Freedom News

Libertarian parenthood

Even with the pressures of having children, there is a better way of bringing them up, says Steve McKee in this article from Freedom dated 17th April 2004

Are children a burden or a blessing? Contemporary society struggles with its views on children and childhood. Youth is simultaneously seen as an ideal and as a threat. Children are portrayed both as little angels and little monsters.  Young people are said to need to be allowed to have a childhood in these days of childhood ending all too soon. But at the same time young people hanging round public spaces, engaged in youthful activities, are seen as both a cause and symptom of society’s ills.

Such conflicting views tell us more about the society that holds them than they do about children. This bears similarities to the conflicting views a sexist society holds about women. Women are held as a pure and chaste ideal at the same time as being temptresses who can lure men into carnal sin; seen as innocent creatures or a monstrous regiment; whore or mother.

Childhood, like womanhood, is a battleground for politics. Conservative politicians and liberal commentators, governments and professionals, teachers and social workers all have views on childhood, the family, and parenthood. The New Labour government has views on parenting, and might introduce parenting classes. Curfews have been piloted in some areas. The Christian Fellowship School in Liverpool wants the right to use the rod to ‘save’ the child. Single parents have long been pilloried and disadvantaged. The right to smack is debated in the Daily Mail. There is scarcely an area of childhood or parent-hood upon which it is not possible to hold a political view.

Education has long been seen as political. Colin Ward wrote “Ultimately the social function of education is to perpetuate society: it is the socialising function. Society guarantees its future by rearing its children in its own image.”  Look at how education perpetuates class differences. Look at the language used by Callaghan in his Ruskin College speech. At the ideological tinkering with education during the Thatcher era. At the way education is seen as being mainly vocational; it turns out those who are intended to manage, those intended for professions, those intended to be factory fodder, and those who are not expected to amount to much. Get good grades and get a good job. That simple statement hides an ideological labyrinth.

We can’t escape it; childhood is a battleground for hearts and minds. “Give me the boy at 7, and I’ll give you the man” said the Jesuits. But how many anarchists – when asked how we will encourage individual autonomy, how we will loosen the ‘instinctual’ bonds of hierarchy and authority, how we will encourage solidarity amongst ‘naturally’ selfish human beings – think of their own actions as a parent? If you are a libertarian and a parent, then you must be a libertarian parent, or what does it mean to say you are an anarchist?

But this isn’t about indoctrinating the next generation of anarchists; it is about living by your principles. If you reject authority, do you impose it at home? If you value shared solutions to problems, do you seek them at home? If you reject coercion, do you impose your will at home?

Children are not taken seriously in our society. Their views are not generally sought, or if they are, then little weight is given to them. A child is a person whose wishes may be ignored. An adult – any adult – can override a child’s request. Children are not competent; even to tell us what is in their interests. Children are an oppressed group.

You don’t believe me? Then think of this often-used example. There is currently a debate in the UK about the level of force a parent can use in chastising their child. At what age can one smack? Should smacking be allowed at all? Does smacking – not beating, just a flat hand across the backside – cause any lasting harm?

Now try that with women. What level of force is it acceptable for a husband to use in chastising his wife? Does smacking women – not beating, just a flat hand across the backside – cause any lasting harm?

You see? The debate isn’t even on the agenda. Anyone even raising the issue would rightly be labeled misogynist. So why is it okay to have that debate about children? What gives children this lowly status?

One answer we hear is children’s lack of experience. Well, that may be so, but if I lack experience, I don’t expect physical or some other form of punishment. I expect advice. And if I believe it to be good advice, I will accept it. If not, I will reject it. And that must surely be the libertarian parent’s role: a source of good, reliable advice.

Of course, not all advice is accepted. My brother may have views about how I should put up my shelves. But he has no right to expect his will to be carried out. He doesn’t say: “I’m your brother and you’ll do as I say!” Or if he did, he wouldn’t be surprised if my response contained swearing.

So what is the logic behind a parent saying the same? “I’m your father and you’ll do as I say!” It doesn’t sound like the argument put forward was very convincing, does it? Nor does it sound like that parent is likely to be a reliable source of reasoned advice in future. But even if we don’t resort to that phrase, parents often assume their will must be given precedence over the child’s. A ‘liberal’ parent may begin with the illusion of trying to reach a consensual solution, but if the solution does not suit the parent then it can be rejected as ‘unreasonable’ and the parent’s solution will be imposed. This is no basis for reaching agreement. Why should the child enter into it in a spirit of trust and genuine common endeavour? None exists on the parent’s part. And the child, through experience, will have learned that. Perhaps the child’s favoured strategy in those circumstances will be sabotage and rebellion. That would certainly be one reaction.

Any child expected to enter into a reasonable discussion must believe their views, their desires, their arguments have equal weight. Parents must have no expectation that their own argument – no matter how poor – be given more weight. But, people might say, a parent has a duty to keep their children safe. Okay, but how does that preclude putting forward convincing arguments? If the issue really is a matter of safety, surely a convincing argument can easily be found? Yes, but you can’t stand trying to reason with a child determined to climb an electric fence, goes one line of argument. Okay, but where are these children determined to commit suicide? Have you met any? Why would a child warned of severe danger ignore the warning? Well, they might, I suppose, ignore such a warning if they didn’t know whether they could trust it. Maybe the parent hands out warnings of dire consequences the child knows from experience seldom if ever transpire. Maybe the parent habitually cries wolf. Certainly my children have never tried to thrust their hands into fires once aware of the danger.

Which brings us back to reliable advice. If advice comes from a source we can trust we are more likely to accept it. If we have no idea whether it is good advice or not we are likely at best to be confused. Most likely we will just ignore it. Children are no different.

If this sounds like you have to be infallible, then don’t worry. It is not reasonable to expect anyone to be infallible. And children with reasonable expectations will not expect that of their parents. But this is about ensuring that your children have reasonable expectations. And the realization that your own views may be mistaken must play its part in that. If the child has a better argument, surely that must be accepted? If it isn’t, then all you are doing is enforcing your will for the sake of it; they’ll know it, you’ll know it, and if it happens often, the result will be a damaged relationship.

But what if you make a mistake? What if you overreact or shout? Then a sincere and prompt apology must be given. We aren’t angels, neither child nor parent, and all good relationships will weather storms, but the injured party will want to know that the other is truly sorry and will try not to do it again. Remember, though, that the adult’s position in society of assumed authority gives you the upper hand if you chose to take it. Your overreaction therefore has more significance here than the child’s. Remember also that you decided to have children; at the very least your actions will have resulted in the child being born. The child had no such choice in the matter. “I didn’t ask to be born” is a factual statement, and cannot be gainsaid. Don’t put your child in the position of wanting to utter it.

Of course no situation is perfect, but what matters is the honest attempt. If all involved trust each other’s intentions, then that is the best that can be asked for.

People will sometimes say all this is well and good for children of a certain age, but you can’t expect children of (whatever) age to contribute to a family solution. The age at which the doubter thinks libertarian parenting can ‘reasonably’ begin will vary. Some think it is only for teenagers.

Some think that toddlers cannot be expected to take part. Others think language is a prerequisite.

They are all wrong: every human from infant onwards is able to make their wishes known. A newborn baby is well able to inform its parents of its likes and dislikes, as any parent will vouch. The point is involving the child in the decision-making process in a way that is meaningful to them. There is, of course, no point in asking a newborn baby things which are beyond its understanding. But if it wants to be fed, it should be, unless there is a very good reason for the feed being delayed.

Some objectors say this will lead to ‘spoiled’ children. Well that is only the case if you think children are spoiled by being encouraged to take part in reasoned debate, by expecting their views to be valued, by expecting their wishes to be taken seriously. What I think it leads to is autonomous individuals, with a sense of their own self-worth, able to engage with others on an equal footing.


(taken from Freedom vol 65, no 8, dated 17th April 2004)

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