Promoting systemic thinking, and therapeutic and relationship based approaches in social work


Promoting systemic thinking, and therapeutic and relationship-based approaches in Social Work

Childism and the Child in Care in England

Stephen Mills

This article is about children in care and their multi-professional care networks. The article proposes that professionals in the field committed to extending their appreciations of how to listen to and improve the ways in which they care for children could usefully add the lens of childism to their repertoire of practices.

This article proposes that (in England) members of multi-agency professional care networks around children in care – (social workers, supervising social workers, teachers, child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) clinicians, foster carers, and others) can be of most help to those children in their care when they can incorporate into their care practices time for collective reflection upon and ongoing critique of their own professional and institutional practices and the theories which underpin them.

By reflecting and critiquing I mean that these children’s care networks should actively incorporate a decolonising agenda into their practices. Adopting a decolonising agenda useful to those practising in the context of care networks with a child in care begins with an analysis of the power operating within the adult-child relationship.

Before talking about childism in particular and demonstrating its possible decolonial uses in practice with children’s care networks, I want to briefly mention one or two further sources which may help contextualise the reader’s thinking about asymmetric adult-child relations.

Maria Esther Cavagnis (a systemic psychotherapist working in Argentina), characterises the relationship between adults and children as the ‘greatest asymmetry in history… with the child unquestionably situated in a relationship of dependence and subordination’ (Infancia Revolucianaria/Revolutionary Childhood)

I presume Cavagnis to be talking here about this asymmetry as characteristic of relations between the general population of adults and the general population of children. My doctoral research suggested to me that there may be reason to believe that this asymmetry, this relationship of dependency and subordination may be even more pronounced in the context of children in care in England.

Cavagnis is of course not the only writer to offer an analysis of the relationship between adults and children.

Cannella and Viruru (2004) for example argue that ‘childhood’, as it has come to be understood (in the West), is an ‘imperial construct’, not a natural phenomenon, but rather a construction of human life forged in the fires of those discourses which emerged in support of Western colonialism and the ‘colonisation of most parts of the non-Western world’ (p. 4).

Nikolas Rose (1999) argues that ‘childhood is the most intensively governed sector of personal existence…It is the child whose health, welfare and rearing (which has) been linked in thought and practice to the destiny of the nation and the responsibilities of the state’ (p. 123).

Jenny Kitzinger (2004) suggests that sexual exploitation (of children) may be an inbuilt risk when the current ideological and structural position of children in western societies, a position which positions them in an idealised world of innocence, passivity, and joy, is intersected by hierarchical gender relations premised on the patriarchy.

What these (and other writers on childhood) might appear to suggest is that rather than being merely a natural fact, childhood is something we (adults, children, along with our theories, practices, and institutions) actively and collectively construct.

Indeed, in my doctoral thesis[1], focusing on professional constructions of the child in care and the practices of multi-agency care networks, I attempted to map some of the myriad ways in which professional and institutional language, attitudes, beliefs, and the theories which underpin them are assembled together in ways which specifically construct a childhood in care.

What my research demonstrated is that often invisibly embedded within adult professional language and practices (and ultimately within the adult interventions and practices towards children in care) are colonial, marginalising, and discriminatory assumptions which often pass for common-sense positions.

Childism: What is it?

I want to move on now to say something about childism and its decolonial possibilities for the practices of children’s multi-agency care networks.

Social care professionals educated and trained within Western, colonial, hierarchical and patriarchal social-pedagogic systems are now becoming accustomed to thinking in terms of structural prejudice against women (sexism and misogyny) and against Black and Brown people (racism, white supremacy), but they may be less familiar with thinking about the power imbalance that exists between adults and children and its profound social consequences.

Emerging out of critical childhood studies in the early 2000s, according to the Childism Institute[2], ‘childism is a critical lens like feminism and decolonialism that is deployed across the humanities and social sciences to better understand children’s marginalized experiences.’ Childism ‘allies with feminist, queer, decolonial, antiracist, posthumanist, and other forms of critical scholarship’ with the intention of ‘transforming (adult) norms and structures’ which systemically marginalise and discriminate against children (Childism: An Introduction, 2021).

According to the Sage Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood Studies (2020), childism views ‘the social from the perspective of the child and childhood.’ A view from this (childist) perspective involves working to ensure that children’s experiences and interests make a difference to how power, particularly adult power over children’s lives, is exercised.

For Elisabeth Young-Bruehl[3] (2012) childism works to identify and describe the deep, socially-embedded and pervasive adultist ‘prejudice against children’ which exists in (Eurocentric Western) societies.

Some define childism ‘as the advocacy of the rights of children’, with adultism, defined as ‘a systemic condition that promotes stereotyping and disempowering of the young. Adultism positions adults as superior to children regardless’ of their differences or their respective ‘merits’[4].

Adam Fletcher[5] (2015) identifies three forms of adultism common to Western societies. (i) Attitudinal adultism which incorporates an individual’s feelings, assumptions, and beliefs about children. (ii) Cultural adultism, denoting the widely shared discriminatory social attitudes and beliefs shared by a society toward children. And (iii) structural or institutional adultism which sees these individual and social forms of discrimination cumulatively normalised, routinised, and legitimised within a society’s legal, political, and institutional frameworks.

Arguably, children in care must face not only these (ordinary) discriminatory adultist perspectives (on account of their being children) but additionally they must contend with the social stigma and unique forms of structural discrimination brought about by their proximity to and dependency upon the institutions of social care.

It is worth noting perhaps that in his recent report[6] Josh MacAlister has concluded that…

Many care experienced people face discrimination, stigma and prejudice in their day to day lives. Public perceptions of care experience centre on the idea that children are irredeemably damaged and that can lead to discrimination and assumptions being made.

Commenting on MacAlister’s report a recent Guardian editorial notes that,

Care-experienced people face some of the most severe disadvantages of any section of the population. Overrepresented among homeless people and in the criminal justice system, they also suffer from worse health, education and employment outcomes than almost any other group.[7]

And MacAlister himself concludes that,

The disadvantage faced by our care experienced community should be the civil rights issue of our time…they are often invisible to society and face some of the greatest inequalities that exist in EnglandEqualities law should be changed to protect people with care experience from discrimination….’

A change in the law might accomplish much. In time.

However, it is already clear from our socially-accumulated knowledge of sexism, misogyny, and racism, that prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory beliefs will continue to find ways of insinuating themselves into our language, our policies, our institutions and practices, our thoughts, attitudes, and relationships.

Neither the social care institutions (Children’s Services, Education, CAMHS, Foster Care) nor the professionals who work within them (social workers, teachers, clinicians and doctors, foster carers) are free from prejudicial and discriminatory thoughts and practices. These institutions have their origins in white, Western, Eurocentric, middle class, heterosexist, patriarchal theories (child development, attachment, developmental psychology) which underpin almost all current social care policy, practice, and intervention[8].

What can be done?

Let me provide an example which may help demonstrate how the lenses of childism and adultism may usefully contribute to a critical analysis of the way adult power (in this case a primary school teacher speaking to colleagues in the child’s multi-agency care network) may work to discriminate against children in care. Although I have imagined these particular words the assumptions and beliefs they express may nevertheless be familiar to some of you.

He’s not really learning anything at school…no formal schooling…he just won’t do it. If we even suggests learning anything he’ll run off…out on the field…play with a stick or a ball…half an hour…you can’t coax him in…just comes back in when he’s had enough…says he’s hungry or tired or cold or thirsty…that’s all he’ll do…he’s never had boundaries…doesn’t really have them now with the foster carers…he needs more consistency, rules…thinks he can do whatever he likes…won’t take responsibility…no remorse…he’s not going to get anywhere if he goes on like this…we won’t be able to go on doing this for ever…

From a conventional professional (adultist) perspective the teacher’s[9] words are taken as the Truth, plain and simple, with the child and his behaviours taken to be the (only) legitimate unit of analysis. Through this lens it is the child’s behaviours which are the focus of professional adult critique. With attention fixed on the child (is this what is meant by child-centred?) the professional and their adultist attitudes remain conveniently invisible.

In this standard common-sense view, the professional is merely confirming what every adult member of the child’s care network already knows: without further adult intervention (consistency, rules, boundaries) this child is not going to get anywhere.

Childism invites care professionals to take another broader, deeper look at these events.

What might the view look like if we imagine[10] the scene through the eyes (and the body) of the child[11]?

Prompted by our imaginations we might ask ourselves questions such as, If my thinking about this child were not already obscured by my own, my colleagues, and my institution’s automatic adultist assumptions, how might I be able see him and his activities differently?

We further might ask, When he runs outside to play how is he demonstrating his ability to care for himself and others at school? In swishing the stick to and fro what opportunities for learning is he creating for himself and others, including adults? Through this performance of agency might he be demonstrating an acute political awareness of and resistance to (or at the very least an attempt at negotiation with) forms of adult power which have presided over every aspect of his life irrespective of whether he lived at home with his birth parents or now in foster care? Might the child be expressing frustration at the way in which adults continually (and perhaps arrogantly) assume that they already know with certainty what his best interests are? (How do they know this?) Perhaps the declaration of his states of hunger, or tiredness, or thirst are invitations to himself and those around him to (re)consider what might count as a relationship of mutual care in this specific moment.

Childism might be a useful addition to the practice repertoire of social workers (and their colleagues in multi-agency care networks) working with children in care. A tool for helping professionals to see differently, affirming that this child’s activities are intrinsically valuable and worthy of respect. A decolonial, childism-informed perspective confirms the child’s right to express their self, to improvise a life (as we all must do), and the responsibility of adults to generate, in cooperation with children, ethical and relational contexts which enhance possibilities for mutual recognition and dignity.


[1] Constructions of the child in care: generating alternative figurations of children and childhood in care that may be useful for multi-agency network practices (

[2] Events | Childism Institute

[3] Elisabeth Young-Bruehl – Wikipedia

[4] What Does “Childism” Mean? | The Power of Play | Toca Boca

[5] Facing Adultism by Adam Fletcher – Adam F.C. Fletcher (Accessed 10th August 2022).

[6] The-independent-review-of-childrens-social-care-Final-report.pdf ( (Accessed 9th August 2022).

[7] The Guardian view on children’s social care: a heartbreaking market | Editorial | The Guardian (Accessed 9th August 2022).

[8] As an exercise you might ask yourself or discuss with colleagues the following question. Where do your ideas about what counts as a ‘proper’ childhood come from?

[9] Whilst this example focuses attention on the imagined words of a teacher, my research identified similar adultist perspectives from all members of multi-agency care networks.

[10] Because we cannot know with any certainty what the child is actually experiencing this must remain an exercise of the adult imagination.

[11] Trauma-informed approaches might claim that this is what they are attempting to accomplish – that is, seeing things through the child’s experience of earlier trauma – unfortunately, the tendency of trauma approaches can be a totalising and pathologising view of the child.



Burman, E. (2008)  Deconstructing Developmental Psychology, (2nd edn) London: Routledge.

Cannella, G. S. and Viruru, R. (2004) Childhood and Postcolonization: Power, Education, and Contemporary Practice. London: Routledge.

Cavagnis, M. E. (2nd November 2018) Revolutionary Childhood [Presentation at the Tavistock Clinic, London, UK].

Childism: An Introduction. Available at Childism Institute

Fletcher, A. (2015) Facing Adultism CommonAction Publishing

Kitzinger, J. (1990) “Who are you kidding? Children, Power, and the Struggle Against Sexual Abuse” in James, A. and Prout, A. (eds) (1990) Constructing and reconstructing childhood: New directions in the sociological study of childhood (157 – 183) Oxford: Routledge.

MacAlister, J. (2022) The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care: Final Report

Mills, S. (2020) Constructions of the child in care: generating alternative figurations of children and childhood in care that may be useful for multi-agency network practices. Doctoral thesis. Search (

Rose, N. (1999) Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self.  (2nd edn) London: Free Association Books.

Warming, H. (2020) Childism. Cook, D. (ed) (2020) The SAGE Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood Studies SAGE Publications

Young-Bruehl, E. (2012) Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

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