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Are Children an Oppressed Class?

February 25, 2010

Children of Laos by Taylor Miles

I can take no credit for asking this question or raising this issue. Many people I respect have written about this subject before. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find most of these posts through Google, though I remember that one appeared here. You see, when I first started seeing these posts, my response was anger. Haven’t women, and disabled women in particular, been fighting not to be treated like children? Doesn’t saying that children are oppressed undo all of that?

But enough people I respect had commented on the subject that I sat on my rage and thought about it for a while. Eventually I came to see was that my reaction to the idea of children as an oppressed class resembled the way some temporarily able-bodied feminists respond to discussions of ableism. Able-bodied women don’t want to be treated like “cripples”, after all. Then I had to admit that of course children are oppressed as a class. Because they are smaller and weaker than most adults, and at very young ages unable to provide for their needs independently at all, they are deeply vulnerable to oppression.

Demobilize child soldiers in the Central African Republic by hdptcar

When Nestle encourages women to use formula even though they cannot afford enough to feed their children adequately and have to water it down too much, it is the children who are being oppressed. Children in countries brutalised by war are forced to become soldiers because they are children and thus more easily coerced. Nations that lack adequate childcare oppress not only the mothers (and a few fathers) whose ability to work is limited but also the children who will often suffer either economic deprivation or lack of adequate nurturance and supervision.

None of this changes the fact that it is wrong to treat a woman, disabled or otherwise, as a child. If you treat a thirty-year old like a four-year old should be treated, you will not be meeting her needs—and the reverse is also true. Similarly, if you treat a sighted woman as if she is blind, you are not meeting her needs just as you would not be meeting the needs of a blind woman by expecting her to act the same way a sighted person would. Talking about these differences gets tricky, however. If you say you simply do not want to be treated the way a member of another oppressed class is treated, it comes across as a desire to be more respected, and less ill-treated, because you are not a member of this other class and that contributes to the stigma they must face. While there may be some contexts in which it is useful to differentiate between the needs of different groups, in most situations it is probably best simply to state the way in which one does not want to be treated. For instance, I want to have my ideas respected and considered because if they are summarily dismissed, my need to be heard is not being respected, not because I am not a child or like a child.

In the end, feminism must address the needs of children not only because women are most often their caretakers, though this does matter, but because children deserve to be loved and respected. They deserve to have their needs met, not merely to be praised when they say or do something that supports the desires and needs of adult feminists. Feminism is for girls, too.

ETA: In comments below, Katherine suggested two resources: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the campaign to get the US to sign it.

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15 Comments
  1. February 28, 2010 7:11 pm

    I am new to this subject as well. One thing I haven’t yet been able to get past is the fact that childhood is a temporary state that all people go through, and you can be reasonably expected to advance past it. I don’t quite understand the need to create a movement out of the fact that, because children are children, they have certain disadvantages to adults. I had what would be considered a “normal” childhood in the US, and remember feeling a small amount of rage that I couldn’t vote at 12 (thank god I couldn’t vote at 12; I was completely unable to critically analyze important issues like that yet) or that I had a statewide curfew at 16. I don’t look back with anger, feeling as though I was being denied rights or privileges because I had to go in the house after 11.

    I’ll just have to read up more, I guess. But as you were saying, the web seems to have a lack of substantive information on the issue.

  2. February 28, 2010 9:25 pm

    “thank god I couldn’t vote at 12; I was completely unable to critically analyze important issues like that yet”

    Voting isn’t a privilege, it’s a right. To quote someone else in the youth rights movement, “Asking if someone is mature enough to vote is like asking if they’re tall enough to do math.” If the law affects someone, then they should be allowed to participate in it. Also, the Voting Rights Act says that 6th grade is enough education to vote. And yes, there is a youth rights movement, which has existed for decades, and it’d answer a lot of your questions and address a lot of your assertions if you educated yourself in its 101. Before anyone assumes otherwise, I’ve aged out of the vast majority of these effects (though the biases don’t seem to go away entirely until you hit your mid-30s), and I still care about it. I think (and I am not the first or only person to suggest this) that much of the reason that we learn to accept oppression is our experiences with the oppression of youth, so it matters to all oppressed groups, not only those under a certain age.

    • March 1, 2010 9:44 am

      Thanks YR: I probably should have made more direct connection with the youth rights movement in my original post which was really aimed at those who might be skeptical, as I was at first, about the issue of youth rights, and I apologise for not doing so. I think you are absolutely right that we learn to accept oppression as youth and then continue to do so as we age. There is, indeed, a particular connection to issues of disability rights: if it seems right that children and youth have so many limits placed upon them because of “maturity” or “intelligence” then it’s no wonder that it seems right to so many people to restrict the rights of people with developmental disabilities. Discrimination against the young is precisely why the problematic concept of “mental age” can be used as a weapon against the disabled.

    • March 2, 2010 11:52 am

      Also, the Voting Rights Act says that 6th grade is enough education to vote.

      Good to know; I was completely unaware of this.

      I’ve looked for some 101-style education on the issue online, but have yet to find anything substantial. On the other hand, I wasn’t looking very hard. I do plan to continue, anyway. Thanks for the info in your comment.

  3. February 28, 2010 9:27 pm

    Follow-up

    “Also, the Voting Rights Act says that 6th grade is enough education to vote.” This is just the US, but there are different but similar arguments to be made about other countries that have similar roots (that is, most countries don’t stop adults from voting due to their intellectual/ educational status).

  4. hsofia permalink
    March 2, 2010 3:23 am

    I do think children as a class of people are oppressed. Although, I think what laws/regulations/societal norms related to children we consider to be “oppressive” will vary …. Some people get very focused on things like voting ages, rights regarding custody, etc. I’m personally more interested in things like education and health care, freedom from abuse, etc.

  5. Paul permalink
    March 2, 2010 5:26 pm

    Are they EVER! Children are not just an oppressed class, they are the gold standard of oppressed classes, second only to literal slaves.

    Even people who claim to care about children’s “rights” often really only mean children’s welfare (as in animal welfare). Empowering young people with actually rights couldn’t be further from their minds. Sometimes they even dress up a loss of freedom as a right with language like “right to be protected from…”.

  6. Ken permalink
    March 3, 2010 11:48 am

    We get our first taste of oppression as children. By the time we age out of childhood, we know everything we need to know about oppression including who should be oppressed, how to oppress, and the consequences of oppressing others. Although oppression begins with parents and other adults as we pass through school, it is only the beginning. The construct of oppression is repeated throughout our lives as we oppress or are oppressed. I believe it takes much effort to escape from that socially constructed cycle. I teach sociology classes and when I bring up the idea of oppression in one of its most basic forms — corporal punishment — I am astounded by how many individuals defend the practice and seem to be almost nostalgic in their memory of being beaten by adults. They comment “I deserved it” or “It made me who I am today” and so forth. They are firmly entrenched in the cycle since they can reason that it was good for them, corporal punishment and other forms of punishment will be good for others. Comments please.

  7. Meg permalink
    March 3, 2010 12:11 pm

    I may be unusual, in that I remember most of my childhood (starting at around age 1.5), and experienced much of it as frustration and helplessness, despairing, waiting. I was perfectly qualified to vote at age 12. In fact, I followed politics more closely when I was ten than I do now; they had a direct impact on my life in ways my current privilege shields me from. I cared about helmet laws, educational resources and requirements, employment opportunities (working illegally was the only possibility) and by 13 the possibility of sexual consent with another child my age (probably half my middle school class were felons who could have gone on the sex offender register if convicted), as well as all the issues that affected adults as well. Despite all that, the last person anyone making laws about children asks, it turns out, are actual children. At age 14 I was capable of articulating the problems with the schooling I was receiving and presented a well-formed presentation on the subject, to which the response was, literally, “how cute!” When I was 15 online forums emerged as a Real Thing, and I was finally able to have my ideas taken seriously, because I could hide my youth.

    What better definition of irrational bias is there beyond “if this characteristic is hidden, people receive my ideas differently”? Now, looking back, I wish I had come out, so that at least those people who took my writings seriously then would have been forced to reexamine their assumptions about youth, authority and value.

    Children are humans in development, just like every single other human on earth. People are more likely to vote Democrat as they age; should we prohibit middle-aged people from voting? Clearly they have not solidified their political ideas. Laws are passed affecting only children when they have no means of affecting their passage. My attempts as a youth to engage with the political process were considered evidence of future promise, not relevant to the discussion at hand. Speak to 12 year olds today, listen to what they have to say, and I suspect you’ll be surprised.

    Is the right answer to give them autonomy, rights over their own bodies, the ability to reject decisions made on their behalf? Their dependance, enshrined in law, is used as justification, but we can draw parallels. Is it okay to further constrain their driving, but discriminatory to constrain the driving of older drivers? Why is it legally acceptable to assault “your” child in the name of discipline, even if they resist or tell you not to, the way it used to be acceptable to beat “your” wife? The very fact that children are owned humans under the law should make every reasonable person squirm.

    My personal hypothesis is that the very discrimination imposed on them, with all it’s racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-sex and paternalistic systematic concerns, is part of what inspires the behavior it attempts to constrain. Just like with women who were not expected to work, children’s oppression is considered a privilage. Whenever someone starts waxing poetically about their happy childhood, I always suspect that they either don’t remember it or have never had additional oppression to compare the experience to.

  8. March 6, 2010 9:15 pm

    “You see, when I first started seeing these posts, my response was anger. Haven’t women, and disabled women in particular, been fighting not to be treated like children? Doesn’t saying that children are oppressed undo all of that?”

    I would argue that all oppressed groups fight for respect. If white first-wave feminists ever made racist comments about not wanting to be treated like black people, who incidentally have historically been cast as child-like, it doesn’t invalidate their struggle becuase black people are now far more respected.

    According to this article, John Adams once wrote, “Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end to it. New claims will arise; women will demand the vote; lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.” It’s something to think about.

    • March 7, 2010 1:09 pm

      Yes–what I was trying to get across were my initial responses which were definitely problematic. My hope is that other people who did have the same response might rethink it on that basis.

      That John Adams quote is quite revealing!

  9. Katherine permalink
    March 8, 2010 3:58 am

    You might wish to take a look at the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, for some background information:

    http://www.unicef.org/crc/

    It has been ratified by every member of the UN except Somalia and the US, and Somalia is planning to do so shortly.

    You might also wish to take a look a this website – http://childrightscampaign.org/crcindex.php – on the campaign for the US to ratify.

    • March 8, 2010 6:28 am

      Thank you. I’ve added these two links to the original post, as it’s still getting a lot of views, and I don’t think I’m the only one who will find these useful.

      • Katherine permalink
        March 9, 2010 4:20 am

        I’m glad you’re finding them useful. The Convention, because it is relatively recent, is really pretty good on gender issues, so is potentially very important for the rights of the girl child.

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