Last week, we discussed that under stress, children develop coping strategies that are attuned to the situation in which they live or have to survive. Stress becomes toxic when social support is lacking; to handle this stress, children need the buffering protection of an adult for that. A situation in which the needs of the child are constantly trumped by the privileges, ambitions and biosocial needs of the adults continuously increases that stress and harms the health and wellbeing of the child. Analogous to white and male supremacy, we could call this Adult Supremacy (AS). How do we, as a society, deal with that power inequality, with the interest of the child in relation to the adult interests?
Nature or nurture?
The AS-concept resulted from the fascinating question about the development of the young child into adulthood. How do we, as humans, build a view of the world around us? How does our personality build itself? How can we understand the way our health and wellbeing are rooted in our childhood? For decades, in discussions about the relationship between nature and nurture, between genetic and upbringing’s inheritance, between biological and social influences on personality and health, the balance tipped towards the first. If we look at parenting and many other forms of institutionalised policies, that is probably still the case for many. The thought often goes more or less like this: “Surely there is a certain influence of how we are treated, but, in the end, it is just about how we are, about what is in our genes. Some things are simply hereditary.”
This is an interesting position to take, because it also implies that when someone is (socially) dysfunctioning, we have to conclude that this person was born this way. They did not become this way due to the circumstances, but because of their genes – they were difficult, stubborn, lazy, headstrong, or selfish from the very start . This is quite an assumption to make, and at the same time one that doesn’t hold. Research has shown that such a position is way too simplistic and untenable in light of the current scientific understanding . It is a scientific consensus nowadays that the two are so intricately linked that they cannot be divided, unless we refer to a 100% genetically transmitted condition, such as Huntington’s disease. As such, the early years have proved to be way more important than we initially thought… or maybe rather than we hoped, because if these early years are so crucial, they place a big responsibility on the shoulders of the adults around the child. And that actually is quite something! It tells us something about the status of the child in society and about whether we consider this status important enough to finetune our social practices to it.
Where do the child and the child’s interest stand in society?
In essence, AS is about the position of the adult in the life of the young child and, a bit broader, about the way in which adults deal with children and their interests, both in private life and through the national and local government, societal institutions and many forms of legislation. What is the position of children in our communities? How do we view them? How do we weigh their short- and long-term interests against our adult interests and adults’ interest? (More on the difference between the two next week.)
Regularly, the child’s interest comes off fairly poorly. In practical circumstances, but also in policy documents, the general tenor is: the child has to adjust to adult life and adult pace. Wordings like ‘prevent the child from taking over’, ‘make sure who’s in charge’, ‘be strictly consistent, because the child has to know where it stands’ all indicate what the power balance looks like: the child is the subordinate.
In this vein, there are several guidelines in the parenting field in which the fundamental tone is still very adult-centred: the interests of the adult are the guiding principle, as can often be gathered from the language used and the recommendations made in these policy documents. Combined with what we can perceive around us in (parenting) books and discussions about children, it can be very hard to remain optimistic regarding the extent to which we as a society keep the interests of the child in sharp focus. This is particularly the case when societies are facing exceptional problems as a whole, as has been the case since March 2020. Government policies state that they want to protect the most vulnerable, but is that indeed what happens? How are children being protected?
Two examples that might be considered AS
The present corona circumstances show some pressing AS-examples, two of which we will highlight here.
First, the closing of schools and childcare locations is meant to make sure that parents work at home and do not have to commute to bring and fetch their children. What is overlooked in this is that:
1) children have constantly been described as a non-substantial source of infection;
2) children need positive interactions for their social and intellectual development and school is for some children the safe place where they can flourish and can evade the (sometimes toxic!) stress of their home base;
3) children cannot get the care they need at home if their parents have to work there, which increases the chances of high stress to such levels that possibly everyone becomes a victim of it.
This government measure thus creates worrisome risk factors in relation to the child’s interest and seems to insufficiently recognise the importance of parental stability as the foundation of child wellbeing.
Second, there is the fact that professional lactation care is on the list of ‘non-necessary contact professions’, comparable to hairdressers and nail stylists. The foundation of health is laid in infancy, as is recognised globally and also by the Dutch government through the concept of ‘the first 1000 days’: you only have one chance of optimising this period. Breastfeeding is a part of those first 1000 days, based on nutritional components, the development of a healthy microbiome and thus immunity, and because breastfeeding facilitates and promotes healthy stress regulation and secure attachment. International documents speak about the child’s right to the highest attainable standard of health and in line with that, about the child’s right to be breastfed. This makes one seriously wonder how it is possible that the support for breastfeeding is not categorised as necessary care. This government measure, too, seems to insufficiently keep the child’s interest in focus and shows that the role of breastfeeding for health is still not properly acknowledged. This decision also insufficiently considers the significance of supporting powerful parenting, characterised by self-efficacy, which is so important for the extent to which parents can offer their child the aforementioned buffering protection in case of stress. Which AS-aspects can we uncover in all this?
The essence of Adult Supremacy
Let us repeat the definition once more:
Adult Supremacy (AS) is a power position in which adults consciously or unconsciously cause their privileges, ambitions and (unrecognised) biosocial needs to trump child wellbeing, rendering the minor minor.
The essential components are probably clear:
- it is about the power position of the adult: the child is dependent, the adult decides about issues that influence the child;
- wishes and needs of the adult play an important role in that: the adult wants or needs to have a full time paid career, grapples with being overburdened in parenthood, does not want to allow the child what was not allowed in their own childhood, feels pressure to make clear who in the family makes the rules, based on personal trauma or common opinions about this;
- adult interests are strived for, consciously or unconsciously at the expense of the child’s interest: adults are part of a large arsenal of social conventions and (have to) follow these without thorough reflection on how they correlate to child needs;
- the minor becomes minor: adults do not see the child as an equal human with similar needs and feelings.
This is a tough list, one that can easily create the impression that the term Adult Supremacy is simply meant to picture parents as ill-willing creatures and to blame them for problems in the child. That is most certainly not the intention and therefore next week’s episode will delve into this more deeply.
An interesting and powerful statement by Benjamin Perks, UNICEF New York
The child’s interest is often considered of lesser importance compared to the adult interest. Behaviour and personality are often still seen mainly as a consequence of nature, of innate characteristics. As a consequence, the influence of nurture, the way we treat children, can be made less relevant or secondary. Seeing the extensive knowledge around the social construction of stress and behaviour and around the impact of buffering protection on the prevention of building life-lasting problems, it is rather shocking to note that many policies still fall short in taking those insights into account.
Next week, we will look at the responsibility adults have to really protect the most vulnerable and how that can be very difficult when they struggle with their own biosocial inheritance.