Are we dehumanizing our children?

Children are often described in dominant mainstream parenting as wild, uncontrollable, and uncivilized. Young children, in particular are often equated to animals.

As parents we are told we need to “tame” and “civilize” children. In using these words, our dominant culture dehumanizes children. They are seen as less than human until they reach an age or level of socialization that is judged to be appropriate by adults.

If we accept and perpetuate these beliefs as parents, we dehumanize our children as well.

What do we do when we dehumanize children with these labels? How do these labels allow us to treat children with less than the respect they deserve? By dehumanizing children, we are able to rationalize our control and oppression of them.

We believe that we must control children in order to help them become more human and socially acceptable beings. However, interpersonal control is being linked in research findings to feelings of dehumanization and interpersonal violence.

According to research on dehumanization, the negative consequences of the denial of humanness includes violence, in particular violence toward the individuals or groups dehumanized.

In addition, researchers found a positive relationship between the experience of interpersonal control and (1) a tendency toward interpersonal violence and (2) feelings of dehumanization. Feeling more autonomous, more free, was negatively related to a tendency toward interpersonal violence and feeling dehumanized.*

It seems a natural (and unquestioned belief) that when we feel a child is out of control, we need to impose more control on her.

However, this imposition of greater control has the opposite effect. If a child (or adult) feels controlled, they may feel dehumanized and react with aggression or violence.

My own experiences as a person who was controlled as a child and as a parent who then used control on children mirror the results found in the research.

When I feel controlled by others I rebel, passively or actively. When I have used control as a parenting tool, the children in my life have also responded with rebellion, aggression or violence. This violence was directed internally or externally. It could be negative and harmful self-talk or anger and aggression focused on others.

When I have let go of using interpersonal control as a parenting tool, I have seen the anger and aggression in them correspondingly reduce. If we are committed to a respectful relationship with children in which their humanity is affirmed, it is time to reject control as a necessary parenting tool.

*Arlen C. Moller and Edward L. Deci, “Interpersonal control, dehumanization, and violence: A self-determination theory perspective,” Group Processes and Intergroup Relations 41 (January 2010): 41.