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.