What is childism?

Like racism, sexism, or ableism, childism is a prejudice against a marginalized group – in this case, children. It shows up in many ways, but one of the most prominent is our tendency to separate children from the rest of society. When I typed “children belong in public spaces” into the search bar on my computer, Google informed me that people also ask:

  • How do I get my child under control?
  • How do you learn to respect others?
  • How do you control an aggressive child?

The message here is that parenting in public is risky business; the world is watching, and you’d better have your kids in line or leave them at home. But humans learn by doing. Children learn to navigate the world by being in the world. If we confine them to child-friendly spaces until they’re somehow magically ready to be part of society, we are not helping them bridge the gap from inexperienced, dependent children to competent, independent adults.

Kids belong out in the world.

I am not suggesting you take your preschooler with you to Mom’s Night Out, or drag your tween along to your next job interview. But I am suggesting you bring your kids to the bank, the grocery store, the voting booth, on public transportation (yes, even airplanes!), to museums and art galleries, and even to restaurants that aren’t Chuck E. Cheese, without hesitation or apology.

“Don’t ever apologize for the presence of your children.” – Amethyst Joy

I’ve done it myself: “Sorry, he’s teething.” “Sorry, he must be tired.” But imagine how you would feel if your friend or significant other routinely apologized for your behavior, or even just your presence. You’d probably start to feel like an inconvenient burden. A sense of belonging and significance is one of the most fundamental human needs. People (including children) who feel that they belong to (and are accepted by) their community tend to act in a connected and cooperative way.

How can we combat childism in public spaces?

We may encounter childism in public spaces from business owners, other parents, or random strangers who just don’t seem to like kids. As parents, we have the strongest influence over our own children, so here are some ways we can advocate for our kids, and trade childism for inclusion:

Manage expectations – yours and theirs.

Setting expectations prior to arriving at a location or situation can be invaluable. As adults, we have a lot of life experience that informs us in the moment about situationally-appropriate behavior. Most of us also have a well-developed prefrontal cortex, allowing us to exercise impulse control. Imagine your boss taking you on a business trip to another country with no advance notice, knowing nothing about where you are going, the culture of the people, or what is expected of you once you get there. In addition to the lack of information, you’re probably excited, and possibly nervous, all of which increase the likelihood of you making some kind of mistake. Let your kids know what’s going on ahead of time. If they mess up, check your own expectations, model patience, and focus on connection and problem solving.

Involve them.

Another way to remedy childism is to invite participation. Ask your kids to help you find the cereal at the grocery store. Encourage them to place their own order at restaurants. Engage them in conversation as you would with any other adults present. A child who is expected to stay quiet and not bother anyone in a social setting may act out as a way of saying, “I feel invisible! Do I belong here?” Treat them as though they belong, because they do. This not only teaches basic life skills, but fosters a sense of capability and connection.

Show them small steps.

Practice makes progress. If you’d like to take your child to a movie theater, but aren’t sure how they will handle the experience, set up a practice run at home. Pop some popcorn, put in a DVD, set up some chairs, and do a trial run. You can even try switching roles with them – they get to be the parent, and you play the child. Experiment with “misbehavior” – get up and run around, or talk through the movie, and see how they respond. This can be fun and empowering for kids, and may also give you some valuable insight as to how you sound to your child when you correct their behavior. Sensory-friendly screenings are another low-pressure way to introduce children to movie theater etiquette.

Give them a break.

I take my kids to a parkour class every weekend. My two-and-a-half-year-old absolutely loves the class, but he sometimes has a tough time following the directions, because, you know, he’s two. So instead of giving up on the class because he isn’t ready, or wrestling him into compliance, when he needs a break we go into the waiting area, where he gets a drink of water or does some puzzles, until he lets me know he is ready to rejoin the class. Over time, his ability to listen, focus, and follow the protocol is increasing. The option to take short breaks allows him to continue participating and feel included while he is learning, without disrupting the rest of the class.

Kids won’t be able to act in safe, socially-appropriate ways all the time. So give them (and yourself) a break. Sometimes it will be necessary to leave a situation out of respect for others, as well as for your child. Show confidence in their ability to learn and let them try again.

A child’s smaller size does not make them part of a person, or a potential person. From birth, children are already whole people. 

Because they’re new here and still learning, they will make mistakes: They will be too loud, say inappropriate things, touch things they aren’t supposed to, and get upset at inopportune moments. We can be embarrassed by and exasperated with their inexperience and lack of competence, or we can move past our childism, meet them where they are, and guide them with encouragement.