In my last post “An Old Turk” I talked about mt involvement in the politics of the 1960’s and early 70’s. I also spoke about my school’s struggle with a children’s liberation group CAFETY. In this post, I want to examine the rhetoric and ideas behind “child rights”. This rhetoric seems a natural extension of the rhetoric of the civil rights movement and later of the women’s movement. This way of talking has become so pervasive and so natural that we are led to accept premises that we should stop and examine.
Racism and sexism depend on establishing a group based on some external characteristic–gender, skin color, or nose shape, etc. This group is then either demonized or infantilized. The fact that the group is composed of fully functioning human beings is disguised and many laws and social strictures are created “for their own good.” Since the 19th century pseudo-science has been created to justify racism and sexism. The work of the French scientist Arthur de Gobineau is the beginning of a long European and American pseudo-science of race. It is important to note that the rhetoric of racial or gender difference applied equally to adults and children.
The movements of the last half of the 20th Century deconstructed this rhetoric, Both the demonizing and infantilizing of the groups was labeled and deplored. Race and to a lessor extent gender (as opposed to sex) is a social construction and therefore can be changed. Throughout all of this struggle the new sciences of genetics and brain research showed the lack of natural basis for these social divisions.
I first heard of the children’s rights movement in the 1980’s. A colleague at St Cloud State University was active in this area and presented these ideas as a natural extension of the line of thought I presented above–Children are an arbitrarily created social class, we have “infantilized” them and therefore they should have “rights.” He would have given the vote to eight year-olds. I suspect this was just rhetorical exaggeration. It seemed to me at the time that this argument flew in the face of all we knew about human development.
Thirty years later, this objection seems stronger because of the last ten years of brain research. We know that the frontal cortex does not fully develop until a persons early twenties. To argue, as CAFETY does, that 13 year-olds have the right to decide not to live at home, to refuse treatment parents believe necessary, or to refuse to attend private schools the parents choose flies in the face of our best and most humane science. These arguments also strike at the roots of parental responsibility and the state’s obligation to support parents and children
Anyone who has had teen aged children knows the struggle to set limits and boundaries that are appropriate and allow the teen to move toward independence is difficult and personal. Teens can reason well, but cannot fully see consequences, resist peer presasure, or control impulsivity. The state’s interest should be to keep the child safe. None of this is to say that children don’t have rights. That will be the topic of a later post.