The Case for Children's Liberation
John McMurtry/University of Guelph
Perhaps our oldest and most significant blindness has been towards those of our
species classed as children. Man is generally slow to take notice of his accustomed brutalities to the helpless - - whether animals, slaves, women, or the
poor - - and children are least of all an exception. Some dramatic examples
illustrate this. Over the years young people have been legally and regularly
suffocated,1 starved, z exposed on dung heaps, 3 beaten to death, 4 imprisoned, 5
sold as slaves, 6 abandoned, 7 terrorized, 8 bound and gagged, 9 neglected to
disease,I° relentlessly insulted,ll and, simply, treated like the chattel they have
by law always been. 12 Yet most of this has escaped popular and reflective
awareness altogether. Child-abuse is not as recent published glimpses of it
might lead us to believe, a contemporary aberration. It is, rather, a long
accepted way of life.
Thus today we still revere the sacred stories of Abraham and Isaac, the
Father and the Son, yet seem quite unaware that we thereby continue to
sanctify the blood sacrifice of one's young. Consider: within the next year in the
nation celebrated as the world's most advanced, an estimated 1.2 million
parents will kick, beat, starve, or maim their offspring; and over 200,000
children will die from neglect or abuse. 13 Yet the wide concensus will remain
that the young need nothing so much as a restoration of "discipline." Indeed,
during this "Year of the Child" itself it is almost certain that young persons will
continue to exist with less specific protection from case and statutory law than
domestic pets, TM will continue to be confined without their consent to totalitarian school institutions for the best part of their lives, ~5 will continue to be
deprived of virtually all civil rights and liberties whatever, t6 and will continue to
be variously assaulted, incarcerated, and malnourished at will by their elders.
Yet behind a rhetoric of the-world-belongs-to-; youth, adults will in general
continue to sustain their wholesale disenfranchisement of the young as a settled
form of civilized existence.
We seem to have with the subjugation of children, in short, the last
stronghold of slavery, so deeply woven into our received way of being that we
are unable, or unwilling, to see it.
To characterize the child as slave is not a rhetorical figure, but a statement of
fact. For to be a slave is to have one's existence owned by another. And a
child's existence is, by explicit law, owned by parental or in loco parentis
adults. For example, one who removes a child from such adults is regarded in
criminal law as "depriving them of possession." 57 Or, again, one who receives
Interchange / Vol. 10, No. 3 / 1979-80
a child into care without these custodians' permission is held, just as one who in
other times received a slave into care without the master's permission, to be
criminally"harboring" another's property. ~8And, yet again, one who is a child
and seeks freedom from his or her owners is pursued as a "runaway," a
delinquent thief of itself who has violated the property rights of those to whom
he or she belongs. ~9
It is also because the child is owned that he or she may, against his or her
will, be committed as a "voluntary" patient to a lunatic asylum, not to say to a
home for the retarded, a juvenile detention centre, or to any other total
institution his or her guardians choose. 2o For by law, the will of the guardian is
the will of the child, because the child, being a possession, can have no will of
its own. The same principle is evident in divorce proceedings where children of
a marriage are allotted by others' decision to this or that parent's "custody" or
"possession" along with all other "properties of the union.' ,21 And it is more
interestingly evident in ordinary language, where the child who perpetrates the
enormity of asserting an independent will is castigated as "wilful," and if
"incorrigibly" so is "disowned" (i.e., given over to the custody of a corrective
In sum, the child is, by enforceable law and practice, property. Not in part,
like the worker who is owned with respect to his labor-power which he sells to
another, but in toto, with no part of his or her life outside the proprietary
domain of others from the moment he or she is conceived. That is why, when
the child comes into the world unowned, it is traditionally consigned to the
outlawry of bastardy; why, when it is put under school jurisdiction, ownership
control over it is legally transmitted to specified authorities to enforce in Ioco
parentis; and why, when juvenile law speaks of the child's relationship to its
parents or parent-substitutes, it employes the language of chattel conveyance:
"custody," "in charge of, . . . . belongs to," "under control," or, if such chattel
status be challenged, "unmanageable," and "beyond control. ''23
Traditionally, of course, the slave, women, and child members of the pater
familias were governed by one set of patriarchal proprietary rights, including
the rights to sell or kill. The status of the child as slave-property was explicitly
admitted in law. However, because adult slavery has more or less disappeared,
we are inclined to think that slavery as such m one's existence being owned by
another - - has disappeared too, including by implication the slavery of children. But as we have seen, this is not in truth the case. Children remain the
property of others, in law and in fact. It is on this account that even when we
may be outraged at the verbal or physical abuse of a young person by his or her
guardians, we are as inhibited from intervening as we would be from walking
across their back gardens, or entering uninvited into their classrooms or homes.
It is "their business," and, if we transgress their proprietary rights, we are soon
reminded of precisely this fact in precisely these terms. Indeed, the ownership
relationship here may well be more strictly ensconced than with lawns or
buildings, judging by the stricter taboo against interfering with what people do,
or do not do, with their children. You may, it seems, more easily tell a person to
look after his house than you can tell him not to assault his young.
But as with adult slavery, in child slavery the ownership of a human life is
less importantly a matter of excluding others from disposition over this life than
it is a matter of excluding the person owned from such disposition. Hence, with
one whose existence is the property of another, no part of his or her life is
directly his or hers to use or enjoy, but is that other's who owns him or her.
This is true of the adult slave, who may neither resist a flogging nor demand a
night out, nor anything else not willed by his or her owner, and it is equally true
of the child. For if the young person asserts a will of his own against that of his
parental or state custodians, in any matter whatsoever, his will can be accordingly "broken" by every means available, with no clear limit to the means
which may be legally used to secure "correction" (i.e., restoration of the
The fact that even the attempt to enter into human relationship-- that is,
dialogue - - on the matter of such "correction" is standardly ruled out as
"talking back" is proof of the ownership relation which is here presumed. For
to talk back is to violate the status of being under the control of another, to
show that one is "spoiled" as a proprietary extension. It is in this way that
personhood, being able to engage in unprescribed talking-with, is forbidden by
the child's status as adult chattel. The child cannot reason, cannot "argue
with," not because of incapacity, as adults so often claim, but because of the
child's existence as an adult possession. 24
On the other hand, the fact that "keeping quiet" and "doing what one is
told" standardly qualify the one owned as " a good boy" or " a good girl," or
alternatively as "my boy" or "my girl," further evidences the underlying
property relation here presumed. As with any other possession, jack-knife or
car, to be "good" is to serve instantly and well, and to justify by such service
the proud " m y " of proprietorship.
A full account of child slavery, however, does not end with the fact of
children being owned by others. It is worthwhile pointing out as well that, like
the " b o y s " and "girls" of adult black slavery, for whose lot the more enduring
slavery of children may provide the prototype, the child is required to adopt its
owner's name, is traditionally regarded as an inherently inferior being, is
imagined as sexually promiscuous by its owners, is valued most of all for its
performances for them, and is widely thought to be best kept in line by stern
non-familiarity and judicious hidings. 25
Like the adult black slave too (but for centuries before and after the latter's
disenfranchisements) the child is conventionally kept in a world apart. Segregated from its adult possessors in virtually every sphere of its life, a segregation
which has become institutionalized with compulsory schooling, the child suffers under perhaps the most thorough-going system of apartheid and discrimination ever known. Excluded from all the legally protected latitudes and enablements enjoyed in the world of its adult master, whose solidarity in the face of
any rebellion is without parallel in ruling-class annals, the child is not only still
disqualified from all the human rights of privacy, of association, of assembly, of
speech, of dress, of pursuit, of beliefs, and of vote, but is excluded as well from
the most basic protections of ordinary law against arbitrary seizure, detention,
and assault (to name but a few of the normally criminal acts by which the child
may be legally victimized at any time). What or when the child eats, drinks, or
sleeps, how he sits, walks, stands, or even holds his face, where he goes or who
his friends are, what he says or does or reads or sees or hears or takes an
interest in, what indeed he thinks, regards as true or beautiful, imagines, or
aspires to - - over none of this has he, or she, any established right, or freedom
from control of by his or her adult owners. From top to bottom, the young
person's life is the possession of others, however benignly these others may
exercise their jurisdiction. E6 That such a state of affairs has been not only
transcultural and transhistorical but generally regarded, if thought of at all, as
without alternative, shows the depth of the enslavement: more complete, by
this measure, than any forms of slavery or oppression yet visited by human on
human since time began. 27
Generally speaking, justification for the subjection of children is not conceived
as necessary at all. For example, adult dominion is customal~y conceived to be
absolutely given by the commandment of the Lord, who is himself, in turn,
appropriately conceived as the Father. But justifications are nonetheless provided here and there by those subscribing to reason. These justifications,
however, virtually all conform to a single argument pattern. That is, whether the
claim is that young people have not yet reached the "age of reason" and hence
are incapable of prudent self-governance (the pre-eminent line of philosophers
and law-givers since Locke), 28 or whether it is that children owe absolute
allegiance to their parents because the latter have given birth to and nourished
them (the essential logic of filial piety East and West since Confucius and
Socrates), 29 the underlying argument-form is this: Because of their in-
capacities, children must obey.
Now it is true that with the former type of justification, obedience is
conceived as necessary because of present incapacity, and that with the latter
type of justification, obedience is conceived as necessary because of past
incapacity. This is assuredly a crucial distinction, because not only does it
betoken different sorts of inference routes (functional in the former case, ethical
in the latter), but also because the required obedience so inferred is defeasible
in the one instance (i.e., as soon as the child achieves the age of reason, he can
govern himself), but permanent in the other (whatever stage of development the
son or daughter reaches, he or she must continue to obey parental authority in
payment for having been conceived and supported by them).
The distinction between these two lines of thought is of great philosophical
interest because not only does it carry in its wake fundamental differences
between the ideals of self-independence for adults on the one hand (the West's
"freedom"), and continuing the ways of dead elders on the other (the East's
"ancestral sacrifice"), but it also marks in the development of civilization in
general the dividing line between absolute and democratic sovereignty. As
Locke argues at the height of this transition, the premise to the justifications of
royal absolutism lie in the more ancient dogmas of parental absolutism.
Despite these important differences between the two main types of justification for the subjection of children to adults, however, both hold that the
necessity of obedience follows from the present or past fact of incapacity. Now
what is immediately arresting about this pattern of argument is not that it is
irredeemably non sequitur, but that it is so similar in form to the pattern of
argument underlying the classical justifications of slavery. Aristotle's very
similar justification of slavery, for example - - that it follows from the inferior
nature of those with "no foresight of mind ''3° - - or even Hobbes' justification
that it is the nature-given price of being defeated in war, 31 or Hegel's that it is
the dialectically ordained consequence of fear of death, 32 are all arguments
which infer the necessity of servitude from the alleged fact of incapacity:
incapacity of reason, of bellicosity, of transcendence, or of whatever. Similarly,
the pattern of argument underlying the standard justifications for the servitude
of women, or the working class, follows in much the same lines. Women must
be under the dominion of men because they lack the capacity - - the reason, or
the strength, or the talent, or whatever - - to govern themselves. Workers must
be told what to do by masters because they lack the capacity - - of managerial
talent, of self-denial, of initiative, or whatever - - to regulate themselves. And
so on. In sum, however variously contrived the justifications for one group
lording it over another may be, they all conform to the same general train of
thought: because of the incapacity of X, X must be ruled; or, otherwise put,
because of the incapacity of X, X must obey. 33
Consider, though, how we might respond today to this pattern of argument
as it applies to, say, blacks or women. We would probably refuse to accept the
premise of their incapacity, claiming that blacks or women are no less capable
than whites or men. ff pressed by the counter-argument that there are no great
black mathematicians or great women composers (or whatever the still extant
excuse for subjugation might be), we would reply that any such incapability, if
the case, is developable by different social conditions into capability, and is,
thus, not to be construed as non-developable. Yet that is precisely what is
construed with the premise of the argument pattern in question. Otherwise, an
inference of maximally educative social conditions, not necessary rule, would
be drawn from it. So the premise of the argument pattern here involves a
confusion in its very predicate: inability which can be overcome is conceived as
inability which cannot be overcome, and an illicit conclusion of subordination,
rather than education, is concluded from the muddle. 34
Even if, however, there were special incapacities of children, or at least
certain subclasses of children (e.g., the inability of those under two years to
reason morally), the conclusion that they therefore must be ruled by others still
does not follow. Rousseau realized this centuries ago in Emile. He believed that
no child under 12 could reason at all, 3s let alone ethically, and so held a
typically adult chauvinist position on children's capabilities (a position which,
coming as it does from Western philosophy's most eminent advocate of children's worth, indicates how deeply ingrained the prejudice against them is). Yet
for all the extremity of his premise on the incapacities of children, Rousseau
does not infer obedience to adult rule as a necessary consequence, but, on the
contrary, liberty from such rule: his argument being that since children under
twelve are incapable of reason, they should be released from adult dictates
altogether, and left free to discover the nature of the world they live in by
personal trial and error, with the natural consequences of their actions as their
sole instructor. Thus, in short, from the premise of children's incapacity, the
opposite conclusion to that of the pattern of argument in question can be
inferred. One need not claim that Rousseau's inference follows any more
rigorously than the conclusion of the standard argument pattern, to regard that
pattern as, nevertheless, a non sequitir. Neither conclusion follows from the
premise in question. However, we might regard the further premise required by
Rousseau's argument - - Freedom is preferable to servitude - - as more acceptable than the further premise required by the standard argument pattern - Servitude is preferable to freedom.
But is there, then, no kind of case in which the inabilities of children rationally
warrant their subjection to adults?
Let us consider the following four more focussed questions.
QI: Does not the infant have to, for its own safety, belong to another as the
governor of its being?
Q2: Does not the egocentric child have to, for the good of all, be under adult
Q3: Does not youth in general, as a simple matter of acculturation, have to be
ruled by those already acculturated?
Q4: Do not all young people owe, in virtue of the life and nourishment given to
them, the respect of obedience in return?
So far we have found that, in general, the premises of such questions are
not sustainable, and that the inferences proposed do not follow from them
anyway. But let us now look at the matter more closely, and consider the force
of each of these challenges in turn.
Undoubtedly, the infant, the non-speaking child (usually under 21/2 years), is
unable to look after itself in any respect. It is not only unable to specify its
concerns to others (hunger, love, ideas), and correspondingly unable to formulate them to itself, but it is unco-ordinated in the motor skills required to cope
with these concerns, while attentive to little else than their satisfaction, The
infant is, in a word, a full job: more or less completely helpless and serf-centred,
but rapidly learning. (He or she performs, for example, the extraordinary
cognitive feat of learning language in under 30 months.)
Such dependency, unlike the adult slave's dependency, demands great
attention and patience from the infant's custodians, if the infant is to survive
without the total appropriation of his or her life by adult regimen (i.e., eating
and sleeping by imposed schedule; moving within the confinements of
swaddling-bonds, playpen bars, leading-string leashes, or strict boundaryenclosures; seeing, touching, and hearing within the limits of adult prescription
and segregation; vocalizing or not vocalizing precisely as bidden; and so on).
However, w#h such total appropriation, the infant does not, by situational
definition, demand great attention and patience from his adult keepers, but on
the contrary is greatly demanded from: to the point, as we have seen, of being
habitually assaulted in one way or another for failing to conform to these
keeper's directives. Hence, in reality, the infant has to belong to another as the
governor of its being not so much for/ts well-being, as for the convenience and
power of its adult overseers. We have in other words an inversion of what Q1
proposes. It is not the needs of the infant but the interests of its adult custodians
which enjoin the latter's suzerainty.
The infant's interests, on the other hand, are best served by its maximum
release from adult rule: eating as its organism, not adult schedule, demands;
playing as the full exploratory use of its limits and senses, not adult confinement, impel it; verbalizing as the explosive development of language, not adult
will, requires; and so on. So far as we know, and this includes experience as a
single parent of four, there is no good evidence to indicate that adult command
is ever necessary to the well-being of infancy; 36 while there is very telling
evidence that liberation from such command - - liberation whose governing
principle, as with all organic growth, is to leave free in a rich environment - - is
necessary to such well-being. 37 The tiberative form of relationship is assuredly
more taxing, in direct proportion to the additional energy-expenditure which
open attention as opposed to closed regimen exacts from its giver; and it is
doubtless this increase of exertion which, at bottom, the claimed necessity of
adult command is there to evade. 38 It is, in other words, the adult's short-term
interests of self-convenience, not the infant's long-term interests of cognitive
and physical growth, which is the real, if hidden, premise upon which the
inferred necessity of adult rule is based.
That the child's awareness is initially and wholly egocentric is difficult to deny.
During its first stage of cognitive growth, not even the existence of external
objects is recognized as independent of its perception of them: an infantile
solipsism which, as Piaget ~was the first to formally report, evolves stage by
stage from the child's early recognition of "object constancy" (where objects
are no longer thought to pass out of existence when out of private view), to its
later development of a socialized morality (where the concept of good increasingly extends from purely egocentric concerns of personal punishment and
reward to ever wider concerns culminating, at the highest, in universalized
regard for the well-being of all). In short, the infant is born thoroughly selfish,
but develops an increasingly wider recognition of the being and needs of the
other which can, at best, be universal in scope.
Where does adult command fit into such a picture? From the outset, we
have to make a distinction between what the parent or in loco parentis figure
claims is the role played by his or her dominion over the child (i.e., discipling
the child's selfishness into concern for the interests of all), and the role which is
in fact played by this dominion (i.e., serving the serf-interest of the adult
concerned). For example, the parent or teacher who punishes a child for
"disrespect," "insolence," or "disobedience" is typically, in fact, enforcing
his or her own claims to homage from the child, not the general interest: as the
standard failure of such adults to universalize their notions of due "respect"
and "obedience" to include themselves reveals.
if, however, the objective of adult rule really was to restrain antisocial
selfishness in the interests of all, then it would not be adult rule, but rule by law,
or, in more specific terms, rule by the principle of general interest. And this is
no merely semantic distinction. If adult rule was indeed rule by this principle of
the general good, with adults as they claim simply the moral trustees of its
application, then it would necessarily follow" that they too were governed by it
in which case, presumably, teachers would be punishable for "insolence" to
pupils, and parents for "disobedience" to their children. But in fact no such
impartial application of purportedly moral regulation occurs; from which we
must conclude either that the regulation in question is not in the general interest
as it is pretended to be, or that it is, but adults refuse to apply it to themselves.
In either case, such regulation serves not the well-being of all, but, again, the
self-interest of adults.
Since, furthermore, most early learning is imitative, such self-interested
adult rule is not only ineffective in promoting the general good it is justified by,
but is also pedagogically self-confuting in its provision of an adult model from
which the child learns not so much to be concerned with others as to be selfishly
domineering. 39 Adult dominion, in short, as distinguished from ethical enforcement, achieves the contrary of what it claims: a child whose natural
egocentricity is not superseded but re-enforced by the serf-centred role-model
his adult rulers present to him. The only way the objective of regard for others'
well-being can be achieved, of course, if we grant it is not programmed by
nature, is to value it consistently. And such consistency of valuation can only
obtain, in turn, if adults as well as their children charges are governed by the
maxims enjoined by it: that is, by rules such as " D o not boss others around."
It is doubtless the case that such reconstrual of child-regulation would
render former culpabilities like "insolence," "insubordination," and "disobedience" rapidly extinct, because adults would find such infractions intolerable when applied to themselves by children. But this is not an undesirable
consequence. By such impartiality, the purported design of adult regimen - - to
upbring children from the circle of self-concern into which they are born - becomes practicably fulfillable. Otherwise, it seems only rhetorical purpose
concealing underlying self-interest, to the systematic detriment of the young's
moral development. And otherwise, the rules governing children are, qua
arbitrarily and selectively imposed, paradigmatically unreasonable and unfair.
As for the reduction of rules which is bound to take place when adults as
well as children are answerable to them, such reduction need not exclude
anything of value, since there is no regulative principle appropriate to children
and not adults too. From hygienic excretion and sufficient vitamins to sharing
rather than taking, and talking with rather than hitting, adults are quite as
properly governed by such precepts of social being as children: though, one
assumes, more advancedly so. Indeed it is only in the adults' more advanced
governance by such generalizable rules of good living that the legitimacy of
their ethical stewardship lies.
Unfortunately, however, almost no established system of adult supervision
of children as yet qualifies for such ethical stewardship. What we count as an
absolute requirement of legitimacy with adult government of adults - - equality
before the law - - is as yet an almost unheard of possibility with adult government of children. And what adults count as undeniably good for relations
among children is as yet only an elect exception in their own relations with
In the end, in other words, adult command is no requirement for the moral
development of the young, but a main obstacle to it. What such moral development does require, it is clear, is not the rule of an exempted class, but the
sovereignty of a co-operative ethic. 4°
Here the challenge - - Does not youth have to, as a simple matter of acculturation, be ruled by those already acculturated? - - differs from the challenge
presented by Q2 in its greater generality and its positivist-relativist metaphysic.
It is more general because it applies to all adult regulation of children, not just
one important kind. It is positivist-relativist in its metaphysic because it absolutizes mores, not morals, culture-relative facts, not universalizable values. 41
All this is important because it points up the "covering" nature of Q3 as
justification for child-subjection, as well as the most objectionable aspect of its
argument. Q3 can justify any demand on children whatsoever. There is no
dictate nor abuse which cannot be, and indeed has not been, justified as a
matter of securing the "adaptation," the "conformity," the "adjustment" of the
young to "the way things are," "the reality," the "accepted convention," as
interpreted by those who are "older and wiser," "know best," "the older
generation." Q3 is, in other words, the absolutization of what is, on no other
account than that it is, and with no other warrant for the claim that it is, than the
self-certifying command of adults. It is the universally applicable invocation of
the status quo as the ultimate authority of what can permissibly be, with the
older qua older the final arbiters of what this status quo now is, and of what
decrees can be deduced from it. Q3 is, in a word, the catch-22 of adult
subjugation of the young.
But are children to know any better than age-sanctioned convention, than
those who have grown inside it? Is not at least the rule of developed custom, as
understood by those habituated to its prescriptions, preferable to the chaos of
children attempting, with almost no experience to go on, the hard road of
survival and self-government?
Here is the nub of the fallacy of such reasoning: it poses an incomplete
disjunction, a spurious dilemma. The choice is not between these two extremes
alone, or even fundamentally. A human relationship between adults and the
young, indeed between anybody and anybody, is a relationship of intercommunication, a dialogical relationship. Animals cannot talk with one another in
situations of conflict, so they dominate, or submit. Humans can communicate
with one another in situations of conflict, so they need not dominate or submit,
but can converse instead. Thus adult authorities need not dominate their
children charges, nor need children submit to their adult authorities, but both
can "talk back" to one another instead.
But surely, it will be objected, talk must have an end, and resolution be
reached. And it is precisely here that the proper role of received experience is
to rule. The inarticulate child with its hand towards a hot stove or heirloom
vase, the talkative youngster insistent on late night bed-time, candy meals, or
highway dodging - - these must be told what to do, and obey.
Such cases are, of course, selected cases, and as such can only fallaciously
yield a general conclusion about the necessity of child-subjection. Because
situations of emergency are, as the term entails, but occasional, and the
foregoing are all emergent cases, no inference from their requirements of adult
dictation to normal requirements of such dictation can be legitimately made.
They are merely selected instances.
But are even these selected instances ones in which adult command is
necessary? If we examine them more closely, these cases afortiori fail to justify
such rule. For in virtue of the very exceptionality of peril they present, they
especially require demonstration in place of command, practical reason in place
Consider the child reaching toward the stove, or heirloom. Prevention by
warning, or embrace, not dictate, is clearly adequate to the immediate danger: a
child who does not heed the caution can be easily forstalled by the embrace.
That such obvious alternative to the normal order ("Get away from there"),
backed by violence ("a whack on the backside"), is seldom conceived, let
alone practised, gives some indication of the insensate nature of conventional
adult discipline. 42
As for the more typical situation of non-immediate peril to person or
property, the jeopardy here can without obvious exception be concretely
demonstrated (e.g., by guided approach of the hand to the heat, by charade of
broken valuable before it is removed out of reach), or it is no real danger (as
with the numerous child activities forbidden to maximize adult control, but
under the guise of ensuring children's safety). Should the concrete demonstration fail, thus inviting the ancient non-sequitur of dominion from disability ("he
doesn't understand, so I'll have to make him"), then the situation offers a more
exacting problematic than adult analysis has initially discerned, and is to be
resolved accordingly, by a more advanced solution (e.g., a better or appropriately reperformed demonstration or, if such still fails, a higher-order examination of the problem of which inattention may be only the symptom, as with lack
of food, sleep, or physical affection43). The governing logic of dealing with the
unsolved problem is, in other words, one of ascending inquiry and test (from
which the child, who learns essentially by imitation of adult model, learns how
to reason), not one of the descending order and punishment (from which the
child learns, besides servitude and non-inquiry, how to dominate weaker
However, it is not only a matter here of alternative to the standard procedures of adult-enforced acculturation, it is a matter of this "acculturation"
increasing the very hazards it is intended to reduce. Assuming that there really
is a present or future danger to be prevented by the standard do's and don'ts
of adult rule, do these assure compliance beyond the time of their immediate
enforcement? Reflect upon any of our examples - - grasping hot stoves or
heirloom vases, declining bed-rest, preferring candy meals, or neglecting traffic. Children given more or less standard lines of prohibition and prescription in
these areas, dictates backed by force, learn thereby nothing about the ill-effects
of such activities themselves, but only about the ill-effects of adult authority.
They learn not to avoid hazardous grasping, candy-lunching, or running in front
of cars, but to fear older people: for it is from the latter that prohibition and bad
consequences are seen to come, not, through demonstration and explanation,
from the unsafe activities themselves. Thus the child continues exposed by
adult rule to the very dangers this rule is supposed to prevent. This continuing
exposure, moreover, is a daily problem, and increases rapidly with age: hence
the frantic anxiety of the traditional parent whose displacement of the real
hazards of living by adult command and enforcement has left his or her child
incapable of safe self-direction.
Even with a maximum-security upbringing, round-the-clock coercive surveillance of the child is rather too demanding a regimen to be achieved; and,
furthermore, rendered progressively more difficult by both the fragmentation of
child jurisdiction among home, school, and other adult authorities, and the
sheer bodily mobility of the growing youth. 4s Because the child is, then,
increasingly outside effective adult command and enforcement, it is increasingly exposed to the very perils these conditions are supposed to prevent.
Indeed because humanity, and especially youthful humanity, is distinguished
by its dispositions to explore, to understand why, and to act out concious
project, the adult decrees to which it is forced to submit call forth a virtually
instinctive rebellion against them, and disobedience to them wherever possible
("whenever they can get away with it," as adult authorities are wont to
complain). So, in this way, the conditions of command and enforcement bring
about the very opposite of what they dictate, a contradiction to which the only
final solution is to "break" the child's humanity altogether: a dehumanization
which, as our history of graduated children so widely testifies, has all too often
The dialogical approach, on the other hand, assures by its very structure
that regulation which is reasonable to the young will be adhered to outside adult
intervention, and, quite as important, that regulation which is unreasonable to
them will be resisted. And this is as it has to be if human convention is to
rationally evolve, and if people are to become rational. 47 It would, of course, be
a mistake to idealize the extent to which adult culture can tolerate such rational
test, or the extent to which the young may be persuaded by it. Both adults and
children tend to prefer action in accordance with serf-interest. But the former,
having incomparably more of it to protect in power and possession, are correspondingly more dedicated to its preference, and this is doubtless why the
acculturation argument for adult rule is so widely favored: it protects those
interests. Children, on the other hand, have almost no such ensconced interests
to distort their understanding, and are on this account more open to reasonable
demonstration: what sages have often called their "innocence." At the worst,
persuasion by extrinsic pay-off to self (what behaviorists call "positive re-enforcement"), or arrest of hysterical egocentricity by a shout (what they call
"negative re-enforcement"), is an occasional lower-order stratagem which may
have to be used to stimulate the child's attention out of an accustomed pattern
of inertia: 48 in either case, a last-resort concession to the less-than-human
features of children, or for that matter, adults, from which genuine upbringing
releases them. 49
Though the idea of children owing the respect of obedience to those who have
brought them into the world and nourished them is the most venerable of all
justifications of children's servitude, it is perhaps the most specious. 5°
The basic problem with the argument is that its premise is untrue. The
entire universe, assuredly many more conditions than the parents - - have
brought the child into being and nourished it. To claim that the parents alone
have done it (and such is claimed, or else obligation to the entire universe or
many of its conditions would be inferred) is an insupportable conceit: itself
violating the obligation to one's grounds of being which it asserts. In the end,
then, Q4 is self-confuting.
But, it may be countered here, are not parents at least the main supporters
of their children's existence, and thus entitled to the primary status they claim?
This rejoinder is little more cogent. For even if we draw a line somewhere, and
say certain elders are most of all the grounds of their children's being, the false
conceit of the proposition remains evident. That is, the growers of the food they
eat, the builders of the dwellings they live in, the makers of the tools and
furniture they use and benefit from, the producers of the arts they enjoy, and so
on and so on, together contribute more material conditions to the child's
existence than even the most devoted of guardians could hope to. If it be replied
to this that such adults "pay for" all such conditions and are therefore their
ultimate granters, then it is as owners not doers that they are conceived as the
source and sustenance of their children: and here we are surely closer to the
truth of the matter. Ownership has to be the underlying presupposition of the
adult claim to life-obligation from their young. For on this presupposition, the
otherwide outlandish claim of causal omnipotence, " W e brought you into the
world," " W e nourished you," bears the stamp of intelligibility, if not truth.
That is, since to own is by definition to exclude others from what is owned, one
can make sense of how the child's conditions of being and its very being itself,
which are owned, are conceived as exclusively from their owners, the parents.
But on other than an ownership logic, the idea is unintelligible. Yet if it is on the
exclusive ownership of the child's means of life that the guardian claim to
obedience is based, the argument remains untenable. For it is precisely this
monopoly ownership which needs to be justified.
As for the inference from the guardians' unjustified monopoly ownership of
the child's means of life, namely the inference that the child must obey those
from whom benefits of this ownership are received, this conclusion does not in
any case follow. Even if we grant the premise as true, the inference of necessary obedience drawn from it is non-sequitur, unless a further premise is
introduced and secured, a premise to the effect that reception always entails
service. But no such premise is supplied, nor defended. Q4 is from start to
finish, in fine, a logical farrago.
It is evident from our inquiry that none of the arguments justifying the subjection of children to adult hegemony stands up to rational scrutiny. Yet, despite
the primary importance of this subjection, the ontogenetic basis of all human
domination, and despite the self-confuting tendency of the arguments for it, it is
a scarcely noticed problem. Indeed, apart from a thin, helter-skelter line of
critical attention to it, stretching from the ancient Quintilian to the recent
radical education movement, 51 adult domination of child has remained in the
shadows of the human unconscious, like a repressed m e m o r y o f the race. Here
and there our language discloses adults' rejection of childhood ( " d o n ' t be a
child"), their remembered helpless humilitation o f it ("treated like a child"),
and their profound compensatory wish for a higher form o f it ( " h a p p y as a
child"). But, as the conflict among these archetypal sentiments suggests, there
is a great resistance to clear recognition of the system of subjection by which
the young o f our species, and hence all o f us, are bound.
Over and over again, we have assailed the prisons of our b e i n g - kingship
and lordship, capitalism, racism, and sexism - - but even the most deep-seeing
liberators among us, including the very radical Marx, have failed to penetrate to
the substructure of it all, the subjugation o f the young, sz Yet here all oppressors
are forged, in the image of their elders oppressing them. Thus the sanctification
of settled tyrants everywhere as the protectors and keepers o f children, s3 And
here as well, the generation o f e v e r y b o d y ' s reason and liberty is initially and
most lastingly developed, or broken. Hence the age-echoing boast o f the papal
see, more convincing still in its revision, " G i v e me a child till the age of
majority, and the world can have him thereafter."
In the choice between the subjection and the liberation of the young, it is
difficult not to conclude, we make the choice between the subjection and the
liberation of humankind.
1. The standard modes of suffocating unwanted children have been by over-zealous
"swaddling" and by "overlaying" the child in the guardian bed. The eventual prohibitions against the latter practice are detailed in the most informative of scarce resources
on the history of young people (de Manse, 1974, p. 156).
2. Starvation has, of course, been a common form of killing children from the time of
the ancient city-states, when it was perfectly legal (de Mause, 1974, pp. 26-29), to the
present, when millions of children starve every year in the world with no evident legal
3. Not only was exposure on dung heaps a legally sanctioned form of killing children
among civilizations like Egypt, but a child who managed somehow to survive such
exposure was thereafter legally disabled, as was the adult who saved him (de Manse,
1974, p, 83).
4. Beating young people to death was a regular occurrence not only in the eras
preceding the modern (the Holy Bible, for example, which remains widely sanctified,.
advises that "the man who fails to use the stick hates his son"; Proverbs, 13:24), but
continues to be a frequent occurrence today. Britain's Institute of Family Psychiatry,
for example, reported in 1975 that an average of 700 children a year are killed by their
guardians in that country, while the Journal of the American Medical Association
reported in 1968 that brutal physical punishment by parents is likely a "more frequent
cause of death than such thoroughly studied diseases as leukemia, cystic fibrosis and
muscular dystrophy." As elsewhere, it is important to note, the criminal codes of both
countries explicitly except children from normal legal protection against physical
assault by their state or parental guardians.
5. Imprisonment of young people, with no right of defence or hearing, is, as we know,
a standard practice of parents (what juvenile law sanctions as "on restriction") and of
schools (what is appropriately acknowledged as "detention"). Indeed, under present
juvenile delinquency legislation a child can be legally incarcerated for the remainder of
his childhood for breaking any bylaw or ordinance, for running away, for keeping "bad
associations," for "sexual immorality," or, in general, for "resisting the guardians'
established norms of conduct." See, for example, the extensive studies, Juvenile
Delinquency in Canada (1967) and Children and the Law (Wilson, 1978). For similar
practices in other national jurisdictions, see sources cited in note 22.
6. It is well known that child-sale was a widespread practice among ancient tribes and
civilizations, but it is less well-known that legal sale of one's children "continued
sporadically into modern times, not being outlawed in Russia, for instance, until the
nineteenth century" (de Mause, 1974, p. 33).
7. The abandonment of children, which legend reminds us of in the case of Oedipus,
was a standard European practice until well into the last century, when, for example,
117,000 were officially reported to have been abandoned in France in 1825 (de Mause,
1974, p. 427). The common "neglected child" of today is a contemporary counterpart.
8. The terrorization of children - - that is, the causing in them of continual intense fear
of adult threat and attack on their persons and security - - is perhaps the most enduring
theme of "upbringing" practices from the time of the Old Testament patriarchs to the
present. From the first traditional blow on their backs at birth, and frequently genital
cutting as well, through the continuous subjection thereafter to the shame and violence
of adult "discipline," the child's subconscious existence is normally one of deep
anxiety at what can happen next (perhaps the ground of children's near universal
nightmare of being pursued by giants).
9. The binding of children's limbs by "swaddling clothes" was of course de rigeur
until recent years, and gagging of them by cloth stoppers or soap is by no means an
extinct or proscribed practice today.
10. It is well known that over 1,700 commercial chemicals adulterate the average
North American diet, most of them untested for their effects. (See, for example,
Drumond, 1977). Though the child here is not, as in the foregoing cases of discriminatory abuse, explicitly singled out for maltreatment, it is far more endangered in
virtue of its special nutritional requirements of growth, and is alone prevented by its
tutelage from rejecting what is imperilling its life.
11. No legal protection against libel or slander is afforded to the child as it is to adult
citizens. More interestingly, insult of children is built into our very language by means
of such standard expressions of opprobrium as "childish," "acts like a child," "grow
up," and "juvenile."
12. Succeeding argument will demonstrate this underlying point at length. Here we
take the opportunity to make clear that by "children" we mean all people under what
the law specifies as "the age of majority": paradigmatically, 21 years of age. As Pollock
and Maitland (1895) tell us in their classic history of law, "the only line of general
importance [between the child and adult] is drawn at the age of one and twenty; and
infant ~ the one technical word that we have as a contrast for the person of full age - stands equally well for the new born babe and the youth who is in his twenty-first
year" (1968, p. 439). "Infant," we might recall, means literally "unable to speak":
hence, the well-known prescription for young people to "be seen and not heard."
13. The estimate of parental batteries comes from a sample nation-wide study of 2,143
American families reported by Dr. Richard Gelles to the Annual Meeting of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1977; and the estimate of
over 200,000 deaths from child abuse and neglect comes from the first nation-wide
child-abuse study by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare conducted by the National Center on Child Abuse, under the directorship of Douglas
Besharov. We are indebted to James Christoff and the Reference Library of the
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Toronto, for these figures and those referred to in
14. "it is an anomalous and incredible fact that there is almost no case or statutory law
setting forth the rights of children . . . . Yet even now, the laws governing the treatment
of animals are more specific than those with respect to children" (Ferer, 1969, pp.
15. We do not employ "totalitarian" in a rhetorical way here, but refer by it to the
unlimited control over speech, appearance, and pursuit which the school institution
legally exercises over its student members. (Recent movements in North America to
amend this situation by student "bills of rights" have not succeeded in any public
education jurisdiction of which we know).
16. The young person has by law no freedom of conscience, religion, belief, speech,
domicile, or pursuit, and no right o f privacy, confidentiality, association, assembly,
business enterprise, or vote, to name some of the standard freedoms and rights of
which he or she is deprived. It is a peculiar irony in this light that "educating young
people for participation in a free and democratic society" is a typically declared aim of
17. This is the offence of abduction which, the law makes clear, is not an offence
against the child, but against the guardians' ownership of the child. On occasion, such
ownership might be worth "enormous sums" (Pollock & Maitland, p. 117), but
whatever its commercial worth, it is this ownership right, not any fight of the child,
which is protected by the law against abduction. Thus the defence that the young
person chose to leave his or her guardians' possession to be with another person or
persons would not protect these other persons from criminal prosecution.
18. "Harboring" a child is a subclass of abducting one. See, for example, the Cana-
dian Criminal Code, 1974, Section 250.
t9. A " r u n a w a y " child is, under juvenile taw, a "juvenile delinquent" who is punishable by an indefinite period of detention. Under such law, the young person is "subject
to the full penalizing power of the law, regardless of the specific behavior giving rise
to the conviction" (Juvenile Delinquency in Canada, 1967, p. 65). No departure from
this principle occurs, so far as we know, in the juvenile law of any Western nation save
Sweden, which has recently introduced a law enabling children to divorce their
20. We must emphasize that no criminal offence need be alleged or proved to incarcerate a young person in one of these total institutions. Here again we see the status of
children as that of corporeal possessions, which, if perceived as faulty, can be disposed of.
21. Recently in Ontario, children have been accorded independent legal representation in some cases (basically in disputes between Children's Aid Societies and parents)
f the judge so chooses. So, the judge, not the young person or persons concerned,
makes the decision as to whether such independent counsel is to be allowed, and such
counsel is still not specifically authorized in those areas of law most widely affecting
young people: for example, the Divorce Act and the Education Act (see Wilson, 1978).
22. "Frequently charges for incorrigibility are laid by parents or child-caring agencies
. . . for such behaviour as truancy, running away from home, sexual immorality and
resistance to the guardians' established norms of conduct . . . . Sexual immorality may
consist of acts which are generally regarded as normal evidences of curiosity in young
persons" (Juvenile Delinquency in Canada, t967, p. 65). For similar British and
American practice respectively, see the legal texts of: "Discretion and Rights Within
the Children's Hearing System" (Philosophical Journal, 1977, 14(I), 1-21); "Child
Neglect Laws in America" (Family Law Quarterly, 1975, 9(1), 1-362); and Wilkerson
23. It might, however, be objected here that the " n e e d s " and "interests" of the child
are also spoken of. However, such language no more contradicts the status of the
young person as possession than it does when applied to livestock or domestic pets.
Moreover, it is often the case that the law's use of the concept of "the child's 'need'
increases the danger of abuse" (Juvenile Delinquency in Canada, 1967, p. 64). That is,
the " n e e d s " and "interests" of the child may be interpreted as adult authorities
please, without or against the child's own view on the matter. For example, Judges
often sentence young people to prison for non-criminal actions on the pretext that it is
in the child's "best interests."
24. It is on this account, perhaps, that the only technical term in English jurisprudence
for the possessed young person is "infant," literally one unable to speak: thus the
young person's standard exclusion from the right to be heard in matters affecting him.
25. Though these attitudes may be thought to be radically changing we remind the
reader that the first remains in full force; the second is supported by virtually every
major philosopher since Plato and is, of more practical import, implicit in present
statutory law relating to young people; the third remains evident in the normal total
prohibition of children's sexual activity in homes and schools; the fourth is maintained
by the almost universal evaluation of young people in terms of their graded performances for adults; and the last persists in both the general idea of a necessary
"distance" between adult and young person, and the continued, explicit suspension of
the criminal law against assanlt and battery when the victims are young people and the
perpetrators their guardians.
26. A pet is no less property for having a benign owner, nor is a child. However, it is
worthwile pointing out here that the parent can, within the present proprietary framework
of the law and social custom, effectively choose to repudiate such a control-relationship
by the very exclusive jurisdiction the proprietary framework of law and custom affords
her or him. In this way, the home presently offers an important possibility of fundamental
human transformation not available elsewhere.
27. It could be said on behalf of contemporary state socialist societies that they have
prohibited physical assaults by school guardians on children, reduced the violence and
elite-monopoly of youth sports, prevented the commercial pollution of food and
culture available to the young, provided against the material insecurity of families
which fosters oppression of children, and so on. These are obviously significant
advances. But the status of children as the property of adult guardians, bound to obey
them in all matters whatever, has not changed in these societies. The state has
assumed more of the guardianship role (e.g., via creches and youth organizations), but
this has had the effect of increasing adult's proprietary control of the young, not
decreasing it (e.g., nationwide Soviet school rules require the young always to stand
when a teacher enters the room, and always to obey their parents at home).Adult
hegemony remains, in short, a world-wide form of life, unrecognized and unchallenged
in even putatively classless societies.
28. Locke's argument in The Second Treatise of Government (mainly Sections 60 and
66) is, as so much of his sociopolitical thought, a paradigm of what is argued by
mainstream politicians, lawyers, and philosophers since. For a clear summary of this
line of thought including the "paternalistic" position of Mill in On Liberty, see
Worsfield (1974). Worsfield himself, however, adopting Rawls' position in A Theory of
Justice, has a rather attenuated concept of children's rights. It seems to consist in the
adult's obligation to consider the interests and point of view of the child in making
decisions for him. Though allowance is also made for children deciding for themselves
"wherever possible," such possibility itself, it seems, is determined by adults. In
short, there is not the clear break from the classical position which Worsfield's title
29. In the Crito (50d-5 le), Socrates argues that, like a son who owes obedience to his
father for having been "born, brought up and educated" by him, so he, Socrates, owes
obedience to the laws of the state. Like Confucius, not to say Confucianism and
Neo-Confucianism for two thousand years after, and perhaps human history itself,
Socrates here takes the guardian-child relationship as the model to which other
relations of human government ought to conform. With Confucius and Confucians, the
son's subordination, at best a "perfect form of obedience," is persistently held to be
the prototype of which all other types of social relation, of husband and wife, of ruler
and subject, and so on, ought to correspond: hence the covering term hsiao, or "filial
piety," as the Confucians' normative ideal for human regulation in general. One is
constrained to wonder in view of this transepochal norm of paternalism regulating
social relations from ancient Athens to modern East Asia, whether the underlying
structure of all human domination is not the relationship between adult and child.
30. Politics, 1252a4~
31. The Leviathan, Part 2, chapter 20. See aIso note 50.
32. This Phenomenology idea, taken up by Koj~ve and Sartre, that slaves are such by
fear of risking death, a fear which their masters have transcended, loses whatever
plausibility it has, however, when applied to the case of adults and children. Indeed
perhaps the deepest psychological chasm between the two groups, and a prime
animator of youth's continuous "rebellion" against their elders, is the older generation's conventional terror of risking anything which might endanger one's career, let
33. Usually the modal " m u s t " here, of both rule and obedience, is conceived to be a
necessity of morality as well as of fact: thus rendering the adult righteous in his or her
dominion, and the young person wicked in his or her resistance to it. These implications are of great importance because the adult may thereby claim strength of virtue by
unyielding tyranny, while the young person may, by the same logic, be morally
shamed by courageous liberty (an inversion of values more terrible than which it is
difficult to conceive). This moralization of adult rule is, moreover, absurd as well as
monstrous, because what it denies of children, their ethical capability, itpresupposes by
blaming them for what they do.
34. Since we are accustomed to the conflation rather than distinction of subordination
and education, it is worthwhile observing that the literal meaning of education, " t o
cause to grow," entails minimal interference and maximal material opportunity.
35. Emile, trans. William Boyd, New York: Columbia University Press, 1971, pp.
36. The most plausible counterclaim here, suggested for example by the work of
Melanie Klein, is that the child needs the security and intelligibility of adult regulation
for its own psychological well-being. That most humans, young or old, need an
intelligible framework to operate within, we do not wish to deny. But that this
framework must issue from a ruling group in intimate, small-scale communities, as
opposed to being proposed, modified, and agreed to by all as the situation gives rise, is
an insupportable contention. Its initial plausibility depends upon the conflation of
adult-imposed coherent structure and coherent structure per se.
37. The child's conceptual development itself, as the extensive systematic research of
Jean Piaget has demonstrated, is dependent upon a continuous process of trial-anderror investigation by the infant: experimental progress which, as in the world of
adults, advances in direct proportion to the inquirer's freedom from external interference and access to relevant resources. John Dewey's philosophy of education, we
might add, is in principle, if not in practice, a reasoned advocacy of this idea of
learning as experimental inquiry.
38. Of course it is not just adult command but adult neglect, often these days misconceived as "liberalism," which operates as a strategy for evading the labors of
attentiveness and ever-ready relationship which the child's development requires. For
example, the substitution by inert guardians of television-giving for order-giving,
which are not so different as they may first appear, may be a disguised and rapidly
increasing form of adult authoritarianism: requiring, as it does, blind submission to
one-way adult control.
39. Perhaps the greatest irony of the adult-child structure of domination is that this
effect of it (children imitating the domineering ways of their guardians) is taken to be
the cause of it: adults justifying their dominion as a necessary measure for preventing
precisely what this dominion occasions. Needless to say, the thus spoiled child has
fewer levers of domination to employ in its imitation of adult rule, and so draws on the
only ones available to it, whining, sneak-smashing, and, in clearer parody of its adult
rulers, subjugating others smaller than itself.
40. We do not mean by co-operation what is so often misnamed "co-operaton": namely,
following orders without question. We mean, literally, co-operation, and what we
think is its necessary condition, co-ownership or, better put, co-stewardship. It is
worth observing in this latter connection that such a co-operative stewardship, which
people are apt to despair of in the world at large, is directly achievable by them in their
relationships with the children they live with: an immediacy of transformative possibility which may indeed be the long-missing link to society's successful transition to
41. Consider Plato's little noticed position in The Republic by which, in typical adult
duplicity of standards, he in effect endorses the opposite of his non-conventionalist
ethic: " O u r children's pastimes must be kept in stricter b o u n d s . . . [so that they] will
rediscover rules of b e h a v i o u r . . , how the young should be silent in the presence of
their elders, give up their seats to t h e m . . , not to mention details of personal appearance such as the way their hair is cut and the clothes and shoes they wear" (Book IV,
42. A young person might be tempted by such established practices of adult negligence to infer that adults require rule by children rather than vice versa, with, perhaps,
more evidence of adult imperviousness to reason to justify the conclusion.
43. Food, bodily play, sleep, and physical affection together constitute what might be
called the material base of upbringing: so obvious as requirements that we may be
inclined to overlook their underpinning importance to everything in the young person's
life, including his or her cognitive and moral development. Indeed, there is a normalized adult negligence with respect to all of those requirements, except sleep
(possibly because the sleeping child requires no attention): negligence in the provision
of non-poisoned food (see note 10), negligence in permitting bodily play (see note 45),
and, perhaps most of all, negligence in the giving and receiving of physical affection.
44. The concept of a "problem" does seem often to intrude into conventional adult
rule - - "problem child," "discipline problem," etc. - - but the phenomena which are
referred to in these cases are treated as deviations to be nihilated, rather than
anomalies to be resolved: that is, not as problems in the rational sense at all, but as
invitations to repression. We have here then not only the misuse of language, so
characteristic of dictatorships, but a standard commitment to the irrational procedure
of scapegoating. This is a pity because, among other reasons, problems in the authentic sense are the springboards to higher apprehension, the paramount joy of being
human; and, with "upbringing," what makes this vocation, often calumniated as
dreary routine, so comprehensively challenging to developed intelligence.
45. Note, however, the sedentary regimen which is imposed on young people to keep
their growing mobility in check: mainly, enforced domicile at a fixed address and
compulsory confinement in movement-prohibited classrooms, but also prohibition of
errant companions, prescribed curfews, punishment by "grounding," and so on.
Under our analysis, of course, the underlying principle of such restrictions is the
guardian's maintenance of proprietary control.
46. The explanatory power of adult-child structures of governance in understanding
and accounting for adult-adult structures of governance has been almost entirely
overlooked by historians and social scientists since the inception of these disciplines.
Yet it would seem obvious, but for the blinkers of what might be called adult
chauvinism, that the way people come to rule and be ruled, even on the grand stage of
adult history, is largely if not primarily dependent on the way they were taught to rule
and be ruled as children.
47. Often adults assume to be reasonable what is merely customary, even those like
Plato who elsewhere make the distinction between the two their essential concern (see
note 41). Indeed it seems precisely to protect this otherwise corrigible presumption
that adults regularly appeal to force in the face of convention's breakdown by youthful
resistance. The obvious antidote to such irrationality, which is often violent, seems
offered by the crucible o f test which the unhabituated young mind presents: the young
able to fulfil by their " i g n o r a n c e " the indispensable function of Socratic gadflies in the
critical progress of human custom towards rational selection and adoption.
48. In no case is the traditional imposition of guilt ever conducive to upbringing. For
by it the young person is sickened into incapacity, properly called mortification: held
within his or her shame for the self and the past, rather than incited into learning for the
benefit of others and the future.
49. Note that the implication here is that behaviorism, which employs only extrinsic
pay-offs and penalties, appeals only to the less-than-human features of the learner.
This implication, though, would not seem to trouble behaviorists, inasmuch as the
experimental basis of their conditioning technique is paradigmatically restricted to rat
and pigeon subjects.
50. Consider the implicit similarity between the traditional justification of adult slavery and this justification of non-adult slavery: that is, because one person (the master
or guardian) could have killed the other person (by, respectively, the victor's right in
war, or the father's right of paterfamilias) the other person owes the first person total
obedience in return if he or she is not so killed. Since, however, such reasoning is not
explicit in the guardian's claim to total obedience from his child, we will here confine
our counter-argument to the less offensive explicit reasoning for such obedience.
51. We refer here to the post-A.S. Neill educational movement of the late 1960s, led
by such figures as Paul Goodman, John Holt, Paulo Freire, and Ivan Illich. Although
this movement's criticism seldom broke through to consideration of the adult-nonadult structure of domination itself, remaining confined in its heyday to critiques of the
standard school system, its attribution to the young o f independent personhood was
something of a revolutionary turn in published thought. However, the current massive
reaction against " p e r m i s s i v e n e s s " (a term which itself seems to presuppose the
proprietary control of the young as a given) indicates just how tenuous and isolated as
yet the advances have been.
52. Marx, however, showed the severe limitations put on direct producers by rulingclass hegemony, and since most of these direct producers are parents, he showed
thereby the limitations of food, housing, space, free time, literacy, and so on by which
these parents and their young are circumscribed. Such restrictions do not, of course,
account for all adult domination of the young, as many Marxists might have it, but they
can certainly be shown to account for much of it. (For the place of children in the
Marxian schema, see McMurtry, 1978.)
53. Note that not just sovereigns, nobles, religious prelates, corporate sirs, and racists
all conceive themselves, and are conceived of, as parental authorities ruling children,
but bureaucratic autocrats and peer bullies (who are both wont to be referred to as
" U n c l e " ) , not to mention male chauvinists (who like to refer to women as " b a b y , "
" c h i c k s , " and so on), all operate within the same underlying framework of adult--child
dominion. Even within the collegial professions to which the readers of this article are
likely to belong, it is interestingly in virtue of " seniority" that some members presume
the fight to command others who are "junior."
de Mause, L. (Ed.). The history of childhood. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
Drummond, H. Add poison for flavour. Mother Jones, 1977, 2(3), 13-14.
Ferer, L.J. Rights of children: The legal vacuum. American Bar Association Journal,
1969, 55(2), 1151-1156.
Juvenile delinquency in Canada. Report of the Department of Justice Committee on
Juvenile Delinquency. Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1967.
McMurtry, J. The structure of Marx's world view. Princeton: Princeton University
Pollock, F., & Maitland, F.W. The histol~ of English law. Vol. 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.
Wilkerson, A.F. (Ed.). The rights of children. Philadelphia: Temple University Press,
Wilson, J. Children and the law. Toronto: Butterworth, 1978.
Worsfield, V.L. A philosophical justification for children's rights. Harvard Educational Review, 1974, 44(1), 142-157.
RESPONSE TO McMURTRY
Are Children in Need of Liberation?
Ian Winchester/Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
In his article, " T h e Case for Children's Liberation," John McMurtry makes a
persuasive case for the removal o f legal restrictions on the full personhood of
children. Professor McMurtry sees this as requiring the abolition of the customary (and universal) practice of treating children as a form of property. With
much of what Professor McMurtry said I agree. In particular, the case is
overwhelming that our customs and laws have tolerated, if not actively encouraged, the brutal treatment of children by parents. And, as children's aid
societies can attest, such brutal treatment, where it has occurred, is very hard
for the community, the neighbors, or the law to control. Whatever we can do to
see that assault, torture, and cruelty in the home are as illegal as in the street
must certainly be done.
Professor McMurtry's method of arguing for the full personhood of children before the law is to argue that the present legal status of children is
identical with that of slaves; that slavery has been abolished as an abomination;
and that the legal status o f children ought by the same token to be changed,
since the argument is overwhelming for the personhood of slaves. I don't know