I recently ran across a piece of child-hate (no, I’m not telling you where) that said, in part, “Sure, I think children are people, but their parents need to make sure they act like it in public! People in restaurants don’t crawl on the floor or dance between the tables!” Really? Because I’m pretty sure what you were talking about just then was a person who was, in fact, dancing between the empty tables.
This is but one example of the widespread phenomenon of child-hate disguised as simply a “concerned citizen”: children are OK in public, as long as they don’t in any way attract an adult’s attention. It usually comes with a hefty dose of mother-blame (which is a type of misogyny, remember), in the form of “she should control her kids, or keep them at home!”
I don’t really want to get into a discussion of what level of behavior is appropriate to allow children in public, though: what I want to talk about is the message behind these kinds of statements (and the fact that the discussion is about allowing in the first place).
When the parent-blaming child-shaming folk say “I treat kids like people by expecting them to act like it” what they’re really saying is “I expect kids to act like adults”, which boils down to the belief that only adults are people. Because if you actually recognize that children are in fact persons, then you would be able to see that yes, actually, people do do those things in public, and the proof is dancing right in front of you.
This argument is common among so-called “allies” in many fields of anti-oppression work: “Of course I don’t have a problem with [women/gays/immigrants/people with disabilities/people of color/trans persons] — when they act just like me. As long as they [act like men/couple and get married/learn English/act able/act white/are straight and gender normative], of course they should have rights!” It is a fundamentally flawed position, whose bigotry I trust is self-apparent, and serves only to reify the hierarchies it purports to reject.
This is just as true when it comes to children as for any other oppressed group, but with the complication that children will, should all go minimally well, eventually turn into adults; no other group can be said to be reasonably certain to transition from oppressed to privileged. This does not mean that how we treat them doesn’t matter, however, or somehow negate their oppression; rather, it means that however we treat them now, while they are powerless, is how they will learn to treat those they have power over by “right” of unearned privilege.
You might doubt the status of children as an oppressed class. There is much I can use to support this assertion, but simplest and most starkly is this: in the United States of America, and in too many other countries (any would be too many), physical assault on a child is considered a parent’s legally-protected right, often explicitly granted. You might quibble about whether any given act of violence is “assault”, that it’s not really “abuse” unless it leaves a mark for more than a day, or breaks the skin, or breaks a bone, or whatever line you wish you use to delineate “acceptable” from “abusive”, but the fact remains that it is legal for an adult to hit a child against their will, and it is not legal to hit another adult the same way. Physical violence enacted on children’s bodies to “discipline” them is a mark of their status as not-persons, as things, in culture’s conception.
(What, you may argue, of those children who are not hit? Those who are “spoiled” with toys and sweets and activities galore? Surely they are not oppressed! To which I say: that we treat some children as prized possessions does not make acceptable their status as property; that some individual parents choose not to exert their right to hit their children does not offset the injustice that it is their right to exert or not in the first place; that some nations have even removed that “right” and granted children special protections doesn’t mean children as a class are not still oppressed, still considered “ours” to do with what we will or nill.)
I use the example of legally sanctioned violence rather than any of the plethora of other rights denied to children (including other violations of their bodily domain) because I am not arguing that the personhood of children demands they be granted all adult legal rights: that is merely, once again, equating personhood with adulthood. There are many things that are appropriate for adults to do which are not appropriate for children, and there are many times that they do not have the capacity to make choices for themselves (though, as with the delineation between “male” and “female” activities, allowing certain rights based on ability rather than arbitrary age would be a more reasonable, if more complicated, policy). Children are not adults — and they shouldn’t have to be, nor to act like it, in order for their personhood to be honored.
What does it mean, exactly, to honor their personhood? It means simply that we start with the radical idea that children are people: that they have the right to bodily integrity; that their needs are no less important than ours, that their desires are no less worthy than ours; that their feelings matter, that their ideas matter, that they matter; that they should be respected for who they are, not just valued (or devalued) for what they do for us.
From here, many things become obvious: we do not hit children, because we do not hit people. We do not cut their genitals, because we do not perform unnecessary and harmful amputation on people without their consent. We do not shun them and segregate them away from us, because separate is not equal. We do not expect them to act like adults, because they have the right to act like children.
So that child, dancing in the aisle while you are dining? Their personhood means they have just as much right to be there as you do. If they are unreasonably blocking the way, or damaging property, or causing such a commotion that no other patron is able to also be comfortable in that space — in other words, if they are actually doing something objectively objectionable — then of course you have a cause to complain. And perhaps that was the case in the original screed I read: I cannot know. But regardless, if in the course of your complaint, no matter how legitimate, you state that children need to act like adults (especially using the code word “people”) or not be allowed out in public? If your objection is, at its base, that they are a child in public, daring to act like a child? Then you are an anti-child bigot, and you are the problem in that restaurant that needs to be sent home until you can act like a person.