What Rights Should Children Have?

Children are an awkward subject for politics. Essays “toward the liberation of the child,” the subtitle of the well-rounded collection of essays on Children’s Rights,* always take contradictory tacks. Children should have “rights as full human beings,” no different from those of adults: they should be able to vote, make contracts, and presumably commit felonies, just as adults do. On the contrary, runs another argument, they should have very special rights and immunities because they are children; their rights should fit their “stage of growth.” Some say that the oppressive society of adults has so damaged the children that we must now provide them with remedial attention; on the contrary, say others, the best thing we adults can do is to get off their backs.

Even under good conditions, this confusion is deeply rooted in the nature of things. Human beings do pass through distinctive and well-marked stages of life—childhood and adolescence, middle age, old age—and yet we all, at every age, interact, must use and enjoy one another, and are likely to abuse and injure one another. This situation is not something to cope with polemically or to understand in terms of “freedom,” “democracy,” “rights,” and “power,” like bringing lawyers into a family quarrel. It has to be solved by wise traditions in organic communities with considerable stability, with equity instead of law, and with love and compassion more than either. But in modern times there are no such traditions, communities, or stability, and there are injustice, unnecessary suffering, and, worst of all, plain waste of young life. So there has to be polemical politics.

There are problems of modern times that are really new, puzzling, and interesting. For example, what is an adequate substitute for the nuclear family? In a high technology, what is productive activity for adolescents and old people? Yet we have to think about such things when we are stupefied and politicized by the absurd conditions of modern times. (As an anarchist, I do not believe that power politics is the way to wisdom.) It is useful, however, to recognize that most people are honorably confused and badly blundering rather than to say that they are made of plastic or suffering from an emotional plague, that teachers are sadists, or that parents who love their children and are anxious for their futures are really treating them as property.

It has become common in liberation literature to say that childhood is an invention of the past few hundred years in Western Europe, a means of rationalizing, controlling, and exploiting children. In more “normal” societies, it is claimed, children are just people, with the usual rights, immunities, and privileges, who take part in the community work according to their capacities. (“Adolescence” is an even more recent invention, a definition extended because of the trend toward earlier sexual maturation and longer exclusion from employment.) There is some truth in this thesis, but some liberators at once draw the polemical conclusion that children are identical to adults,…

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