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Free Youth Now: An Introduction to Youth Liberation

Saturday, 28 August 2021

Hands Off: Respecting Kids' Personal Space


 Not long ago, I spent the afternoon with a friend who was watching her 9-month-old nephew, “Theo.”

For most of the afternoon, we pushed Theo around in his stroller, let him walk around when he expressed the desire to move, and generally went about our day, but with a small child in tow. I was impressed by the respect and care my friend showed to her nephew.

But at one point, Theo was crawling around on my friend’s bed, minding his own baby business, when my friend decided she wanted to pick him up. She scooped him up, made some “baby noises,” hugged him, then put him back down. Sounds innocent enough. This surely happens all the time to babies around the world. Adults are constantly touching kids. So, what’s the problem?

Here’s the issue: In that moment, Theo didn’t want to be picked up. He didn’t even want to be touched. He made that clear in the way he struggled and softly cried out. He was crawling around and didn’t want to be bothered, and especially didn’t want to be moved and held against his will. But many adults, when they feel like holding a baby, just do it – regardless of the child’s wishes.

In fact, this phenomenon isn’t unique to babies. Children of nearly all ages – but especially younger children – are regularly touched without their consent. Whether it’s an aunt or uncle tousling a child’s hair, a grandparent demanding a hug, or a parent picking up a child on a whim, adults frequently do not respect the bodily autonomy of young people.

But of course, we all know the importance of physical touch. Touch is a crucial part of healthy child development. And certainly there are human relationships – with solid foundations of trust and communication – where spontaneous touching is encouraged.

My point is that often children are touched even when this type of relationship is not in place. Or, even if there is a loving, trusting, touch-filled relationship – the child may not want to be touched at that moment.

So, when is it okay to touch children?

The same rules should apply as with touching adults: only when they consent (limited, of course, by age of consent laws) and when it is otherwise appropriate.  

As I noticed while watching my friend’s nephew struggle against being held by a loving relative, children effectively express their desires and wishes even before they can verbally communicate.

It’s usually clear when children want to be held or touched. They often reach out or cry out. But if children don’t express a need – if they are content with their own activities – then adults should, in general, not touch them. We need to trust that kids will express their needs for physical touch when it is appropriate for them.

Whenever possible, adults should ask children for permission to enter kids’ personal space. Just like we should with other adults.

Of course, just like with adults, there are exceptions for imminent health and safety concerns. If a child is about to walk into traffic; if an infant needs their diaper changed; or if a child won’t swallow life-saving medicine, then nonconsensual touching may be appropriate. But in those situations, it should be temporary and only done to the extent necessary.

It’s important that adults respect children’s autonomy and bodily integrity. It’s important that kids learn from a young age that their personal space matters. And it’s important that kids know consent matters.

If there is one takeaway from this post, it is this: In general, don’t touch people who don’t want to be touchedand don’t assume anyone wants to be touched

 

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

What is Youth Liberation?



Youth Liberation

It's a simple and powerful idea: Stop all forms of violence against young people. Recognize that young people are people with rights and dignity.  

Still, I feel like I continuously need to revisit this question. 

The subordination of youth is firmly baked into society and my experience; we are surrounded by it.  Therefore, staying committed to principles of youth liberation can be challenging because we are constantly inundated with adult supremacist ideology

It reminds me of the joke where one fish swims past two other fish and says to them, "the water's nice today, eh?" And when the fish is gone, one of the two says to the other, "What the heck is water?" 

Just to be clear, the subordination of youth is the water in this joke. Except that it's not nice. But youth subordination can be so pervasive and seem so normal that many of us barely even notice it. 

So that is one reason I come back to this question. Another reason is that my perspective on liberation changes as I learn more about various forms of oppression. Reflection helps me stay committed to youth liberation while keeping the approach flexible. 

To me, youth liberation means that youth are recognized and treated as human beings

Young people are not merely future adults, and they are not objects or property to be molded according to adult needs and interests. 

Youth liberation means appreciating young people as people, with their own unique wishes, interests, and needs. 

Youth liberation also means not harming youth. Despite often having good intentions, adults routinely harm youth

Examples of harm include: physical violence against young people, forced psychiatric drugging, conversion therapyforced schooling, denial of the right to vote, environmental degradation, and ignoring youth voices on issues that impact their lives. Disturbingly, all of these forms of harm are -- to varying extents -- allowed under current legal systems.  

As I have written before, liberation is about more than equal rights. Youth liberation means liberation from all forms of oppression, including racism, ableism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, poverty, ageism against older people, and others. 

Youth liberation is part of creating a world worth living in -- creating a world where every person has the space and support to live a meaningful life

In this way, youth liberation is also a practice. It is a way of living that challenges the subordination of young people while affirming and supporting their personhood. 

The practice of youth liberation is part of the broader practice of liberated living -- of resisting oppression by listening to, supporting, and respecting each other

And it is something that we can be practicing every day. 

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

The Psychiatrization of Youth


Every year, millions of youth are drugged with psychotropic medications either against their will or without meaningful consent. 

Psychotropic medications are medications designed to alter the mind. These include stimulants like Adderall and antipsychotics like Zyprexa. 

Psychotropic medications can have severe short- and long-term effects. 

Sometimes, of course, there is a real mental illness and it can be helpful and empowering for youth to identify with a diagnosis and decide to take medication. 

However, there are also many times where the behavior of youth is labeled as mental illness when it might actually be an appropriate response to distressing conditions or environments

This happens in many different situations, including in foster care and/or psychiatric treatment facilities, in immigration detention facilities, in schools, in stressful home environments, and in juvenile justice facilities

Many of these settings involve adults controlling and confining youth. And others deal with youth who have experienced trauma. But all too often, the adult response is to use medication as a way to manage behavior, rather than to treat underlying causes of distress. 

This could mean that a youth could be labeled with mental illness and medicated for something that has an environmental cause. For example, a youth who is anxious because of conflict at home; a youth who is distracted because their school environment is too rigid for their needs; or a youth who is sad because they have experienced trauma and are now separated from their families. 

In all of these situations, experiencing distress would be appropriate and normal. But that doesn't mean there is mental illness.

The inappropriate labeling of distress as an illness is harmful because it can leave the underlying problems unaddressed. And because psychotropic medications can be very intrusive and damaging. 

Moreover, adults are the ones who decide how a "normal" youth should act, and what expectations youth need to meet. This leaves very little room for youth voice and autonomy. 

In other words, even if adults think that a youth's response is not "normal," young people might have a different view of the situation. From a young person's perspective, maybe their response is entirely appropriate. But the adults are typically the ones doing the labeling. 

What allows this labeling and psychiatrization to happen?

In part, it is the law. Most youths under 18 have no right to decide whether they take or refuse medication. 

But the problem runs deeper than that. It's tied to ageism and the oppression of youth in society. Ageism refers to age-based stereotypes and discrimination. And age-based discrimination against young people is everywhere in our society. 

The interests of children and young people are regularly subordinated to the interests of adults. When the interests of youth get ignored in policy, youth are disempowered. 

This disempowerment of youth fortifies the power of adults and adult-created institutions (like schools and foster care systems). Then, when youth are having a reasonable response to the distress caused by adults or adult-created institutions, rather than correcting the problem, adults label some of those behaviors as mental illnesses, which often leads to medication. 

This is how psychiatrization -- the process of diagnosing and medicating using psychiatry -- perpetuates the oppression of youth: it turns the valid feelings and actions of youth into illnesses to be medicated. It stifles resistance and agency but does so in a way that presents itself as professional and legitimate. It is a clear example of how the subordination of youth gets legitimized and institutionalized. 

So psychiatrization leads to the subordination of youth. But this process also goes the other way. 

Ageism and subordination of youth allow adults to psychiatrize and label youth, even when the behavior is not effectively treated by the medication, and even when the behavior is a normal response to maltreatment by a system or environment that causes harm. Because, as explained above, youth have few, if any, legal rights to resist psychiatrization. And they have little political power to change the adult-created conditions causing their distress. 

Then, once youth are labeled and psychiatrized, it is hard to question that diagnosis. Often, youth resistance to psychiatrization is used as more evidence that the youth suffers from a mental illness (e.g., oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)). 

In other words, coercive psychiatrization and the subordination of youth are intertwined. And there is a toxic feedback process in which coercive psychiatrization and the subordination of youth facilitate and justify each other. 

So how do we stop this cycle? 

We can begin by recognizing the importance of autonomy and bodily integrity for youth. And by recognizing the rights of youth to refuse medication in non-crisis situations. But the right to refuse is not enough. 

This is not enough because the right to refuse medication, without alternative treatment options, could leave some youth stranded in distressing situations. A solution to this problem is the requirement of fully informed consent, including alternative causal explanations for the distress, information about less intrusive treatment options, and supported decision-making for younger children. 

This is an empowerment approach that promotes youth input and could help address the social and environmental causes of youth distress. 

The empowerment approach also helps to challenge the broader subordination of youth. For adults, this means listening to youth and presuming that young people know what's best for themselves. Arguably, nobody -- including adults -- always knows what's best for themselves. But that shouldn't stop us from taking each other's views seriously in the first place and looking for alternative solutions.

Through this process, youth and adults can work together to address the social and environmental problems that cause distress. And the rights and minds of youth will be better respected and protected. 

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

The Problems With Age-Based Laws: Do We Need To Draw A Line?



Age-based laws are everywhere. Age determines whether you can vote, work, drink, travel, make healthcare choices, decide who to have relationships with, be criminally punished, and so on. 

Age-based laws affect almost every aspect of life. But should they? 

In this post, I argue that there are significant problems with age-based laws. 

And that we should recognize these problems and consider possible alternatives. 


Do We Need To Draw An Age Line? 

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case about youth and the death penalty, held that: "The qualities that distinguish juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18... However, a line must be drawn."

But is this true? 

Do we really need to "draw a line?" Are age-based classifications even necessary? 

And are there problems with restricting rights based on age? 

Many adults seem to think it is common sense that children should not have rights like adults do. But when we dig deeper, this "common sense" gets pretty flimsy. 

So why, exactly, are children denied their rights? Why do we draw a line? And how is that line chosen?  

This post explains why we should critically question age-based laws


Age-based Laws Are Inconsistent and Based on Flimsy Logic 

As one example of the flimsiness of age-based laws, we might ask why, in Alaska, you can get married at age 14, but you can't work most jobs. 

You can't make most decisions about your own health care. And you can't vape until you're 21. But you can go to war at age 18. How does this make any sense?  

As another example, consider: Why shouldn't kids be allowed to vote? Many adults would say it's because kids are uninformed. But many adults are also uninformed -- that doesn't mean they lose their rights. And many kids are very informed, but they still don't get the right to vote. 

There are many other arguments for why youth should have the right to vote. I just use this as a starting point to get us thinking critically about age-based laws and how they stand on shakier ground than many people realize. 

Below, I will summarize some of the main arguments criticizing age-based laws. 

But first, we need to understand how and why age restrictions came about in the first place. 


History of Age-based Laws 

This is a really complicated historical question. To begin with, like race or gender, childhood is not biological; it is a social construction. For example, in some cultures, 13-year-olds are seen as adults; in others, even 20-year-olds are still considered youths. 

The legal boundaries of childhood have changed over time. But for the past few hundred years, children have basically been considered the quasi-property of their parents. Currently, in the U.S., children aren't considered property, but parental rights are very powerful and basically dominate the wishes of children. That domination is backed up by the legal system. 

Another aspect of legal restrictions on children is child protectionism. This really started in the early 1900s with laws banning child labor to keep children out of unsafe factories where they were exploited. 

Today, in addition to age-based work restrictions, protection laws arguably include things like curfew, truancy laws (mandatory school attendance), the driving age, and restrictions on alcohol and tobacco. 

Protection is one of the main reasons used by adults to justify denying rights to children. This is also tied to paternalism. 


Problems With Paternalism 

Paternalism can be described as a belief or action that limits a person's or group's liberty or autonomy with the intention of promoting their own good. With regard to youth, it is the adult belief that adults know better than children what children need; that children should be controlled by adults because that is what is best for children. 

This type of paternalism has shown up throughout history in problematic ways. In the paper, Children's Oppression, Rights, and Liberation, legal scholar Samantha Godwin points out that in the mid-18th century, many people believed that women and non-white people should similarly be under the control of private individuals (husbands and slave-owners). White men and slave-owners believed that this was for the benefit of the oppressed people. And they would have found it counter-intuitive to recognize equal rights and freedom under the law for women and Black people because they thought that women and Black people were inferior. 

So when people say that children's liberation is counter-intuitive, we should critically question why they believe that. Because, as Godwin points out, those with relative power and status are historically not the best judges of the interests of oppressed people when it comes to changing the social hierarchy. 

Moreover, Godwin has argued that paternalism creates a double standard because even adults who are clearly not capable of acting in their own best interests still generally get to exercise their rights. But youth are denied rights even when they clearly are capable of acting in their own best interests. 


Questioning Age-Based Laws

There are many good reasons to question age-based laws. I'll discuss five of them here. 

First, we already have laws that call age-based restrictions into doubt. In most states, legal minors can get abortions. They can also have kids and get married. These are significant responsibilities that youth are afforded. This suggests that increased rights should extend to other areas of the law as well. For example, a teenager can start a family and have kids, but it is difficult to raise children if they can't get a good job because of age restrictions. 

Second, problems with age-based laws are exposed by the example of independent children -- the millions of young people who live independently from traditional families. This includes street children, unaccompanied migrant children, orphaned children, and many others. 

The law typically restricts children's rights to do things that require making mature decisions. But, as one legal scholar points out, "independent children are often making very mature decisions under the most difficult circumstances." Independent children live largely autonomously, and therefore challenge typical notions of children as dependent and incapable. But the law fails to recognize this reality. 

Third, there is plenty of evidence that even very young children can make mature, rational decisions, particularly in the healthcare context. For example, Priscilla Anderson has documented examples of children as young as two years who can name their cancer drugs and display moral and intellectual understanding of their treatment and nine-year-olds who demonstrate understanding of long-term consequences [1]. Alderson points out that even babies are able to "express realistic views such as happiness or anxiety very strongly." Other research has shown that children seem to have sufficient understanding to make treatment decisions by age nine [2]. 

This evidence shows that even very young children can think long-term and understand complicated issues that affect them. And it calls into question the assumption that children shouldn't be allowed to make serious decisions about their lives. However, it also plays into the competency debate, which is arguably something we should avoid altogether (see below). 

Fourth is one of my favorite examples -- unschooling. Unschooling is basically homeschooling but with no curriculum or plan. Unschoolers do what interests them and learn through living. One of the justifications for forcing kids to attend school is that it is in their best interests. But unschooling shows that for many kids this isn't true. In fact, long-term studies of unschooling show very high levels of life satisfaction for people who were unschooled. This shows how youth do often know what is in their best interests. And this challenges paternalistic age-based control

Fifth, competency and capacity are not simply consequences of age. Rather, competencies are acquired through experience and culture. In other words, capacity and competency are not age-based; they are shaped by environmental factors. For example, you don't learn to be responsible because you turn 18; you learn to be responsible because you are given more chances to be responsible. This means that if we allow children to have more responsibility and autonomy, they will be better able to develop those skills.  

A related issue is that competency and capacity are culturally constructed. That is, competency is a standard that is set up by those with power (in this case, adults and able-bodied individuals). This means that it can operate as a gate-keeping mechanism that marginalizes those who don't meet the standards of competency. 


Responding to Common Concerns 

Some of you might not be convinced. I get that. 

You might say, okay, I hear you, but aren't children fundamentally different? Doesn't science tell us that? Don't we still have to draw a line somewhere? 

These are important questions, so let's dig into them. I'll briefly address six common concerns. 

First, even the psychologists who study the youth brain can't prove that the differences between youth and adults are the result of some "inherent" biology, rather than social or cultural factors. In other words, when we treat children like children -- by limiting their rights and actions -- then of course we should expect to see their brains develop differently. Age-based laws might be contributing to the differences between youth and adult brains. 

Second, one might ask: But aren't children's brains still developing? Of course. But that is true for all brains -- the human brain never stops changing and developing. And the teen brain actually outperforms adult brains in many contexts.  

Third, one might say that young children are biologically much less capable than adults. And that infants and toddlers couldn't even use some of their rights. That may be true, but even if very young children are not able to exercise their rights independently, this is not a reason to deny them rights. People can hold rights that they don't exercise, like the right to vote for adults. If anything, it would be a reason to provide more support so they can exercise their rights. We already do this in many other situations. For example, differently-abled adults are provided with reasonable accommodations in various aspects of life, including voting. We could use a similar approach with children. 

Fourth, even if, on average, most young people were less rational or less intelligent than most adults, that wouldn't be a good reason to restrict their rights. That argument would mean that we should give more rights to people who are more intelligent and rational -- a position that is contrary to ideas of democratic freedom and equality. 

Fifth, the age of 18 (or another age limit) is arbitrary and unfair. Young people are people -- just like those over 18. Young people are humans who deserve dignity and human and civil rights. Why should they have their rights and dignity denied? Because we have to "draw a line?" That seems unjust. Especially in situations where serious autonomy interests are at stake -- like with psychotropic medication. 

Sixth, even if you had to draw a line for certain rights, you could do it based on competence, like we already do with driving. Instead of using age as a (poor) proxy for competence, we could measure competency directly for the given right. 

Of course, competency is problematic. For example, see the voting tests from the Jim Crow South, which were explicitly designed to exclude Black voters. Or, consider current laws restricting the voting rights of people convicted of felonies, which are based on an assumption that those people are not competent to vote. These examples show how competency testing can be used by those in power as a tool of oppression to further exclude marginalized people. 

One could easily imagine how even well-meaning adults might construct competency laws that disenfranchise and discriminate against young people and other people who don't meet hetero-normative standards of competency and capacity. 

Perhaps a better approach is to conclude that no one should be denied rights based on age or other arbitrary markers. And if someone wants to exercise a right, we should provide the supports to make that happen


The Tricky Part 

There are some aspects of our society that make challenging age-based laws a bit tricky. 

For example, parents are legally responsible for their children. A parent who lets their child roam free may be criminally liable for neglect or abuse. Same with teachers. 

It's difficult for adults to give kids more freedom because they are afraid of the legal consequences for themselves if something goes wrong. 

Also, parents are legally obligated to support their children. This creates a complicated situation because, for example, a 13-year-old can't contribute much financially to the household (because they are denied almost all opportunities to work), but they are using a lot of resources. 

This can create conflict because a young person might not want to follow their parent's rules, but the parent still has to support the young person. Even if the young person is cruel and manipulative toward their parents, the parent still has a legal obligation to support them. This puts both parties in a difficult position. 

One solution is to do away with the property-like parental rights currently in place. Children, like all people, are vulnerable and require support. But the fact that children may need adult support to survive doesn't mean that the adult should have control over the child's actions and life. 

Another part of the solution is to make sure that young people (and all people) have their basic needs met (e.g., housing, food, water, healthcare, access to education). 

This way, a youth could just leave the home (or school, etc.) when there is conflict. This would help remove the need for age-based laws that give adults authority over youth in order to maintain unequal power structures. And it would greatly reduce unnecessary and traumatic conflict. But it would also require more support from the state or communities to ensure that young people's needs are met. 

Another complicated issue is the age of consent, which I have previously discussed on this blog


Alternatives and Conclusion 

Some legal scholars have argued that age-based laws should be presumed unconstitutional based on equal protection grounds. They would be subject to strict scrutiny and the burden would be on the government to show that the law or policy is narrowly tailored to achieving a compelling government interest. This would be difficult for the government because reasonable alternatives exist.  

Some people have proposed competency testing as an alternative to age-based classifications. In his book Teen 2.0, psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein argues that youth could gain rights by showing that they are competent. This might work in a limited number of situations, like driving (which already uses competency testing). However, as I pointed out above, this approach has problems of biases and exclusion, among others. It may just perpetuate an ageist and ableist legal system.

Instead, I argue that we should focus on the presumption that age-based laws are illegal. In general, no one should be denied rights because of their age. 

Of course, this will require certain supports and accommodations to ensure that young people can exercise their rights. 

One way to provide this support, as proposed by Godwin, is to have child agents to facilitate supported decision-making. These could be older youth or adults who could help younger children make and communicate their decisions. That way, young people could retain their rights and express their interests and also have the support necessary to make informed choices.

In conclusion, age-based laws are largely inconsistent and irrational. They often harm, rather than help, young people. And they violate principles of equality and liberty. 

However, there are alternatives. We could create a society where the rights of individual young people are respected, while still supporting young people as they grow and develop. 

The question is whether we can muster the political will necessary to change the current regime. 


-----------------------


[1] Priscilla Anderson, Young Children’s health care rights and consent, in The new handbook of children’s rights–Comparative policy and practice, Bob Franklin ed. 157 (2002).

[2] Jacinta Tan and Jorg Fegert, Capacity and competence in child and adolescent psychiatry, 12 Health Care Analysis 285, 288 (2004). 

Friday, 23 April 2021

Social Media and Youth Rights



Youth are incredibly well-connected on social media. According to a 2018 Pew study, fully 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they are online almost constantly. This engagement is happening at younger and younger ages: In 2015, 24% of kids ages 8 – 12 had their own smartphone. That's up 41% from 2011, according to a recent study.

The phenomenon of social media use among youth has significant implications for youth rights and youth liberation

For example, youth are politically engaged online. According to one analysis: "70% of young people had gotten information about the 2020 election on social media and 36% reported posting political content in the week prior." 

This engagement has positive effects for those posting. The same survey found that "Over 60% of youth said that creating social media content helped them feel more informed, represented, and heard, although differences in these benefits exist across gender and race/ethnicity...Creating social media posts or online content about political/social issues that are important to them helps young people feel like their voices matter." 

Moreover, youth are creating content at unprecedented rates

(Unfortunately, I had difficulty finding good statistics on youth content creation. I would guess that lack is partly due to the fact that most of the attention on youth social media use is focused on the impacts of social media on youth. I would also guess that good statistics are out there somewhere, so if you find them please let me know.) 

One of the few studies I managed to find was from 2006 (ancient in internet terms). Still, that study found that 64% of online teens are considered "content creators" --  by creating a blog, webpage, or sharing original content they created or remixed online. 

Young people are constantly shaping culture and politics through social mediaA 2019 survey found that 49 percent of young people using social media were somewhat or very likely to share memes that they created, and 48% were somewhat or very likely to share their opinions on current affairs. This content shapes popular culture and it also affects political discourse. 

Further, the content that youth create produces billions of dollars of value for large tech companies, as well as the corporations that advertise on their platforms. But most of the people making that content aren't seeing those rewards. 

Of course, there are some exceptions. For example, this article shows how a group of young Black content creators and influencers is getting their due by living together in homes where they can collaborate, have control over their content output, and leverage their collective fame.

And it also seems that young people are beginning to demand, or at least wish for, more compensation for their content: 86% of Gen Z and millennials said in a survey that they would like to get paid to post social media content. One encouraging study showed that, in 2017, nearly 17 million Americans earned income posting their personal creations on nine platforms, an increase of more than 2.4 million U.S. creators, or 16.6 percent, in one year. 

But "earned income" doesn't mean fair or just compensation. For example, 97.5% of YouTubers don't make enough money to reach the U.S. poverty line ($12, 140). 

In other words, most of the monetary benefits from all that content don't reach the youth creating much of it

Finally, youth are simply consuming a massive amount of content. Teenagers in the U.S. use entertainment screens on average 7 hours per day. When you consider the number of views, likes, streams, and other engagements that come with that use, it's clear that young people exert significant influence on what media gets produced and shared; youth shape culture. 

So what does this mean for youth rights?  

First, it means youth should be treated with more respect. Youth are actively shaping culture and society; their decisions and their creations are directing the future. Youth should be recognized as the agentic actors they are. This would mean, for example, increased autonomy in all aspects of life, and at the very least in the privacy of social media use. 

Second, and similarly, it means being skeptical when people like the creators of the Social Dilemma engage in fear-mongering and make broad claims about how social media is harming youth, and therefore youth should have their access limited. Social media is one of the few meaningful political and social outlets for youth; the answer to our social problems isn't to restrict the access rights of young people. 

Third, it means that youth (and all content creators) should be compensated for the value they produce. 

Finally, I would suggest that instead of focusing so intensely on the ways in which social media impacts youth, more attention should be paid to the ways that youth impact social media. That project could lead to a better understanding of the ways that youth are actively contributing to and shaping society, and ideally would lead to more recognition of youth as capable humans with dignity and rights.  

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Liberation is More Than Equality

Liberation is more than equality. What I am concerned with is not simply equal rights, but youth liberation, and liberation for all people. 

Many people, including the well-known child rights advocate John Holt, have advocated for full equal rights for youth. Others have suggested that we do away with the legal presumption that children are incompetent and that age-based laws should be subject to strict scrutiny (which roughly means the law must be "narrowly tailored" to achieve a compelling government interest).  

These are important ideas, and the work of achieving equal rights is certainly valuable. But focusing only on equal rights doesn't go far enough. The question we ought to be concerned with is this: equal rights to what? (To be fair, in his book Escape From Childhood, Holt makes the point: that equal rights for children won't mean much in an unjust world). 

So what do we mean when we say "equal rights for youth?" In order to understand the depth of this question, we need to situate youth liberation within a broader context of a violent society.*

Youth are oppressed. But not all youth are oppressed simply based on age. Many youth are also oppressed based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, nationality, and other sources of identity. And despite their relative position of power to youth, adults still live within a broader system of violence -- a carceral, racial capitalist colonizer state. 

With this very brief framing in mind, we acknowledge that "equal rights" might be an inadequate measure of human dignity in a country that was founded on a social contract that excluded everyone but propertied white men and that continues to systematically enact violence against Black and brown people. 

So, let's turn back to the question: equal rights to what? 

Is it the right to vote in an electoral system that consistently marginalizes Black, Indigenous, and other people of color? 

Is it the right to participate in an exploitative capitalist economy and struggle to make a living under poor work conditions? 

Is it the right to a lawyer and trial by jury in a criminal system where Black and Indigenous people are far more likely to be incarcerated and experience state-sanctioned violence than white people? 

Is it the right to own property that was stolen from Indigenous people? 

Equal rights for youth must mean more than this. It must also become rights that are equal to a meaningful realization of human dignity. It must aim for youth liberation. I'll explore the concept of youth liberation more fully in a future post. But here are some initial thoughts: 

First, crucially, these questions need to be asked and answered by youth. As a legal adult who was raised under decidedly unfree conditions, I can hardly begin to imagine what a liberated young person's life could look like. In fact, I may never understand what a truly free childhood means. So it makes little sense for me and people like me to try and define a vision of youth liberation on our own. 

Second, ageism and age-based discrimination are thoroughly and deeply entrenched in the laws, social systems, institutions, relationships, and psyches of the U.S. and other colonizing, colonized, and settler-colonist states. Like structural racism, it's built into the foundations of society. It will take generations of effort to understand, deconstruct, heal, reimagine, and ultimately work toward a new future. 

That said, I (a white, adult member of a settler-colonist state) believe youth liberation means creating a more just and liberated world for all people. It means rethinking our assumptions about education, the economy, social structures and relationships, and the role of the State in our lives. It means achieving conditions of liberation in all aspects of life. 

This leads to an even more important question: What would it mean to be able to secure a dignified life? This is what I aim to continuously ask. This is a question that will lead toward liberation, not simply equality. And this is a question that can only be adequately answered collectively. 

Merely demanding "equal rights" for youth is incomplete. Even if equal rights were achieved, that framing allows those with power to dictate the terms of oppression while justifying the status quo because everyone is now "equal." That won't do. It won't lead to liberation. If youth have "equal rights" but are still stuck within broader oppressive structures, then we have failed. 

Like any other liberation work, it's an ambitious project. But without a broader goal of universal liberation, youth liberation risks being subsumed into the oppressive structures from which it seeks to escape. 

When we talk about youth rights, we need to talk about youth liberation -- and liberation for all people. 



*I wish to acknowledge and express my gratitude for a conversation with Latrel Powell, a friend and classmate at UCLA Law School, that inspired much of this post. 

Saturday, 26 December 2020

The Age of Consent Problem


I'll begin by noting that this is a difficult and emotional issue. It might bring up some strong emotions. I recognize that and try to discuss this issue in a humane and sensitive way. (Also, if I have overlooked any major aspects of this discussion, please feel free to leave a comment.)

The age of consent -- specifically, the age at which youth can consent to have sex -- is one of the most common objections to youth liberation. 

The objection usually goes something like this: "You say youth should be free and paternalism is bad. And that kids should make all of the same decisions that adults can (aka equal rights). Therefore, you think that kids should be allowed to have consensual sex with adults. If that happens, kids are going to be manipulated and sexually abused by older people. So, the whole youth rights argument isn't valid." 

The abuse and manipulation of youth are valid concerns. And I'm not saying that consensual sex between children and adults should be legal. As discussed below, there are reasons to think that it should remain illegal while still being consistent with a youth liberation position. 

What I am saying is that the common version of the consent argument against youth rights paints an incomplete picture of the situation. And it misses a bigger point: We live in a society that oppresses youth and has gross power imbalances; these power imbalances throughout society are what we should really be concerned about. These inequalities have serious implications that affect all of our social relations.

Moreover, we live in a society where sexual violence is rampant among people of all ages. But exploitation is wrong at any age. We should be focusing on making sure that all sex is consensual, and promoting healthy relationships generally. 

The main point is this: We need to challenge the existing normalization of power and control over children that leads to rampant abuse by family members and other people in positions of power. The oppression of youth exacerbates rape culture throughout society by disrespecting bodily autonomy and by normalizing coercion and power hierarchies from a young age

So, back to the common objection: "If all youth had equal rights, then young children would be legally allowed to have consensual sex with adults, which would be bad because kids are easily manipulated and would be abused and taken advantage of."

The first thing to do is to reframe the problem. Most people are rightly concerned about the idea of children being taken advantage of and sexually exploited by adults. But most people miss the broader issues at stake. 

For example, most people overlook the fact that children are already being taken advantage of and sexually exploited by adults at disturbingly high rates. The vast majority of this abuse is done by family members and/or in the home -- homes which children can't legally leave under most circumstances. And this abuse is often a direct result of the oppressive forces under which youth live

From an early age, most children are taught that their bodily and personal autonomy doesn't mean much. Most young people have to do what adults in positions of power say in almost every single aspect of their lives, usually without any explanation or reasons. And often youth are punished if they resist or disobey. 

Right now, children can legally be hit; they can be forced to stay in their rooms or sit at a desk all day; they can be fondled by their relatives against their will. They can't fight back; they can't leave. There are no real options for kids other than to submit. 

So, given these cultural norms, how would a child understand that it's not okay to be sexually touched? How is a child supposed to deny an adult, when the rest of their existence demands obedience? 

Another aspect of oppression is that kids are economically dependent on adults. This means that (a) kids couldn't practically leave an abusive situation even if they were legally allowed to, and (b) kids can more easily be coerced and manipulated (for example, the popularized narrative of strangers using candy to trick kids wouldn't be so forceful if kids could buy their own candy). 

The result of this dependence and conditioned, forced subservience is that children's oppression contributes to rape culture. Our society denies children any meaningful rights to consent or to stand up to people in power. The law demands children's obedience to adult authority. One of the first lessons many children learn is that might makes rightThis is a recipe for disaster. 

Children can't be expected to learn how to say "no" to sex if they aren't even allowed to say "no" in so many other aspects of their lives. So it's no wonder that issues of consent and sexual assault plague people of all ages. We are indoctrinated from infancy to believe that our will and preferences are inferior and must give way to the desires of people with relative power. How is a child supposed to know at what point touching crosses the line if the line never involves the child's consent? 

Of course, even if young people had more control over their bodies, there would still be huge power imbalances. Some of these imbalances are economic, some of these physical, and some of these come through experience and age. And these imbalances may very well mean that consensual sex between adults and children should remain illegal. But at this point, we can't even imagine what a society free from youth oppression would look like. 

Further, non-consensual sex (rape) is always illegal. And if young people had the right to sue, they could actually bring these cases in civil court. As it currently stands, youth rely on the state to prosecute sexual violence. 

For all of these reasons, we should be concerned with the existing power imbalance between adults and children. These power asymmetries mean that kids need protection and autonomy. Consent laws could legitimately protect youth from abuse and be consistent with youth liberation by recognizing young people's rights to control their bodies and other aspects of their lives. This position accepts that this is paternalistic, but would argue that it is justifiable. A strictly logical or philosophical approach might reject that conclusion. But the realities of the oppression of children demand a more nuanced approach. 

Additionally, it's impossible to say, at this point, how this conversation might proceed if youth were afforded more freedom and participation in our society. For example, if youth could vote, maybe they would support statutory rape and age of consent laws? Maybe they would push to make them even stricter? Maybe they would envision a completely different system for regulating sexual relations and promoting healthy relationships? Who knows? Not adults. And that's exactly the point. 

It's difficult to imagine what truly consensual social relations could even look like because we live in a society with such gross power imbalances and disrespect for bodily autonomy. And because we live in a society where the oppression of youth is normalized in so many aspects of life. 

Further entrenching this oppression and increasing the power of those adults is not a serious solution. In fact, it just makes the problem worse. At the same time, merely "protecting" youth by gradually denying more and more of their autonomy is not a solution either. 

The solution is recognizing children's bodily autonomy and self-determination rights. The solution is giving children respect and legal rights to refuse coercion and control. And the solution involves creating a society where enforced hierarchies of power are not normal. The solution is youth liberation. 

Friday, 25 December 2020

Youth Liberation in 85 words

Youth liberation is the process of young people realizing freedom from all forms of age-based oppression.

It is rethinking assumptions about the incompetence and inferiority of youth. 

It is questioning the laws, systems, and institutions that deprive youth of their liberty. 

It is providing youth with the support they need while ensuring the autonomy that all people are entitled to. 

It is confronting all forms of oppression. 

Youth liberation is creating a world where people of all ages can live healthy, fulfilling, and liberated lives. 

Monday, 21 December 2020

Movie Review: Shoplifters



A couple of days ago I watched Shoplifters (see the trailer here), a 2018 Japanese film that explores the question: "What is family?" 

It portrayed young people and social relations in nuanced, unique, and -- at times -- a liberatory way that invites attention and discussion. 

Spoiler Warning: If you are planning to watch the film, this post may contain spoilers. 

I'll keep this post fairly short. I just wanted to bring attention to some ways in which Shoplifters explores and challenges contemporary ideas about family and childhood. 

One theme is the blurring of the lines defining what family is or isn't. For example, one of the characters is referred to as "grandma," another one "mother," and others are "sister" and "brother." But as the film progresses, we learn that the relationships are not what they seem -- that almost none of the characters are biologically related. This isn't necessarily uncommon throughout the world, but it is relatively rare in "developed" societies where the isolated nuclear family is the dominant social structure. 

The effect of this blurring is to challenge and subvert conventional ideas of what makes a family. 

We begin to ask: How much legal and moral weight should biological relations be given? How does this change when kids are harmed by their blood relatives? Or when kids express a desire to live with another family? 

To further complicate these questions, the "family" that has come together in the movie seems to truly love each other (most of the time); they pay attention to each other, they listen, they look out for each other, they have fun together, and they support each other. 

This is contrasted with the biological family relations depicted in the movie, which feature abuse, coercion, neglect, and deception. 

One scene towards the end of the film finds Noboyu, the "mother" (who isn't the biological or legal mother of the children, Shota and Yuri) asking: 'What makes a mother? Does just giving birth make you a mother?' 

Legally, yes. But, why? 

Towards the end of the movie, we see Yuri's abusive biological mother try to coerce her into apologizing for nothing and then attempt to use the promise of buying her clothes to get her to obey. This is a classic example of how kids' forced economic dependence gives parents outsize power in controlling kids. And it left me with a sinking feeling, imagining the next decade of parental oppression Yuri would face. 

However, while the film questions society's romanticism of and attachment to the traditional nuclear family, it doesn't shy away from the problems and complexities of the alternatives. 

For example, we see that, despite the abuse, Yuri is essentially kidnapped. While we know that the kidnappers (Osamu and Nobuyo) saw that Yuri's parents were abusive, we also see that they know they are kidnapping someone. And, in the end, we learn that they had taken Shota from his parents many years before (and the details of that event are unclear). So, we are confronted with legal violations and moral ambiguity.  

Moreover, there is the theme of kids shoplifting throughout. It seems consensual for most of the movie, but towards the end, we see that, at times, pressure and coercion were involved (e.g. the adult Osamu pressures Shota to help him steal). Thus, the film exposes a potential dark side of kids choosing their families and unregulated adult/child relationships -- there may still be exploitation, and not all adults have pure motives. 

Moreover, some of the relations are -- at least in part -- financially motivated, leaving us to question how the financial incentives to enter into social relations affect our perceptions of the relationships. 

Nonetheless, despite the kidnapping and ambiguously exploitative relations, the kids seem happiest with their "chosen" family, rather than their biological or state-appointed living situations. 

This calls into question the legitimacy and the justice of forcing kids to stay in constrained family arrangements, even when it's against their wills. 

The film also provides a sharp critique of the state system and laws that operate to send kids back to abusive homes -- and that value parent's "rights" above nearly every other consideration. (Also, it's important to note that, at least in the U.S., when the state does take kids away from abusive homes, it usually does so (a) without the consent or input of the youth, and (b) often at rates that disproportionately affect and criminalize families of Color, and especially Black and Indigenous youth and mothers.)

Thoughts? 

What makes a family? Should kids be able to choose their own families? What does it mean that most adults are even comfortable asking that question? 

Also, any suggestions for other movies or books that address these issues?  


Tuesday, 8 December 2020

The Pandemic School-Opening Debate: Where are the Youth Voices?


If I see one more opinion, editorial, policy recommendation, or letter claiming that kids either should or should not be sent back to school, without any reference to the actual opinions or wishes of kids, I am going to lose my mind. 

I know, I know, we have laws saying that adults don't have to listen to kids and kids have to do whatever adults say.

But seriously. This is a pandemic. Lives are at stake. It's time to start listening to young people. 

The litany of articles around this debate I've seen is disturbing. And, so far, not a single one I've read is focused on the voices of young people. 

I should note that one benefit of all of this public debate is that some people are finally being honest about the purposes of school: it's not just about "education" -- it's largely about child care and economic productivity. And, some people are beginning to take note of how school before COVID-19 wasn't all that great for many students. 

Still, almost every single one of the articles in this debate relies exclusively on anecdotal evidence and isolated narratives to conclude that school closures are "bad" or "harmful" for kids. Many don't include any data or evidence, and just summarily conclude that school closures are bad for all kids. 

Of course, I'm not trying to say that school is all bad. Or that school closures don't do harm to some children and families (they do -- and they have a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities -- especially for families with parents who work outside the home, households lacking reliable internet or computers, and families with children with special needs). I also acknowledge that school (for better or worse) serves important functions like child-care, and for some children, it is a temporary safe space. 

Moreover, I don't want to gloss over the unequal access to education and learning resources that consistently leaves marginalized and poor youth with worse options (although studies have actually shown that the pandemic isn't making the achievement gap any worse so far, which is interesting). 

That said, it's time to confront the false narrative that school closures are bad for kids across the board. It's time to confront the other side of that narrative -- that opening schools back up would be good for kids. And it's time to recognize that by ignoring youth voices, and assuming what is "good" or "bad" for kids as a group, this debate about school re-openings continues to marginalize and oppress youth. 

For those who have actually gathered or looked at real data, the results indicate that school closures may actually be improving the wellbeing of youth (as reported by youth). 

One survey about the mental health and social effects of school closures shows that school closures have actually been a good thing according to most youth and families; psychological wellbeing has improved without the stress of school

Another report found that "teens’ mental health did not collectively suffer during the pandemic when...compared [to pre-pandemic surveys]. The percentage of teens who were depressed or lonely was actually lower than in 2018." And this positive mental health occurred despite all of the trauma and challenges of the pandemic! 

Some youth are thriving in remote learning. And teens are finally getting enough sleep. The bottom line is that young people are largely reporting they are doing well without school

Moreover, recent data has shown that, on average, students are improving at reading at the same rate they did pre-pandemic. In other words, kids are learning to read even without in-person school. 

The point is that the common narratives in the media about school closures being terrible for students are just not true. Across the board, these narratives paint an oversimplified picture of schooling that serves adult -- not youth -- interests. Worse yet, these narratives ignore youth voices. 

Instead, we need to listen to and include youth in decision-making processes. And respect youth autonomy. 

Just the fact that someone even needs to point that out -- that not listening to youth about how they live their lives is somehow a legitimate option in our society -- is disturbing. 

Another point is that to "listen to youth" doesn't mean to tokenize one or two youth narratives. Just like it would be with any other marginalized group, it's inaccurate and harmful to assume that all kids have the same opinions and needs. That's just classic ignorant paternalism. 

So, here's the takeaway: adults can debate about whether to open or close public schools during the pandemic all they want -- but at the very least, listen to the people who are most affected by that choice: the youth.