04/16/2012 08:41 am ET Updated Jun 16, 2012

Who's the Bully? 'Childism' Says It's Not the Schoolyard Thug, It's Parents, Schools, American Culture

I thought I was doing a dead writer and her friend a favor.

Some favor.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl -- a psychoanalyst and biographer of Hannah Arendt and Anna Freud -- had, in an earlier incarnation as a professor of philosophy, been Dominique Browning's mentor at Wesleyan. They had become close, and that friendship had only increased Browning's admiration for her: "I cannot count all the times I did things because I wanted her to be proud of me, or the times I read things that I wanted to share with her, or the times I saw things I wanted to puzzle out with her." Now Young-Bruehl had a new book, "Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children." Browning wanted to host a book party. But first, they'd have a long visit.

There was no visit.

A month before the publication of her book and just before Young-Bruehl was to spend several days with Browning, she died. Suddenly. Impossibly.

On her blog, Browning mourned. And I thought: I've kinda known Dominique Browning for decades, I admire her blog and her clean-air cause, we've recently had some intense dialogue, I want her approval the way she wanted the respect of her mentor -- why not participate in her effort to get Young-Bruehl's book to interested readers?

Unintended consequences followed.

My gesture of solidarity with Dominique Browning has turned out to be a shattering confrontation with the final book of a major writer I never heard of. [To buy "Childism" from, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

"Childism" -- what is that? "A belief system that constructs its target group, 'the child,' as an immature being, produced and owned by adults who use it to serve their own needs and fantasies."

In essence, it's that children are property. Puppets of adults. We do with them what we want.

And what we want for children -- not you and I, maybe, but certainly America as a nation and a culture -- could not be uglier.

In 1977, the Supreme Court upheld corporal punishment in school. With that, Young-Bruehl writes, "Schools that had been developed in the 19th century on the model of a factory were encouraged to follow a new model: the military academy or the military prison."

Only two countries have not ratified the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in which child imprisonment is forbidden -- Somalia and the United States.

America incarcerates more of its children than any country in the world; half a million American children are currently in juvenile detention centers.

Each year 800,000 American children spend some time in foster care.

More children are reported for child abuse and neglect in the United States than for all the other industrialized countries combined.

And abuse isn't just physical violence or neglect, says Young-Bruehl. It's also over-parenting, so that the child has no authentic self. (If you've read The Drama of the Gifted Child, you know all about that.). Like the Tiger Mom: "a full-scale obsessional-narcissistic program."

How did it happen that a nation that was once a leader in protecting children now is more interested in keeping dysfunctional families together -- even when that generally produces more abuse? Here Young-Bruehl turns away from psychology and toward politics and sociology. She argues that the movements of the 1960s -- civil rights, anti-war, feminism -- freaked some parents out, leading them to fear that their kids wouldn't take care of them in their old age. They wanted compliant children. And a series of Republican Presidents -- and Bill Clinton -- adjusted our laws to encourage that. (Consider "No Child Left Behind." That kind of testing, Young-Bruehl says, is "about failing and being tracked according to failure.")

There's a lot more -- so much more you may be overwhelmed. Indeed, unless you're a psychoanalyst or an educator, there's a lot here that's technical and arcane; you'll want a quick finger to skip pages and, sometimes, whole chapters. But, mostly, you'll need an open mind and a willingness to consider that, for many of us, parenting is about the parents, not the kids.

I mentioned this provocative book to a noted pediatrician.

"Is it possible," I asked, "that American really hates children?"

"I say it all the time," he said. "Nobody believes it."

To read "Childism" is to start to believe it.

[Cross-posted from]