Children are oppressed. The solution is children’s liberation and the dismantling of paternalism.
This issue matters so much to me
because I am a survivor of childhood. To be sure, as a cis-gender white male
from a wealthy family, I experienced a relatively privileged childhood. But a
relatively privileged childhood is still an oppressed existence.
Because of my privilege, I may
have only acutely experienced one form of oppression. Meanwhile, many children must
contend with multiple, intersecting forms of oppression and violence on a daily
basis. This intersectionality means that those of us working for children’s
liberation must also work towards decolonization and the liberation of Black
people, Indigenous people, and other people of color. It means we must confront
oppression in all its forms. But it does not diminish the severity of any one
form relative to the others. Oppression is oppression.
For all 18 years of my legal
childhood, most of the important aspects of my life were controlled by others,
and that control was enforced by law. I keenly felt the injustice and the
indignity of being treated as less than a full person. Like many young people, I
knew the institution of childhood was mostly arbitrary, overly oppressive, and senselessly
restrictive. I had interests, goals, desires, and aspirations for my life. Not
just my future “adult” life – but my very real life that I was trying to
experience as a young person. Yet I was unable to live as a free person.
So instead, I did what many young
people do, and I rebelled constantly – against forced schooling; against
parental coercion; against ageism in general. It was a desperate and misguided
attempt to reclaim some of my dignity and sense of self that was constantly
under assault. But I saw it as my only option. In turn, I was punished. I was told that I just didn’t understand because I was a
kid. I was even told that I should be grateful; that I was spoiled for not
appreciating what I was "given." I was told that I would understand
once I was older.
But now I have been a legal
adult for a decade, and it still doesn’t make sense. In fact, it seems even
more unjust than it did then. My teen angst has
transformed into an inferno of purpose. Now, I fully realize the arbitrariness and
violence of the oppression of children.
I now see that what
I was experiencing was paternalism. This same tool was used to try to justify
the oppression of women and the enslavement of Black people. They were told that
they didn't deserve equal rights because they were inferior; that they should
be grateful for the current system. But paternalism is founded on a false and
violent assumption that some people are entitled to control the lives of others
because of perceived differences.
I now see the very
real violence that it perpetrates against youth. And I see that with a little
creativity and much effort, we could develop liberatory alternatives. In fact,
many of these already exist. And it’s time to commit to this work.
Most of us want to live in a
world of free and liberated people. But this can’t happen if there is
normalized systemic oppression. And one of the most pervasive forms of
oppression is ageism.
Young people are categorically
denied rights in our society. Young people can’t vote; can’t choose what to
learn; can’t choose how to spend their days; and mostly can’t work. Parents are
legally allowed to hit their children and send them to “troubled teen” boot
camps and conversion therapy (in many states) against their will. Runaway laws
prevent children from leaving even toxic and abusive homes (except in the most
extreme circumstances – when they are transferred to state custody).
Incorrigibility laws mean that courts can force children to obey their parents.
Parents and relatives regularly fondle and touch children without their consent.
For many children, the cumulative effects of this reality mean that childhood
is an inescapable hell.
Yet this oppression is almost
entirely arbitrary. The oppression of children is not some natural state of
humankind; it is not a given of organized society. Like racism; like the
oppression of women; like patriarchy in general – the oppression of children is
socially constructed. The age of majority, parental rights, paternalism, and
the nuclear family are relatively recent legal fictions created primarily to
serve the interests of those with power.
The oppression of young people
is morally and philosophically indefensible. It causes serious harm and normalizes
violent systems of power and hierarchy. By the time most children are five
years old, they already understand that sound reasoning doesn’t matter; that
consent is contingent; that bodily autonomy only applies to those with power; that
power is control; and that might makes right. These are the consequences of systemic
paternalism and the oppression of children.
But the fact that we were born
into and normalized to systems of paternalistic oppression does not mean we are
condemned to perpetuate them. Cycles of violence are doomed to repeat until there
is a moral awakening to the injustice of the pattern. What follows is an effort
to unlearn the violent behavior and create new relations. Struggles for
liberation from other forms of oppression – such as racism and sexism – show us
that the fight against systems of domination and violence is necessary and worthwhile.
They show us that society can and must change. And they teach us that systems
of oppression are interconnected, and that collective liberation means taking an
intersectional approach to the work.
It is now time to take up that
fight for the liberation of young people. A liberated world means that people
of all ages are free from oppression. A liberated world means free youth now.