On The Truth of Us and Children
Updated: Jan 23, 2019
• By Danna Bodenheimer •
In December of 2011, a brilliant psychoanalyst and academic died. She was walking home from the opera with her partner. Her name was Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. At the time of her death, an essential voice fell silent. She had written the definitive biographies on Anna Freud and Hannah Arendt, while also teaching English at Yale.
Her sudden death was at the hands of an aneurysm.
At the time, I can’t say that I was totally surprised. I had been following her for years, awaiting her book of research on something she called Childism. I truly believe that what she was studying and trying to say burst her brain and ended her life.
Childism is a word and an idea that I revisit several times a day. It is literally defined as the systematic oppression and prejudice against the young. She argued in her book that came out two years after her death that children are uniformly discriminated against and hated in our country. She argued that there are significant ways in which we function as a society that are designed to destroy the child psyche and spirit. She located several examples in how social welfare systems work; particularly foster care. She also described the way in which childism occurs in educational settings, child care settings, hospitals, doctors’ offices.
I don’t think there is any arguing that childism is pervasive and deadly.
It is literally everywhere.
Schools are obsessed with the homogenization of children into standardized test scores. We distribute property taxes inequitably, in order to keep kids in poor neighborhoods bound by scarce resources and opportunity. Kids in poor socioeconomic areas are tortured, arguably, from the minute they wake up to when they go to sleep. Whether if it is that they are malnourished by school breakfasts (if they get there on time to have any), the 1 cent sugary drink they are given upon arrival to school called a “Hug”, the medication they are subsequently given for crashing from their sugar high that gets labeled as ADHD, the detentions, suspensions, reports of truancy, overcrowded classroom, poor heating/cooling, drug deals by day, gunshots by night.
Kids who don’t survive these disciplinary zones, aka schools, are put in formal disciplinary schools; sometimes called emotional support schools. In these “therapeutic environments” kids are asked to walk with books on their head so that they can’t look around or with their hands held behind their back. They are expelled, and studying for prison. They are placed in foster homes in the middle of the night often without last names, clothing or a backpack. The next day might be time for another foster home, right after another day in a school setting that completely overstimulates and dysregulates.
And that is in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, but the problems pervade and cut across social classes. From the way in which we compulsively gender police children to our obsessive need to prepare them for a college education from the time they enter kindergarten, the tender developmental period of childhood is subverted in honor of a fixation of success or on filling the multiple for profit institutions that employ our country’s workers at something well below a living wage.
The abuse is emotional too, as we viciously deny the range of affect that kids experience. The more intense the affect, of course, the more likely we are to put in a time out; communicating that strong feelings ought to lead to isolation.
We laugh at boys for crying because it isn’t “manly” and we laugh at girls for crying because it is too “girlie”. We sell bikinis to tiny girls that have words on the back, so that we can focus on them with premature eroticism, while their fathers where t-shirts that say “yeah I have a hot daughter, I also have a gun”. We sell toy machine guns in the aisles of Walmart with aisles of real guns a few rows away and we are surprised that there is any confusion between play and reality. As the NRA pays for it all in some opaque way that we can never really see or understand.
In the upper-middle class suburbs of Lower Merion, an elementary school still has an isolation room. The local and highly prestigious children’s hospital has a feeding program that straps children down for six weeks at a time teaching them to eat. Everything from “cry it out” to our obsession with building a “frustration tolerance” is laced with our ideas about how intensely children need to be tamed, regulated and disciplined. From big pharma to sugar to the NRA, children are invariably a target of hatred and greed.
In 1932, Sandor Ferenczi, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud gave a speech to the Psych-Analytical Congress in which he argued that child abuse, particularly sexual abuse, was happening at epidemic proportions. He said that the actual people in the audience were part of the epidemic, that it was happening in their own homes. He was laughed off the stage. Freud basically re-narrated Ferenczi’s truth, with the fiction that it was all in the mind of the child, a byproduct of the anxiety, born out of burgeoning sexuality. Freud argued, though he was obsessed with his own daughter, that daughters had erotic feelings towards their fathers and that sons had similarly erotic feelings towards their mothers. The idea that children were suffering from incest, in a very real way, and that erotic gazes were turned towards them was laughed at. Even with the advent of the #metoo movement, we still keep incest in the closet and deny it’s commonness.
I am working hard to not be shocked by what is happening to immigrant children in our country right now. To be shocked is to admit that I (or we) haven’t been paying attention all along. It is rare that the next step in a tyranny comes from nowhere, but instead from the exact step right before it. There have been, in various forms, concentration camps for children - specifically brown skinned children - for as long as we have been the United States.
While Ferenzi and Young-Bruehl were radicals, they did not recognize the very scary idea that when childism and abuse intersect with racism, we enter the realm of homicide and genocide. Perhaps many children won’t die in the concentration camps that Trump has built, but that will be because of luck and nothing else. These spaces are designed to cause death, either psychological death or physical death. Either way we are losing thousands of innocent souls. Just like schools and juvenile detention centers and some inpatient hospital setting, we are simply at the next step of institutionalization. These concentration camps are holding children who are in the crosshairs of two types of vitriol: racism and childism. No child psyche can healthfully survive either, but the dual punch of both is annihilating.
This is because children, housed in Walmarts (which have already been sites of various forms of discipline and punishment via minimum wage and unjust labor conditions) lack the ability to form narratives about what is happening to them. They do not have what is called an “observing ego”, a psychological apparatus that allows us to make sense of the world, to make choices, to control impulse. Without the development of an observing ego, which can only really form with the fertilizing nutrients that come with attachment, no sense can be made of what is happening to oneself. Instead, the confusion and terror are turned inward via horrible self-hatred and a completely unstable sense of self. Or the confusion and terror are turned outward, into rage, aggression and violence; which will only serve to disappear these children further into the confines of the secret trafficking that our country is actively engaged in. These feelings turn into pieces of the personality that become nearly permanent, rather than transient experiences in one’s life. Without the presence of attachment, nothing can truly mitigate the psychic murders that we are inflicting on tiny brown bodies.
And really why? Why do we hate children? Why do we hate brown children? It is really just Trump, while there are so many of us in the right?
Schools that are imprisoning, drugs that are anaesthetizing, diagnoses are over distributed, genders are blindly and aggressively assigned. This is all part of the way that we engage in childism.
This must be because we really hate the child part of ourselves, right?
The part of ourselves that is vulnerable and needy and dysregulated and needs a nap but really wants a snack or wants a nap but really needs a snack.
And as for the racial piece, Shaun King, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Shaun King, and James Baldwin argue (and rightfully so) that the racial hatred we see today is the byproduct of a death rattle coming out of the rotting body of white supremacy, a rotting that has been a long time coming, but the body can’t smell its own stench.
Yet, those of us who have sense of smell and some eyesight can’t breathe at all, while our eyes sting with the knowing and unknowing of what we have always been a part of. We can be devastated for days, but please, let’s not be shocked.