by Dr. Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
When my son was 18 months old and first started daycare, he came home and mumbled some variation of a saying that I have become very familiar with, as a parent. In his broken toddler tongue, he said some variation of “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” I hadn’t heard it before and looked into the etiology. It seems that it was the title of a children’s book in the 1970s and took hold as a tool for everyone from managers in fast food restaurants to kindergarten teachers. It is a saying intended to help manage disappointment and frustration tolerance. Underneath it, though, is a powerful message to children: just get over it!
In 2011, a powerful thinker, professor, and writer named Elisabeth Young-Bruehl died of a pulmonary embolism while leaving the opera with her partner. Her death viciously disrupted her evolving work on a concept that she called “Childism.” The term was coined to capture the systemic ways in which children are not only discriminated against, but also hated. She, along with Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, who died in 2011, argued for the preservation and honoring of the vulnerability of the child psyche. Both eloquently suggested that while, as a society, we believe that children are our precious priority, in fact, the very opposite is enacted.
The idea behind childism is that there is an unconscious pull to invalidate the psychic lives of children. This invalidation happens in both subtle and highly evident ways. Subtly, children are often asked to behave in ways that defy their developmental capacity. There are children who are asked to act as emotional partners to their parents, or children who are asked to parent their younger siblings. There are children who are asked to cook and provide for themselves and children who are asked to go to school sick.
Most of these requests are not born out of malice, but of a society structured in a way that leaves many of us desperate. So many parents are left single and emotionally alone because of violence, prison, and drugs. Others are terrified to take a day off from work, because they are at risk of losing their jobs. The fear that we can’t properly attend to our children cuts across socioeconomic lines and leaves most of us making decisions that we know don’t serve our children.
Aside from asking our children to step outside of their developmental capacities, we neglect children as we pervasively over-diagnose their childhoods. Whether is it medicating children for “ADHD”-like behaviors or compulsively referring to kids on the spectrum, we have become consumed by the diagnosis of childhood, rather than the diagnosis of society. If children cannot sit still throughout a school day, why are we so quick to assume that the problem lies with them? Why are we even quicker to assume that it is acceptable to medicate a child with medications that largely lack the scientific research supporting their safety? Not all diagnosis is wrong, of course. But certainly, not all of it is right, either.
In Pennsylvania, there were 26,944 reports of child abuse made in 2013, of which 12% or 3,425 were substantiated. Sexual abuse was present in 53% of the substantiated reports. I am not even sure what to make of those numbers. I know that 23,519 people are not paranoid. I also know that there is a tremendous amount of abuse that is sub-threshold for agency involvement, but not sub-threshold in terms of the ways in which the child psyche is affected. I hear, on at least a weekly basis, that something happened in a child’s life that they won’t “remember.” For example, when discussing sleep training and the famous “cry it out” method, we assume that the child won’t remember the tears and strain to communicate. In these claims, we systematically deny the very power of preverbal trauma. We know that the infant mind remains imprinted upon, influencing decades of attachment experiences. Yet we cannot fully hold this truth, because children don’t have language to describe their inner experience.
But even when the language comes, do we listen? How many children are accused of lying, manipulating, or just seeking attention? I sometimes wonder if children ever do lie, or if we have decided that they are lying because their truths are too unbearable to take. I know that children often wouldn’t even have the ideas that they are sharing, if those ideas weren’t taken from somewhere, some context clue or exposure to an overstimulating truth.
When Freud first started his studies of hysteria, he diagnosed an epidemic level of childhood sexual abuse. He was aware of the hypersexualization of children, but receded into a re-narration of his hypothesis to better please his audience. He changed his original tune to a song of how children were titillated by their own desires, developing sexualities and shame over their attraction to their parents. Speaking largely to the parents of hysterical children, he opted to protect the adults. Parents, he claimed, could only innocently and stoically stand by as children went through the stages of psychosexual development. But every time we go to Target and see words across the back of a little girl’s pants that say “daddy’s girl” or “princess,” we know that Freud was right the first time.
I wonder about Young-Bruehl’s embolism, a death by losing breath. I think that when we really immerse ourselves in the depths of childism, all the real and stunning ways that it is enacted and the ways that we are a part of it, it becomes breathtaking. Miller, who spoke passionately about the ways that children serve the unmet narcissistic needs of their parents refused to back down from her position, ultimately dying in near isolation but clear on her message.
As social workers, our responsibility is to reveal systemic maltreatment and to then claim our role in the perpetuation of that maltreatment. As with racism and classism, our hands are all dirty. The same is true for childism. Perhaps the understated reality of it is the best evidence of that fact that we have.
Because it really is okay to get upset about what you get. And, we need to allow our children to develop authentic emotional lives that honor their truths, not just ours.
Miller, A. (1981). The Drama of the Gifted Child. Basic Books.
Young-Bruehl, E. (2012). Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. Yale University Press.
Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare Annual Child Abuse Report. (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.dhs.pa.gov/cs/groups/webcontent/documents/report/c_086251.pdf
Dr. Danna R. Bodenheimer, LCSW, is in private practice at Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Philadelphia, PA, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. She provides more of her clinical perspective and tips for developing clinicians in her book, Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.