Monday, September 14, 2009

Let Kids Mature

Liberal thinker John Stewart Mill defended liberalism over two hundred years ago:
"The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." --On Liberty
But denied it to children:
"It is perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury." --On Liberty
It's easy to see just how important Mill's liberalism (in the US, more so libertarianism) has come to be so commonplace in western society that this view about the inhumanity of children still prevails to this day. I argue that while setting up certain social provisions to protect and nurture young people is important, cutting them out of the adult world entirely by force of some arbitrary law is not necessary. Furthermore, I argue that restricting young people from maturing is not in their "best interests"--something those very same laws were designed to protect.

Children have a innate sense to go and do as they please from a very young age. Only in the time of infancy are they docile. In later stages of development they have a "freedom of movement" as Henry Jenkins described it.

This comes into conflict however, because a child can often get themselves injured or in jeopardy because they've passed a threshold whether physical or artificial, that they did not know it improper or dangerous to cross. Such a threshold could be a street curb in busy traffic or a status crime law saying they can't behave sexually with each other. It is easy to suppose a very young child could step out into a street and be hit by a passing car because they didn't understand that the street is a dangerous place to be. This is where Mill says we have a duty to exercise oppression and restrict that child's freedom of movement across these certain dangerous or improper thresholds. It'd be hard to argue with that.

However, you could also say that by crossing certain thresholds in life, one learns about life and therefore "matures" as Mill would put it. This is easily imagined, and therefore society generally allows children to cross certain thresholds on their own, just so they can have the experience of doing so. This is part of the maturing process and is as essential to children and young people as protecting them from hazards--if not more.

But when does it become too much? When does restricting children access for their own safety turn into paranoid over-protection that marginalizes them and keeps them from properly maturing like we want them to?

We say things like, "children are incapable, and therefore should be kept from doing this."

Mill attacks the argument that women are naturally less good at some things than men, and should therefore be discouraged or forbidden from doing them. He says that we simply don't know what women are capable of because we have never let them try (since one cannot make an authoritative statement without evidence). We can't stop women from trying things because they "might not" be able to do them.
"The anxiety of mankind to intervene on behalf of an altogether unnecessary solitude. What women by nature cannot do, is quite superfluous to forbid them from doing." --The Subjection of Women
Note he says "the anxiety to intervene on behalf of nature..." That's what motivates parents and lawmakers to subject anyone, whether they're female, or young. The anxiety forces them to fear the harm a kid could get into, and adults will often go to great lengths to suppress young people if only to quell the anxiety--intervening with a child's natural journey of maturation by condemning it and suppressing it. It has little to do with what the child or young person is capable of, and everything to do with the adult's anxiety for them. Able young people are turned into pacified infants, those that challenge convention (reasonably) are lumped in with the criminals, those who behave differently are pathologized.

The problem here is, how do we raise a child to the "full maturation of their faculties" to grow up and participate in the liberal society when we keep them from doing that very thing for their own safety and our own "peace of mind?"

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