Dr Tanu Biswas

Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Philosophy, University of Bayreuth

The word childism can well provoke ideas that I do not wish to suggest. Therefore, it seems appropriate to me to introduce the philosophical approach “childism” with some preliminary clarifications as to what I will not propose:

Childism is not a singular philosophy.

Childism is not reducible to treating single children (i.e. persons under 18 years of age) as “kings”.

Childism does not mean a “return to childhood”.

Childism is not only for children.

In the early 2000s, childism appears as a philosophical approach and research area in the English-speaking humanities and social sciences. It aims to criticize and reconstruct scientific and social structures from the perspective of children as a politically marginalized group (Wall 2019). Childism research aims to provide a critical lens for the deconstruction of adultism and patriarchalism in order to contribute to age-appropriate research and advocacy. Complementary insights from the work on “adultism”, i.e. the general societal tendency to see the position of children in a hierarchical relationship, are also important for research on childism.

By asking fundamental questions about larger social systems based on the experiences of children, childism research goes beyond an investigation of children’s experiences. Just as various forms of academic feminism have emerged in part from women’s studies, academic childism comes from the field of childhood studies. However, childism is neither limited to nor a substitute for childhood studies. Rather, it is also used and developed in other areas, such as Ethics theory (Rubio 2010; Wall 2010), globalization research (Josefsson & Wall 2020), human rights and social justice (Elkins 2013; Ott 2019), political theory (Mattheis 2020), literary studies (Wadsworth 2017), Jewish studies (Parker 2017), research on girls (Mandrona 2016), education (Franck 2017; Biswas 2020), sustainability research (Biswas 2020), citizenship research (Sundhall 2017; Wall 2008, 2016).

My involvement with childism began with my search for a “child-friendly” way of philosophising with children. Initially I did not question the form of philosophizing itself. Nor did I question my assumption that: adults teach and children learn. It did not occur to me that a logocentric understanding of philosophizing as rational argumentation is necessary to maintain the pedagogical asymmetry between an adult and a child. What prevented a non-logocentric understanding of philosophizing from coming into my mind? The privilege of being an adult.

I have no doubt that adults can teach children dialectics and reasoning. Nonetheless, it is relevant to ask what children can teach adults philosophically as well. These actions are an integral part of philosophising. Yet they are part of the process of philosophizing with others; a form of communication. Once language competence is identified as the form of philosophizing, adults have the upper hand. But from the point of view of childism, philosophizing is – playing (e.g. Wall 2013). Playing not as an activity, but as the ontological structure of being human. The subjunctive capacity, i.e. the ability to experience the “could”, “should”, “would” is essential for any philosophical process. An understanding of the philosophical process rooted in subjective capacity creates more space for reflective pedagogical relationships between adults and children. It enables moments when the adult could also learn something from the child. In return, the pedagogical asymmetry, where the adult must always give and the child must always receive, could be alleviated.

In the presence of a child, the fabric of meanings in which I live can simultaneously take on new meanings. This does not mean that everyday meanings disappear, but that plural meanings could be brought to life simultaneously. A “kitchen” could be a “lava-land”, a “dining table” could be an “airport”. A child can create new time-space narratives that are far removed from my everyday, lived reality. The creation is not only done with words, but also through onomatopoeic sounds, body movements, rearrangement of objects and so on. Playing establishes the possibility of creating new meanings, in this sense philosophizing is – playing.

Not only singular meanings are changed, but also the relations between objects and my place in them. This is a form of thought-experiment. It differs from the logocentric understanding of philosophizing, because it is not brain-centered. It is an embodied thought-experiment in motion. In the presence of a child the chance of participating in such embodied thought experiments is higher than in the presence of an adult.

Within such temporary embodied thought experiments there are ample opportunities to exercise the “could”, “should”, “would”. In addition, the opportunities for self-reflexivity for adults are illuminated in the presence of children. These occasions illuminate the self-evident relationships between the self and the surrounding objects. They offer us philosophical illuminations to experience: what could be different. Temporary. Accordingly, they open passages to broaden the horizon of our own consciousness. This is a gift that must also have a place in the educational relationships between adults and children. A gift that adults must learn to receive.

As I have already presented in the preliminary clarification, I am not suggesting that adults return to childhood. Nor do I suggest that in pedagogical relationships only children will be considered as teachers. I am suggesting that adults could give more room for philosophical reciprocity and self-reflexivity. This includes the recognition of forms of philosophising outside of argumentation and dialectics. A recognition that the relativity of rationality makes it possible.


Biswas, Tanu (2020): Little Things Matter Much. Childist Ideas for a Pedagogy of Philosophy in an Overheated World. Munich: Büro Himmelgrün.

Bonnardel, Yves (2015): La domination adulte: l’oppression des mineurs. Canejan:  Myriadis.

Elkins, Kathleen Gallagher. 2013. “Biblical Studies and Childhood Studies: A Fertile, Interdisciplinary Space for Feminists.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29(2):146-53.

Flascher, Jack (1978): Adultism. In Adolescence 13 (51), pp. 517–523.

Franck, Olof. 2017. “Highlighting Ethics, Subjectivity and Democratic Participation in Sustainabiltity Education: Challenges and Contributions.” In Ethical Literacies and Education for Sustainable Development: Young People, Subjectivity and Democratic Participation, edited by Olof Franck and Christina Osbeck, 1-17. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Josefsson, Jonathan; Wall, John (2020): Empowered inclusion: theorizing global justice for children and youth. In Globalisations. Available online at https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2020.1736853.

Liebel, M. (2020). Unerhört: Kinder und Macht. Weinheim: Beltz Juventa.

Mattheis, Nikolas (2020): Unruly kids? Conceptualizing and defending youth disobedience. In. European Journal of Political Theory(40) https://doi.org/10.1177/1474885120918371 

Mandrona, April. 2016. “Ethical Practice and the Study of Girlhood.” Girlhood Studies 9(3):3-19.

Ott, Kate. 2019. “Taking Children’s Moral Lives Seriously: Creativity as Ethical Response Offline and Online.” Religions 10, pp. 525-37.

Parker, Julie Faith. 2017. Valuable and Vulnerable: Children in the Hebrew Bible, especially the Elisha Cycle. Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies.

Rubio, Julie Hanlon. 2010. Family Ethics: Practices for Christians. Lanham, MD: Georgetown University Press.

Sundhall, Jeanette. 2017. “A Political Space for Children? The Age Order and Children’s Right to Participation.” Social Inclusion 5(3):164-171.

Wadsworth, Sarah. 2015. “The Year of the Child: Children’s Literature, Childhood Studies, and the Turn to Childism.” American Literary History 27(2):331-341.

Wall, John. 2008. “Human Rights in Light of Childhood,” International Journal of Children’s Rights 16.4, pp. 523-543.

Wall, John. 2010. Ethics in Light of Childhood (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press).

Wall, John (2013): All the world’s a stage. Childhood and the play of being. In Emily

Ryall, Wendy Russell, Malcom MacLean (Eds.): The Philosophy of Play. London:

Routledge, pp. 46–57.

Wall, John. 2016. Children’s Rights: Today’s Global Challenge (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers).

Wall, John. 2019. “From Childhood Studies to Childism: Reconstructing the Scholarly and Social Imaginations,” Children’s Geographies, 17(6):1-15, special issue edited by Hanne Warming on Society and Social Changes through the Prism of Childhood.

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