Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children

In the month of August, I am blogging on WOW Currents. You can access today’s post “Guided Inquiry Design: Open and Immerse Phases.”

Each of the four August School Librarian Leadership posts are focused on professional books related to the posts on WOW Currents.

There is at least one common value that educators share that leads us to our career choice. We care deeply about the lives, learning, and well-being of other people’s children. Unfortunately, in my opinion, that is not the case for far too many educational policymakers and adults living in the United States today.

In the first online class session for IS445: Information Books and Resources for Youth, I read aloud For Every Child: The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Words and Pictures by Caroline Castle, illustrated by various notable children’s picture book illustrators (2000). This book beautifully and powerfully conveys the articles of the Convention. After reading, I cited information about the number of signers on the UN Convention and the fact that the United States has not signed. IS445 graduate students were surprised. I invited them to dig deeper to find out why. For me, the answer to that question is “childism.”

WOW Book Study
In our first or second meeting, a colleague in our Worlds of Words professional book study made connections to “childism.” (Our book study focused on Suzanne Choo’s book Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos: Approaches to Teaching Literature for the Twenty-first Century.) “Childism” was a term with which I was previously unfamiliar. Our colleague recommended reading a book by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children (2012).

“Childism” can be defined as prejudice against children and teens based on their age and vulnerability. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl goes even further. She states that childism is “prejudice against children on the ground of a belief that they are property [of their parents and society] and can (or even should) be controlled, enslaved, or removed to serve adult needs” (37). Young-Bruehl describes how adults are failing our collective responsibility to young people by not to recognizing “childism” along with racism, sexism, ageism, and other prejudices.

“Childism could help identify as related issues child imprisonment, child exploitation and abuse, substandard schooling, high infant mortality rates, fetal alcohol syndrome, the reckless prescription of antipsychotic drugs to children, child pornography, and all other behaviors or policies not in the best interest of children” (7). (The author also makes a connection between childism and the fiscally irresponsible behavior of the U.S. Congress that mortgages our children’s futures with astronomical indebtedness.)

Young-Bruehl believes that when adults take time and learn to see the world from the perspective of a child, we can help make the world a safer, saner, happier place for all our children–our future. In her psychotherapy practice, Young-Bruehl listens to adults who retell their childhood experiences. From their experiences, she has heard shocking evidence to support statistics that show the U.S. has the highest rates of child abuse among first-world nations. The U.S. also incarcerates more children than any other country in the world; many of these children are themselves victims of abuse and neglect. Reading this book influenced the inquiry question that I used to model the Guided Inquiry Design Framework (Kuhlthau, Maniotes, and Caspari 2012) for our class.

Inquiry Question
Hearing authors Susan Kuklin and Andrea Warren speak at the Tucson Festival of Books (TFOB) in March, 2019, further ignited my passion for this topic. Kuklin’s book We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults (2019) and Warren’s book Enemy Child: The Story of Norman Mineta, a Boy Imprisoned in a Japanese American Internment Camp During World War II (2019) pushed me to think even more critically about this question.

Before reading Childism or attending the TFOB, I had a compelling interest in current issues surrounding prejudice and discrimination, specifically against immigrants and refugees. I live in Tucson, Arizona, sixty miles from the U.S./Mexico border. People crossing the southern border seeking work and a better life for themselves and their families has long been an everyday, politically charged issue in our community. This issue is currently heightened by the city’s humanitarian decision to provide safe havens for asylum-seekers.

All three combined (Childism, young adult literature, and our Tucson community’s activism) resulted in this overarching (essential) question for an Explore pathfinder of nonfiction books and information resources:

Is it important that students interact with global nonfiction and informational books and resources when they investigate prejudice and discrimination as it impacts the lives of young people today?

Childism
Reading Childism convinced me this was the inquiry question I wanted us to pursue as an example for the class. As noted by author Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, a “prejudice” is a “belief system” rather than a “knowledge system.” It is based on stereotypes that are applied generally to all members of a population. Many adults (some education policymakers included) use a child’s natural dependency as a reason to deny them rights, to undermine their agency and capacity for choice and voice as well as critical thinking.

Young-Bruehl refers to prejudices as “fantasies” that can operate at a conscious or unconscious level that lead to actions that harm others. This means to me that adults as well as children can and should be educated to recognize childism as a prejudice to be uncovered and addressed. Since our IS445 course focused on books and resources for youth, I set out to help graduate students see the world of ideas and information from a young person’s perspective—to see youth as agents in their own learning who should have the authority to make choices, express their voices, and apply critical thinking to issues that affect their lives and the lives of their global peers.

In Childism, the author shares information from The Irreducible Needs of Children: What Every Child Must Have in Order to Grow, Learn, and Flourish (2000), a book written by T. Berry Brazelton and Stanley I. Greenspan, physicians who are staunch advocates for children. Young-Bruehl shares the seven needs and notes that the seventh puts the other six in context: “Throughout the world future generations of children and families will be much more interrelated. In order to protect the future of one child, we must protect it for all” (cited in Young-Bruehl 2012, 279).

If you read only the introduction, first chapter “Anatomy of a Prejudice,” and the last “Education and the End of Childism,” you may, like me, begin to notice the consequences of childism in many aspects of education policy and other areas of U.S. society. This book made an enormous impact on my thinking and on my planning for IS445: Information Books and Resources for Youth.

Like Young-Bruehl, I believe that all children have the right to a healthy childhood and the right to be educated responsible world citizens. Do you?

Side note: If you are interested in reading about why the U.S. is the only country that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, please read information published on the ACLU website on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Convention.

Work Cited
Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. 2012. Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos

In the month of August, I am blogging on WOW Currents. You can access today’s post “Inquiry into Nonfiction and Informational Global Literature Focused on Prejudice and Discrimination against Children and Teens.”

Each of the four August School Librarian Leadership blog posts are focused on professional books related to the WOW Currents posts

Along with members of the Worlds of Words (WOW) Board of Advisors, I have been engaged in a monthly professional book study of Suzanne Choo’s Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos: Approaches to Teaching Literature for the Twenty-first Century. The other members of the study group regularly teach children’s and young adult literature in universities across the U.S. and in Mexico. As a library science professor who mostly teaches courses related to school librarian leadership and instructional partnerships, I have rarely had the opportunity to focus on literature per se in my teaching.

This summer, I taught “IS445: Information Books and Resources for Youth” for graduate students pursuing degrees and certifications as school librarians and children’s and teen public librarians. I joined the WOW professional book study group in order to consider ways to privilege global literature in IS445. In our course, we defined global literature as a comprehensive term that encompasses both international and multicultural literature that “honors and celebrates diversity, both within and outside the United States, in terms of culture, race, ethnicity, language, religion, social and economic status, sexual orientation, and physical and intellectual ability” (Hadaway and McKenna, 4-5).

In Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos: Approaches to Teaching Literature for the Twenty-first Century, Suzanne Choo critiques pedagogical approaches to teaching literature in English: nationalistic, world, global, and cosmopolitan. My interpretation of Choo’s framework for pedagogical criticism is that it centers on approaches informed by conceptual values that are shaped by global and nation-state forces that create “global waves” that extend beyond the classroom, geographic region, world, and globe (see Figure 1.2 on page 23).

Nationalistic Approaches
Choo makes a strong case for the historical impermanence of the borders of nation-states. She notes that, in the past, we have misguidedly examined literacy texts as representative of nations of the world when national boundaries and the movement of people across them has always been dynamic. With that understanding, there have always been “interpretive communities” that have assigned meaning and value to texts, privileging some over others. Choo offers publishers, reviewers, and award committees as examples of entities/people who mediate between texts and readers. What is “beautiful” art or “good” literature has always been judged based on changing mores and values bounded by cultural considerations. In that light, readers can and must take a critical stance regarding what has previously and is currently considered the “best” texts.

Literacy educators (including librarians) also serve as mediators who select, promote, employ, and privilege certain texts for student engagement. They also intervene in readers’ motivation or deeper understanding of texts through various instructional strategies. School- or institution-level decisions also come into play in terms of what texts are sanctioned or “acceptable.” Although the number of traditionally published books that meet the needs of readers in our increasingly multicultural U.S. society are growing, they are insufficient. Today’s preK-12 students must be invited to explore the cultures and experiences of ever more diverse classmates and U.S. peers… and in the opinions of our book study members, they must also explore beyond our country’s borders.

The World
Where is the “world” view in literature? Choo argues that “a world paradigm subscribes to a belief about the good of teaching literature that is tied to the goal of world citizenship as articulated via concepts of collective taste and universal humanity” (83).

Choo offers many examples including the concept of the “ideal citizen” as penned by the late 18th-century, early 19th-center German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. She summarizes Goethe’s world citizen as one who privileges the world over the provincial, universal over the particular, and common humanity over one’s own countrymen (73). Choo goes on to write about how this universal concept of humanity “takes over the religious function of the Absolute or God” yet is based in Christianity. In this context, there will be texts that win (are included) and texts that lose (are excluded).

She suggests (and critiques) four approaches to teaching world literature. The first approach: Teach students to read across historical time and geographical space; this was the way early world literature courses (1900–1930s) were organized. The second approach: Teach English, U.S., and global literature in English with a focus on readers reflecting on the global, political, and philosophical ideas of the time in which they were created. The third approach: Use literature to make history (facts) come alive! (I just witnessed how contemporary nonfiction and informational books can make historical/contemporary events and issues vivid.). The fourth approach: Integrate literature with other subjects through thematic units; her critique of this approach suggests a fear that literature will be marginalized by disciplinary content.

Globe
What is the difference between a “world” and a “global” literature pedagogy? Suzanne Choo captured my goal for IS445 in this quote: “The teaching of global literature is used to describe approaches aimed at promoting a global mindset in students so that they will perceive themselves and others as members of an interconnected global village” (91). Considering the current political climate in the U.S. and various European countries, in particular, the focus on human rights over citizenship rights seems timely to me.

Choo mentions the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), When it was written, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history. While the United States signed this Convention in 1995, no U.S. president has sent it to the Senate for ratification. (If you agree this is unconscionable, see next week’s post about “childism.”)

I appreciated Choo’s perspective on the differences between the flat map view of the world and the spherical reality of the Earth. She suggests that a “world” depiction of the planet suggests that parts make up the whole; while a spherical “global” view suggests the whole is made up of parts. (This resonated with me in light of the 50th anniversary of the moon walk. I was eighteen at the time and clearly remember the awe-inspiring view of the spherical Earth from space.) “Education that emphasizes spherical seeing of the human prioritizes students’ consciousness of themselves as citizens of the human race first followed by citizens of their nation or community” (96).

The Cosmos
To be honest, Choo lost me in the “cosmos” section of the book. While I found support for a shared urgency for privileging global perspectives, I did not as clearly see the cosmopolitan frame. “This idea of shared community and shared responsibility for each other and the fate of the human species is the starting point for a new kind of cosmopolitanism that might help us better transact the devaluing of our intellectual labor in the present age of neoliberal globalization” (xi). For me, the global view does result in a shared community and shared responsibility for the fate of humanity and for our planet.

In my quest to increase graduate students’ ability to build empathy through exploring diverse worldviews and experiences through nonfiction and information books and resources, I didn’t understand the need to go further than the globe. For educators and librarians who have been “schooled” in multicultural literature and education, globalizing curricula seems to me to be the next frontier. Leaping to the cosmos would be, I believe, too giant of a leap. That said, I hope to learn another perspective from my colleagues as they implement cosmopolitanism in their courses.

Works Cited

Choo, Suzanne S. 2013. Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos: Approaches to Teaching Literature for the Twenty-first Century. New York: Peter Lang.

Hadaway, Nancy L., and Marian J. McKenna. 2007. Breaking Boundaries with Global Literature: Celebrating Diversity in K-12 Classrooms. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Image Credit

Altmann, Gerd. “Web Networking Earth Continents.” Pixabay.com. https://pixabay.com/illustrations/web-networking-earth-continents-3079789/