The Mistake Of The Children's Liberation Movement
Is empowering children more important that giving them rights?
The children’s liberation movement was a social movement for children’s rights that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. This movement was my first introduction to children’s issues as a teenager when I read books like Escape from Childhood by John Holt and Birthrights by Richard Evan Farson. While I appreciate many of the ideas and intentions of this movement, the research and thinking I did while writing Children’s Justice has led me to see a fatal flaw in their thinking.
First, I’ll say what I like about this movement: Children’s liberation has a genuine concern for the feelings and well-being of children. Many of their issues such as ending compulsory schooling and corporal punishment of children also matter to me. We have more in common than differences. However, there are a few key issues, such as their attitude toward children and sexuality, that make it impossible for me to endorse the movement. The difference in our thinking reveals important truths about children’s issues.
The children’s liberation movement supports giving full rights to children. When they say rights, they mean all rights. Children’s liberation authors have proposed giving children the right to choose their own home, determine their own education, be free from physical punishment, travel on their own, live on their own, have their own money, have sex, use drugs, vote, and drive. In other words, children’s liberation is a movement that aims to give children full adult legal rights.
Most people intuitively understand that giving a child the right to drive, have sex, or use drugs is a bad idea. However, those who support human rights might not be able to articulate why. If rights are good, why would a child with more “rights” be more likely to be harmed than a child whose parents hold their rights?
Suppose we gave a child all the rights children’s liberation authors propose. What would immediately follow is exploitation. While the child might have the “right” to control their own life, they would not have the ability to secure their interests. They would not be able to evaluate others’ intentions or think through the long-term consequences of their actions and be exploited by adults because they don’t know any better. While a child in this situation might have rights, they would not have power.
Giving children the right to study what they want or be free from corporal punishment increases their power. It empowers them. Giving children the right to drive or use drugs opens them to harm and decreases their power. It disempowers them. If you go through the list of “rights” children’s liberation authors propose, those that people intuitively feel are reasonable are those that empower children and those that seem unreasonable are those that disempower them. Power is the actual metric by which to evaluate children’s issues, not rights.1
Children biologically do not have as much power as adults. There are significant aspects of the world they cannot understand or function in without help. Since children cannot meet their needs on their own, the most empowering experience for children is to have adults who use their power to meet the child’s needs — in other words, parents.2 Giving children “rights" without the ability to meet their needs is disempowering.
The push for children’s rights is a reaction to adult treatment of children that centers the desires of adults rather than the needs of children. If adult’s make decisions for children intended to conform children to adult desires rather than meet needs the child cannot meet on their own, that disempowers children. However, if the goal is to meet children’s needs then giving children the “right” to live on their own but not the support to live still doesn’t meet children’s needs. Adults using their greater power for the benefit of children does meet their needs.
The application of children’s liberation ideas to sexuality is the most problematic aspect of the movement. Children do not need adult sexuality, so giving them the “right” to participate in that can only result in abuse and exploitation. There have been some monstrous ideas promoted under the guise of “liberating” children around sexuality. This aspect of the movement alone is enough for me to disavow it.
Part of the challenge of the children’s liberation movement is the word child itself. The legal definition of the word child includes anyone under the age of eighteen. While there might not be a legal distinction between teens and toddlers, there is a significant power difference between a seventeen-year-old and a four-year-old. This power difference is the reason some societies give some teens rights that children’s liberation activists are fighting for (like the right to drive) while denying them to infants. Since both teens and infants lack rights from a legal perspective, children’s liberation often treats them the same, despite the obvious differences visible when viewed through the lens of power.
I first encountered children’s liberation writing as a teenager. At sixteen and seventeen, the rights they advocated for would have been empowering for me. I also knew that as a child many of the decisions adults had made for me were not empowering. I did not have an image of what adult advocates would look like, so no advocate seemed better than a bad one. At the same time, I was unaware of the worse possibilities that might have occurred had I been entirely on my own as a child. While children’s liberation would have solved some problems, it would have created others. What would have been better would have been adults who supported me in achieving what I wanted rather than trying to mold me into what they wanted.
Rather than a children’s liberation movement, what children need is a children’s power movement. It might be challenging to imagine what a movement intended to empower children would look like, since “power” movements for other identity groups often frame power as a zero-sum game, where if one group has more power another group must have less of it. Power can be a positive-sum game, where if one group is empowered everyone benefits. Empowering children benefits everyone.
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Sidenote: This distinction between rights and power has implications for other movements. For example, part of the reason that women’s happiness has decreased as their rights have increased is that forms of power women previously had access to have disappeared. Women have the “right” to work but often lack the power to choose whether or not they work. Likewise, forms of social power women had access to have completely disappeared. Since these powers were often hidden and unrecognized, women lack the hermeneutical justice to talk about their disappearance. Instead, they are told about all the new rights they have, which acts as a sort of gaslighting for the powers they have lost. Like children, women would be better served by a women’s power movement than a women’s liberation movement.
Ideally, everyone would behave in the interests of children, but let’s start with parents. While others might advocate for children, parents are the only adults with responsibility and accountability for a child’s wellbeing.