How Our Socialization as Children Perpetuates Oppression
Throughout our lives, we are bombarded with information about our culture from all kinds of sources including media and institutions. The information we take in when we are children also includes biases, stereotypes, and prejudices, often connected to groups of people.
In the process of growing up we learn about ourselves not only as individuals, but also as members of groups, social identity groups, that have particular roles in our broader society.
We may not think of children or youth as a social identity group. Even as a social justice educator, I touched on the surface of ageism and adultism, but did not spend much time thinking or analyzing issues related to children as a group.
Childhood is a unique identity. It is the only group we are all a part of at one time, and a group that we do not remain in.
As a group, we define children in contrast to adults.
Children are not judged in our culture based on their own, they are judged against adult behavior. We consider adults to be the “norm.” The other reality of childhood is that adults get to establish the “norm” and do so without any input from children.
When children and their behavior do not fit that “norm” we judge them as deficient.
These deficiencies last until children become adults. And even then, if adults don’t fit the norm, we may describe them as disparagingly as “childish.”
This process of socialization has been described by Bobbi Harro as a perpetual cycle. It is a cycle because once we become adults, we in turn teach younger people the same things we learned as children.
Adapted from Bobbi Harro, “The Cycle of Socialization,” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (2000)
When I write about our socialization as children, I am not, at this point, referencing the kind that occurs around gender identity, race, sexual orientation, religious identity, ethnicity, national origin, or ability status.
The reason I write about what we are taught about childhood and our status as children is that I believe this socialization process is the foundation for reinforcing the power of some groups over others based on social identity.
The roots of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression are grown in childhood.
When I first became a parent, I would have completely agreed with the statement I just wrote.
BUT, I would have agreed only in the sense that I believed that children learned racism from parents and institutions. I believed that children are forced into gender norms that reinforce prejudice and discrimination against those who do not fit traditional ideas about gender expression.
I could continue with all of the social identity groups that experience some form of discrimination. These forms of oppression are important for us to challenge.
But, more importantly, what it took me several years to understand is that the adult-child relationship in our culture is the foundation for other types of oppression beyond adultism.
Adult authority figures establish normative relationships that use domination and control to force children to behave in ways acceptable to adults.
This kind of relationship creates fertile ground for believing that the use of power over others based on social identities is acceptable and expected.
We normalize “power-over” dynamics.
Oppression and discrimination are normalized from birth through our lived experiences as children.
In my own experiences as a child, I grew up with a father and mother who loved me and wanted the best for me. They hoped that my life would be better than theirs. I could certainly write about the dysfunction in my family.
I even used to believe that my feelings about what it meant to be a child in my family were merely the result of the personal problems carried into our family by my parents.
Once I had children, I began to see this differently.
I have spent over 20 years professionally working on issues of diversity and then social justice in higher education. It was not until I became a parent that I began to see the ways in which children are marginalized as individuals and as a group merely because of their social identity as “non-adults.”
That realization caused me to reexamine my socialization as a child.
What did I learn about power and control during my childhood?
How did I come to believe that it was normal and natural to use control over those who had been disempowered in our society?
Just as I began to examine and unlearn the many forms of oppression I learned in childhood, I have had to unlearn what I took in as a child about what it means to be a child.
I had to step out of the particulars of my family dynamics and understand that there were much larger societal forces at play.
These larger forces are not some sort of conspiracy theory.
I fundamentally believe based on my work, observations of others, and personal experiences that when we as individuals perpetuate discrimination and oppression it is not because we are evil. At least I believe that for the vast majority of us.
I believe we perpetuate it because it is what we learned. And if we are committed to social change, we have an obligation to unlearn it.
We learned that the less powerful are controlled by the more powerful. And, even if we rebelled against this control as children, we often grow up and use that same power over children.
I know I did.
And then I began to question the assumptions I had internalized growing up about adult-child relationships.
We must be willing to question what we were given.
We must be willing to engage in critical reflection about the nature of power and how power is embedded in our relationships and institutions.
Beyond the analysis, the thinking we need to engage in, we must also listen to our hearts.
We can see and feel the difference when we parent from a place of respect and trust. We can face our fears.
We can do the most important work we have to do as parents. That work is not about the children in our lives.
The work we have to do as parents is to liberate ourselves from the unconscious beliefs we took in during our childhood.
Socialization is a powerful process.
But it is not all powerful.
I reject the notion that we cannot fight such a large societal force at play. We can all reject this.
Each one of us has the power to change the way we approach parenting.
And the more that each one of us transforms the relationships with have with children, the more we create broader social change.
Even when the force of society may point us in another direction, every step we take in a new direction, one that is based on mutuality, trust, and respect, moves us slowly but surely to a place where we can change the world.