parentism: an example

What is parentism?

Parentism is a less discussed cousin of racism, sexism and classism. On my interpretation, parentism consists in discriminating against people on account of their parental status, or in individual actions and attitudes or institutional arrangements that favor persons of a particular parental status unjustly.

While surely there are cases wherein people are unjustly treated because they do have children, I am more interested in cases wherein people are unjustly treated because they don’t have children.

I got interested in parentism of this kind during a period in my life when I was thinking alot about whether I want to have children, and why or why not. I read especially about the “childfree” movement, whose members prefer to view themselves as having made an active and legitimate choice to pursue values in their lives other than those associate with childrearing, and who seek to avoid the pity garnered by the usual label of “childless.” While I’m still not sure whether my husband and I will have any children, I am glad to have explored this issue on my own before we married.

These personal explorations helped me to realized how biased some thinking and practices are towards the majority of people who do have children. This is something of a strange realization because, as a newish feminist, I simultaneously realize that in the US there is a serious lack of institutional support for parents, and mothers in particular (stingy leave policies, difficulty in taking even mandated leaves, continued wage gap, etc). I think this must be a case where commitment to a value is more established in principle than in practice.

Anyway, I was reading the New York Times and came across a flagrant example of parentism. Take a look at this seemingly innocuous article on the non-family friendliness of working at the White House:

“Family Friendly” White House is Less So for Aides

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The article is devoted to telling the sympathetic tales of White House employees whose jobs are so demanding that they don’t have time for their kids. Here’s an excerpt:

White House advisers often work 60 to 70 hours a week and bear the scars of missed birthdays and bedtimes, canceled dinners and play dates, strained marriages and disgruntled children, all for prestigious posts that offer a chance to make an impact and unparalleled access to the president. At a time when the nation is in recession and at war, the public expects no less, many argue.

Still, the Obamas, who also have young children, remain committed to making life more manageable for their aides who are parents, officials say.

First, let me say that I applaud the author of this article for exposing the fact that the lives of White House employees and their children are not the same as the lives of the first family, despite public proclamations by President Obama that he is committed to family friendliness. This is a legitimate issue and, while I’m sure the President’s words are sincere and his intentions in this regard are good, achieving family friendliness is easier said than done.

However, I am dismayed that this article makes absolutely no mention of the White House employees who do not have “families” (read, children). Unfortunately but predictably, it does not seem like equal consideration is given to them. Surely these childfree employees also have lots of things they’d like to be doing with their evenings and weekends – such as seeing their parents, siblings and friends, or doing all the valuable things that can fill a healthy and well-rounded life other than childrearing (attending cultural events, developing non-work-related skills, participating in various associations, resting, etc etc).

Stories of missed time with children tug at many readers’ heartstrings, but stories of childfree peoples’ missed dates, parties, yoga classes, sleep… not so much. And this is parentism in action.


  • A very provocative post, and an interesting point-of-view.

    As child-free by choice, who is also a never-married single, I am frustrated at times by the fact that our society is heavily child-centered. On a smaller, more personal scale, the curriculum at my place of employ is impacted to a degree by the teachers, mostly female, who have children. In other words, the scheduling of certain classes is determined based on what is best for the teacher in question, instead on the basis of what is best for students.

    I often believe that as a child-free single, the assumption is made that people like me have nothing better to do than to be at work. I fact, lots of erroneous, unfair, and prejudiced assumptions based on ignorance are made about me, not only as a child-free single, but as a single in general. A case in point: People are surprised that I don’t cook, or clean, or invest in nice household furnishings, because, only a woman with a spouse and children does these things.

  • I *meant* to say, “People are surprised that I do cook, clean and invest in nice household furnishings…”

  • I agree, it does seem that assumptions like that are made about the childfree. I’m sorry to hear that your experiences confirm the phenomenon :-/

    Your point about cooking, cleaning and maintaining a nice household only for yourself (and not for a partner or children) nicely illustrates the tendency to think of single people as selfish. Slaving away at keeping house for a family is self-sacrificing, which fits with stereotypes and norms about women. But, keeping house for yourself is either unintelligible, or gets understood as unnecessary and therefore self-indulgent. But, for those who have the means to control their reproductive lives and who have quite deliberately chosen to have children, having made that choice is equally as “selfish!” It’s not like the human race is in danger of dying out or something. So it appears that the selfishness claims really just boil down to whether or not the things you value are in line with the culturally dominant group’s values or not.

  • “But, keeping house for yourself is either unintelligible, or gets understood as unnecessary and therefore self-indulgent.”

    I really like the above sentence. It bottles the answer for the next time my married with children colleagues turn up their noses.

  • […] 11, 2009 A while back, I wrote a little bit on “parentism,” which I defined as “consisting in discriminating against people […]

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