On the necessity of treating children and young people as though they were fully human

By the term adultism, I mean treating children and young people with less than full respect for their humanity. That this is a problem in our culture should be clear enough from the fact that children are the only humans in the society who can be hit with impunity—and indeed, adults are encouraged to do so as a way of seeing to it that they "learn right from wrong," learn to respect their elders," cease their "bad behavior." The practice is so prevalent and accepted in our culture that nearly 90% of people surveyed will tell you that a little spanking is necessary every now and then, to "maintain discipline."

Children in the U.S. age 2.5-3, the period when our identities are formed and we begin to have a will separate from the adults caring for us, are hit on average of once every third day. This attitude towards children is incorporated into law in Texas, where adult caregivers are explicitly protected even if they hit children with objects such as wires and brushes.  Nineteen states allow corporal punishment (beatings) in schools to be administered by principals or teachers. This is usually justified as necessary to maintain discipline in the classroom—that is, to see to it that the children will do what they are told, or else.  The fact that there is ample evidence accumulated that corporal punishment of children, even in its lightest form of an occasional spanking, or for that matter a single angry pat on the behind, is harmful to children and produces the opposite of the behavior intended, has little effect on general attitudes towards children.  These are not rationally formed considered judgments, but are mostly an unthinking response to our own upbringing, as in "I was beaten as a child, but I deserved it," or perhaps. "It made me the man I am today."

And, although female children are protected by law from any sort of tampering with their genitals, baby boys coming into this society have more than a 50% chance of having the most sensitive part of their penis cut off. This genital mutilation is called circumcision, the word itself hiding the nature of the act, and enabling most of the population, including myself, to do it to newborns for religious or spurious health reasons or just because they think it "looks better," or "he’d want to look like me."

It is necessary to take adultism on in the culture, not only because of the harm being done in an ongoing way to children, but also because the dysfunctional aspects of our politics that arise from the mistreatment of children make progressive politics nearly impossible.  The tendencies to see things in terms of good and bad (that is, I am for it or I am against it), others as enemies, and to righteously punish those we hold to be "bad,"  are regarded as unobjectionable when applied to  children. These attitudes have become internalized in adults and are the essence of politics in the US, currently being raised to the level of caricature in the tweets of Donald Trump.

We would suggest that progressive politics needs to be—and to a large extent is—based on the assumption that love is the ground of being of all human beings, that there are no intrinsically evil people, and that the differences between us that lead to conflict are there as the result of growing up in an oppressive culture.  That culture is internalized through misinformation and mistreatment at an early age.  The mistreatment also has systemic aspects that serve to reinforce white privilege, sexism, and deference to the upper classes, the latter through the destruction of the children's inherent sense of self worth, to be replaced by an endless striving to be good enough. (See our essay on empowering the next generation of activists.) If we are to end these "-isms" in the culture, we will have to stand against the means by which they are installed in us as children.

It is necessary for the Green Party to take a principled stand against adultism, first and foremost, because we value non-violence in all of our relationships, and the relationships we have with children are of prime importance for the continuation of the species. If we intervene now, the children being born today will be far more able in twenty years to create a world out of their love for it, rather than their fear of others and authority. Beyond that, the mistreatment of children is already a potent issue in the society, although the depth of the feelings about it are sometimes not visible. From substandard education, to withholding CHIP and Medicaid funds to children being given two pieces of bread and a slice of cheese for lunch if their parents cannot pay (or "ketchup is a vegetable" for those of us who remember the Reagan era), there is a strongly felt undercurrent of opposition when the interests of the wealthy in capital accumulation overrides the needs of the children. These actions are made politically possible by the failure to regard children as fully human, and deserving of having their needs met.

The Green Party has already made the needs of the young people  a political issue, with the demand for free college education, and the forgiving of student loans. We need to stand, and be seen to stand, for the children as well in all aspects of our politics. In the short term, that means approving the planks being offered by the Texas party (included here) making corporal punishment of children illegal (as in 51 other countries) and generating  awareness  that "circumcision" is genital mutilation. Beyond that, we need to stand, and be seen standing, for the welfare and full humanity of children, in every issue with which we are involved.

There is also work we need to do on ourselves. Although it is a truism that early experiences are most formative, we do not usually see the extent to which we have internalized attitudes about ourselves and the world, as a consequence of hurtful treatment we had to accept (from mostly well intentioned adults) as children. These attitudes, patterns of behavior, limit our ability to think and cooperate with others. We hold on to our anger, resentment, sadness, embarrassment and fear from times when we felt powerless in relation to the adults around us. These past experiences lie in wait. The emotions, and the coping mechanisms we put in place when we were children, take over when something in the present triggers a hurtful experience of the past. When triggered, we fight with each other over perceived slights that aren't intended, see people as antagonists to be dominated by better arguments, by outvoting them, by outmaneuvering them, rather than reaching for them to see what they are needing from us and their world.  We discount the opinions of young people and limit the responsibility we are willing to entrust them with, simply because they are young. Young people dismiss or oppose counsel from elders simply because they are old. The dysfunction of the past penetrates to our relationships with each other in the present, limiting our ability to work together.

We were not always that way.  As children, before we got too hurt, we were willing to love and be loved by anyone we met. This is our inherent nature, covered over by the hurts inflicted by a culture that didn’t know who we were. We need to take responsibility for our past hurts, not act on the feelings from them when they arise, and let them surface to be released when it seems safe enough to do so. Healing is possible, and we need to find a path that works for us as we work to heal the society.

Here is something that works for me, reminding me of who we are. If you are up for it, try making benevolent eye contact with young children you meet. You will find that they are mostly delighted to make contact with you, and I am guessing you will be delighted with them as well.

George Reiter
Co-Chair Harris County Green Party

"It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."—Frederick Douglass


Proposed Amendments to GPUS Platform from Green Party of Texas 

  1. We recognize that children are entitled to the full respect due any human being, and that corporal punishment of children, either at home or at school, constitutes violence against children. Such violence, whatever its desired ends, has been amply demonstrated to have no positive effect on children. It is perpetuated from generation to generation and conditions children to accept violence as a means of dealing with conflict when they are adults. We are opposed to the corporal punishment of children and will support educational programs and the passage of non-punitive state and national laws to end this practice.
  2. The practice of genital mutilation, called circumcision, when performed on infants or children, who either cannot or do not consent, constitutes a violation of their right to bodily integrity and freedom from unnecessary harm. Recognizing that the beliefs of the parents or adults whose responsibility it is to care for the children does not preclude these rights, and that the state has a responsibility to protect the children from harm, the Green Party will support educational programs to end this practice.




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