. My personal pet peeve: "you're too young to have problems" or any variant thereof. The assumption that a young woman who fails to smile and act like life is wonderful is being silly and/or dramatic.

    Think, for a minute, what this tells our young people. It says your pain does not matter, because you are not old enough to have what we deem real pain. Is this really the message we want to send our young people?

    Put it another way: as feminists, we bemoan the fact that society tells women their emotions are less real, less important. Yet we tell our girls the same thing, then wonder why they don't stand up for themselves as adult women.

  7. @Sunset,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your own personal perspective on the harm done by not taking children seriously as people.

    I particularly like your insight that this sends the message that "your pain does not matter." More and more as I listen to people attack other folks for being in the public sphere, it seems like it often comes down to the person lashing out feeling like they aren't being heard and their needs aren't being attended to. I realize it's more complicated than that -- but it does seem like addressing peoples' core needs and convincing them that they matter as human beings might go a long way toward ramping down the defensive territorialism.