Childhood Studies Childism
John Wall
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0248


Childism is a theoretical framework aimed toward enabling children’s experiences to change scholarship and societies. It has taken on three distinct meanings since its first use in 1975, each reflecting different fields of study out of which it developed. In psychoanalysis, it is meant as a similar term to sexism and racism to mean prejudice against children. In literary theory, it has been used to describe the practice of performing literary criticism from children’s points of view. And in childhood studies, it is meant in analogy to concepts like feminism and posthumanism to refer to children’s empowerment. In each case, the first negatively and the second two positively, children’s positions are taken as starting points for systemic normative critique. While these three senses of the term were formulated more or less independently, they have also been put into conversation and sometimes combined. This article first lays out how the concept of childism has been developed in each of its three general senses, in the rough order in which they arose. Then it examines some of the major specific topics to which one or more senses of the term has been applied.

Childism as Prejudice

The concept of childism was first developed in the field of psychoanalysis to describe the phenomenon of prejudice against children. It took the notion of prejudice from studies of sexism, racism, classism and the like, and applied it to the cross-cutting discrimination that children experience because of their age. The word childism is used here in much the same way that other scholars use terms like ageism, patriarchalism, and adultism. The six texts below were each instrumental in advancing this concept, even if they do so in slightly different ways. The first use of the term “childism” can be found in the short academic article Pierce and Allen 1975, whose authors were US psychoanalysts, in relation to larger investigations into race and racism., but this idea was rarely employed until being revived by another US psychoanalyst in the work Young-Bruehl 2009 and then more extensively in Young-Bruehl 2012. Webb 2004 does briefly discuss the idea in an article about health-care discrimination, as does Adams 2000 in a discussion of infanticide. The concept is more extensively developed in Barbre 2013 in a psychoanalytic discussion of the abandoned child archetype.

  • Adams, Paul L. “Childism as Vestiges of Infanticide.” Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis 28.3 (2000): 541–556.

    DOI: 10.1521/jaap.1.2000.28.3.541

    This commentary by an academic psychiatrist argues that contemporary childism is ultimately a vestige of historical human infanticide, which today expresses itself in adult mental mechanisms like role reversal and narcissistic identification that play out adults’ gratification at doing children violence.

  • Barbre, Claude. “Prejudice against Children: A Psychodynamic Exploration of the Abandoned Child Archetype and Childism.” In Children and Childhood: Practices and Perspectives. Edited by Chandni Basu and Vicky Anderson-Patton, 61–72. Oxford, UK: Interdisciplinary Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1163/9781848881792_006

    This book chapter by an academic clinical psychologist expands Young-Bruehl’s analysis of childism from a psychodynamic perspective that explains “prejudice against children” in terms of the work of Jung, Rank, and Ferenczi and the ways that childism diminishes and fractures adult mental life.

  • Pierce, Chester M., and Gail B. Allen. “Childism.” Psychiatric Annals 5 (1975): 266–270.

    DOI: 10.3928/0048-5713-19750701-04

    This five-page opinion piece, published by two psychiatrists, argues that childism is needed as a theoretical approach to understanding “the oppression of children” in multiple forms of microaggressions, alienations, and violence. Based on media studies, the authors find that children suffer childism as much as they do racism, sexism, and generationalism, and they posit that childism is the universal basis for children’s own ensuing oppressive and discriminatory attitudes.

  • Webb, Elspeth. “Discrimination against Children.” Archives of Disease in Childhood 89.9 (2004): 804–808.

    DOI: 10.1136/adc.2003.046300

    A four-page article by a child health scholar that uses the term childism to refer to “discrimination against children,” on the model of racial discrimination, particularly in terms of social policies and services around health care. It lays out instances of both “indirect” discrimination that disadvantages children through social inequality and “direct” discrimination via specific actions and policies.

  • Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. “Childism—Prejudice against Children.” Contemporary Psychoanalysis 45.2 (2009): 251–265.

    DOI: 10.1080/00107530.2009.10745998

    An article by a psychotherapist and scholar of prejudice that develops a theory of childism as “prejudice against children.” Based on her earlier work in Freudian interpretations of anti-Semitism, sexism, and racism, the author argues that childism is an expression of pychoanalytic defense mechanisms of elimination, sexual exploitation, and erasure of identity.

  • Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. Childism: Confronting Prejudice against Children. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

    This widely influential book expands on Young-Bruehl 2009 to lay out how childism as prejudice against children plays out in daily life, family relations, and political policies. The book describes in detail “the huge range of anti-child social policies and individual behaviors directed against all children daily” so as to help adults rethink and reform their child-related attitudes.

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