Last week, when I wrote about children’s rights, I was expecting some pushback. Members of a childist culture will obviously struggle to cut through their conditioning… and that includes me. However, I was not prepared for one subset of responses that popped up in several places where my post was shared: accusations that advocating for children rights equates to condoning pedophilia. I was floored. Why would sexual abuse be the first thing that pops into someone’s mind when they consider the rights of children? And, why would anyone put the responsibility on the child and not the adult predator? Clearly, I do not have the answers to these questions, particularly because nothing about what I wrote indicated that children should be left entirely without the guidance and protection of trusted adults.
I do, however, have a response to this incredibly disturbing line of reasoning. Child sexual abuse is happening already in the U.S. where children do not have anywhere near the number of rights that adults have. And, you’ll never guess one of the crucial things we should be teaching our kids to help protect them from predators: children can say no to adults. Many children have never had that opportunity without being punished, so they don’t realize they can use that word when speaking with an adult. Check out this post from the Child Mind Institute for more information on ways we can empower our children to escape from and report attempts at sexual abuse.
Why Childism Matters
Early in my Peaceful Parenting journey, I was debating spanking in a Facebook group. I said, “I don’t hit people” to which a commenter responded, “We’re talking about children, not people.”
Childism isn’t as simple as whether or not you like children.
Some people don’t like kids and that’s ok. You don’t have to like kids to believe they should be assured human dignity. [EDIT: I was wrong. It is NOT ok to dislike kids anymore than it is ok to dislike any other entire group of people. That was a bit of residual childism on my part, and I’m accountable for it.] Unfortunately, in the U.S. alone, more than 3 million cases of child abuse are investigated each year and an average of 5 children are murdered every day of the year by caregivers. A sobering report from the U.S. Department of Justice states that, in the previous year, “60 percent [of children in the U.S.] were exposed to violence, crime, or abuse in their homes, schools, and communities. Almost 40 percent of American children were direct victims of 2 or more violent acts, and 1 in 10 were victims of violence 5 or more times. Children are more likely to be exposed to violence and crime than adults. Almost 1 in 10 American children saw one family member assault another family member, and more than 25 percent had been exposed to family violence during their life.” To be clear, THIS IS A HUMAN RIGHTS CRISIS.
Childism is the basis for the abuses children suffer, because childism says that children are not people. Our entire culture is complicit in the abuse of children.
Defining Rights and Freedoms
In my efforts to speak clearly and accessibly about childism, I neglected to anticipate a common concern many readers would have about the Anti-Childism Scale from last week’s blog post.
I received questions about how to balance equal rights for children with parental responsibility. So, I’ll begin with a very basic distinction between rights and freedoms.
- A right is a privilege enjoyed by all members of a society.
- A freedom is an absence of constraints.
The study of rights is so massive and so arguable that it’s difficult to pin down exactly what categories of rights exist. I will attempt to be brief and clear with the understanding that others may not agree with how I’ve broken these down.
Natural Rights: These are the rights we’re born with that need no special dispensation, such as the rights to life, liberty, and so on.
Moral Rights: These are the rights that hold societies together. They may or may not be enforceable by law. Moral rights may include things like the right to be treated fairly, whatever that may mean in the given culture.
Legal Rights: These are rights that are enforceable by law. They are typically moral rights that become codified. Legal rights include things like the right to move through life without being discriminated against, the right to own property, and the right to vote.
(Duties: Where a right is an entitlement, a duty is an obligation. I include this here as an aside to note that children’s rights advocates do not seek equality in duties, such as requiring young children to be subject to military conscription.)
There is tremendous interplay among these categories and rights vary from country to country. It is also important to note that rights can be limited by a society, as in the case of the famous prohibition against using the U.S. Constitutional right to free speech to justify the act of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. And, of course, there is the matter of incarceration where many rights are suspended (but many remain).
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is a legally-binding collection of 54 articles detailing children’s rights. It was ratified over 30 years ago, so it is not new by any means. To date, it has been signed by 196 countries, including the U.S. (1995). Regrettably, the U.S. regularly violates the agreement, as a country, and does not hold parents to its tenets. For instance, the UNCRC declares that children must be free from violence, yet the U.S. government has not taken a stance against spanking. At the very least, children’s rights advocates would see every child in the U.S. guaranteed the rights dictated by the UNCRC, but there’s so much more we could do.
For example, we could embrace the youth suffrage movement and eliminate the voting age, especially given the fact that “the quality of these citizens’ choices is similar to that of older voters, so they do cast votes in ways that enable their interests to be represented equally well” (Source). And, perhaps surprising, a study out of Scotland that controlled for socio-demographic diversity found that “the newly enfranchised young people in Scotland indeed show substantially higher levels of engagement with representative democracy (through voting) as well as other forms of political participation (such as signing petitions and taking part in demonstrations); and they engage with a greater range of information sources about politics and reflect greater levels of political efficacy.” Kids are brilliant and observant if we give them half a chance to be.
There are certain rights that are extremely sensitive and uncomfortable to debate, like marriage age. In some states in the U.S., there is no statutory minimum age at all with parental consent. In our current, childist culture, allowing parents to marry off their children can be disastrous. However, in a hypothetical anti-childist culture where children are treated with respect, taught appropriate boundaries, and included in all facets of society from childhood, the option to marry at a younger age to a peer would make a lot more sense than it does now. And, when I say “younger age,” I mean teenage. I do not believe young children should have the freedom to marry whenever they please as the risk of harm is far too high. So, their right to marry would need to be limited in this hypothetical culture.
Here’s the really touchy part. Where is the line between a right and a freedom drawn? Freedom is the absence of constraints. Even adults do not enjoy unlimited freedom and children much less so. While a child may not be free to get a tattoo, they have the absolute right to consent to being circumcised or having their ears pierced. And, a tween might be permitted to go on a group date with peers, but should not be permitted to date an adult.
I think that, perhaps, the simplest way to respect a child’s rights while fulfilling our duty as parents to protect and guide our kids is to put ourselves in their shoes. Would we allow someone to rip our clothes off and force us into a bathtub? No? Then, we shouldn’t do that to a child. Would we allow someone to hit us when we make mistakes? No? Then, we shouldn’t do that to a child. Would we allow someone to force us to eat food we don’t want to eat? No? Then, we shouldn’t do that to a child.
Yes, it’s a worldview shift which is what makes all of this so difficult. Most of what I do here in this space is to provide parents with alternatives to doing these things we do to kids but wouldn’t do to an adult. There are other, gentler options for children, including children who are resistant (which I’ve written about). And, until we get to the point where our relationship with our kids leads to mutual cooperation, there will very likely be times when we apply force. It’s far from ideal and it is certainly not respectful of children’s rights, but as a culture, we’re just not there yet. Individually, we may have more success or less success.
What Does Anti-Childist Parenting Look Like?
The reality is that we all come to parenting with a perspective that has been informed by our upbringing, our culture, our stressors, and our wounds. People have legitimate reasons for doing the things they do, including all the things I encourage parents not to do. What I try (and probably often fail) to do in my writing is to acknowledge the thought process and validate the parents’ needs while simultaneously advocating for children. I’m looking to help families heal whatever needs attention between parents and their kids so that, together, they can move forward in an enduringly positive bearing.
I can see a situation and grasp why a parent might react in an aggressive way toward a child. I want to offer the space to deconstruct what is happening in that parent’s life that led to the moment in time where they were at odds with their child. Is the parent struggling financially? Is the parent a member of a people group that experiences constant discrimination? Does the parent have a combative relationship with the children’s other parent(s)? Is the parent completely overwhelmed with no help? Are there other factors at play that make responding peacefully seem completely impossible? Does the parent honestly have no idea what else to do? Yes, often, and I’m empathetic to the struggle. It’s tough out here.
I’d like to share a little of my own experience here to illustrate why I am so deeply committed to the Peaceful Parenting philosophy. It’s a daily effort to choose a de-escalated response even when I’m barely holding it together. That part is so hard for me but the payoff is extraordinary. These are some common issues that frustrate many parents but aren’t a battle in my house (and I’ll explain why!):
- Car Seat Safety
- Trying new foods
- Choosing clothes/getting dressed
They are not issues in my household, because we’ve never made them an issue. My kids have always had the right of refusal 99% of the time. It’s just not a big deal, so they don’t make it one. They do these things willingly and without much effort on my part. That said, we do have other struggles and, as a Peaceful Parent, limits are a necessary aspect of my approach. So, please, understand that I am not saying children should, or even could, be given unlimited free rein.
Because I believe deeply in equal rights for kids, I work toward becoming a Subverter in every interaction I have with children. Here are some of the ways I acknowledge my children’s individual personhood and preferences:
- I’m patient with my kids and I give them lots of time both to respond to me and to switch gears when we need to do something else.
- I don’t tell my children how they feel (“Oh, you’re ok”).
- I don’t mandate manners.
- I assume competence and I don’t jump in to save the day while they’re problem-solving.
- I invite my children to handle delicate things, work on a hot stove, and use adult tools (all with supervision of course) because involving kids helps them build skills and understand safety.
- I include my kids in my daily life and expect them to share family responsibilities.
- I don’t require my children to clean alone. This may seem an odd point, but I struggled so much as a child when my parents told me to clean my room because I didn’t have the executive functioning skills to figure it out. So, with my kids, I’m present to help them when they need guidance well before they become frustrated.
- I acknowledge that the things they believe are important are as critical as the things that are important to me. If my son accidentally breaks a toy, I know his strong feelings about it are equivalent to how I’d feel wrecking my car. It’s a big deal.
- I don’t manipulate (“I’ll cry if you don’t give me a hug!”), threaten (“If you don’t stop right now, it’s time out for you!”), or coerce (“Be a good girl and pick up your toys.”)
- I encourage my children to say no to me and to negotiate.
- I don’t want obedient children. I want wise and cooperative children who are self-motivated.
- I don’t bribe or use rewards of any kind.
- I respect my kids’ property, space, and privacy.
- I don’t prank or laugh at my children unless they are clearly in on it.
- I don’t force my children to eat anything. No “You have to try one bite.” No “You won’t get dessert if you don’t eat!”
- I expect my children to have their own interests, have emotions, need time to rest without my interference, and resist my agenda/schedule for their lives.
- I don’t relish time away from them because they annoy me. I don’t blame my children for my emotions. I do appreciate self-care and time to myself because it’s good for my health.
- I respond to undesirable behavior with the Three Rs to help my children find their peace instead of punishing them or otherwise further escalating their heightened emotions.
- I don’t make excuses for my behavior if I treat my kids poorly (“You made me angry, so I yelled.”). Instead, I readily apologize and make amends.
Now, read back through that list but imagine I’m talking about my husband. Wouldn’t it be pretty much a given that I shouldn’t treat another adult any other way? Of course! Once I understood that, seeing my kids as equals in my humanity became easy. Kids are people, y’all.
Last week, many readers saw the line under the “Subverter” description on the Anti-Childism Scale that says, “children deserve equal rights as adults,” and missed, or didn’t understand, the part that says, “children have varying capacities to manage freedoms.” I hope everything I’ve explained here helps to clear up any misconceptions about the Anti-Childism Scale and my position on children’s rights and freedoms.