Changing perspectives on children’s vulnerability.
Are children “naturally” vulnerable or is their vulnerability socially constructed — And most importantly, does it matter?
One of the main objections to the liberation of young people is that freedom is dangerous because children are “vulnerable”. But what are they vulnerable to? Abuse. And who is perpetrating this abuse? The data tells us that its parents and guardians (https://www.statista.com/statistics/254893/child-abuse-in-the-us-by-perpetrator-relationship/). It appears then that parental power and authority don’t protect children, they imperil them. This should be hardly surprising since total control of another human being is so easy to exploit. It’s undeniable that children’s position in society is at least partly responsible for children’s vulnerability, which is often claimed is simply natural. But some might argue it couldn’t be otherwise — the abolition of that authority would make things worse, child abuse from parents and guardians is the inevitable result of children’s natural dependence (the childish dependency/adult independence binary has begun to be challenged by the concept of interdependence [Cockburn, 1998]), and most importantly that it is rare rather than normalized (when statistics and well, the fact that children are the only people that is legal to hit in the US tell us otherwise). Therefore, the only way to “keep children safe” is to restrict their freedom. Let us set aside the radical thesis presented by Tal Piterbraut-Merx in a 2020 article that children aren’t vulnerable but oppressed. Even if it was true that all children were inherently more vulnerable than all adults, does this justify stripping them of their rights? In these discussions, the adult abuser is made to disappear, they’re all centered on the child. As if child abuse wasn’t an adult problem. As if it is children that have to be punished by loss of freedom because adults mistreat them. The assumption is that to abuse the vulnerable is human nature, and segregation of the vulnerable is the only way to keep them safe. Our adultcentric society is portrayed as the standard and the only way things could and should be. Jens Qvortrup wrote in 2005 about children and the public space:
“Although the reduction in traffic fatalities is of course welcome, is it permissible to suggest that the price for the positive result is by and large paid by children in terms of a decrease in their freedom of independent mobility? The price was certainly not paid by adults in terms of adapting to children’s needs, or in acceding to their legitimate demands to be able to use the city as if it was theirs as well.”
He also pointed out how concern over “children’s safety” is used as a mask for misopedia.
“The introduction of curfew bills in both the USA and the UK may be interpreted in the same way. Under the pretext of a wish to protect young children from danger, they are not permitted to be outside during specified periods, typically during the hours of darkness. It
is however well known that these measures towards children are most welcomed by many adults who see themselves as disturbed by children.”
-”Studies in Modern Childhood”.
I would think that if a group of people is unable to exist alongside another group of people that is as it is argued naturally more vulnerable physically and mentally without causing them harm it is their freedom that should be restricted. Of course we cannot reduce this argument simply to adult oppression of children, both Qvortrup’s example and the inability of most parents to relate to children as equals are consequences of capitalism that we can hardly hope to abolish in a capitalist society.
But the fact that not only adults put no effort to accommodate children’s needs (natural or socially construed they be) in our current society, they also aggressively deny the oppression of children, remains. While victim-blaming has become increasingly problematic in relation to adult victims of violence, it’s the norm when it comes to child victims. No one contextualizes child abuse as one of the many expressions of adult supremacy, if anything it is used to argue why children should be subordinated to adults. Hence why there is this false dilemma between liberation and protection, used to discredit liberationist arguments (or less often, protectionist ones). Children need both types of rights expanded, perhaps for children of different ages one or the other should be emphasized more (protection rights for younger children, and liberty rights for older children and teenagers). But just like adult citizens, they need both. You can’t be safe if you’re not free. And of course the reverse is also true, before profound social changes in the ways adults relate to children, equal rights would just give adults new avenues to exploit children.
But there is an important problem with the “rights” approach in general.
As Marx knew individual rights under a capitalist society lead to inequality. In an adultcentric society “rights” for children are an empty concept. Not only are they always determined by adults and they are the rights adults think children should be “given” by them. But as pointed out in this blog post (https://www.freeyouthnow.com/2021/02/liberation-not-equality.html?m=1) what is needed is not liberty rights, but liberation (“Merely demanding "equal rights" for youth is incomplete. Even if equal rights were achieved, that framing allows those with power to dictate the terms of oppression while justifying the status quo because everyone is now "equal." That won’t do. It won’t lead to liberation. If youth have "equal rights" but are still stuck within broader oppressive structures, then we have failed”).
Our society is structured to privilege the needs of adults over those of children, whether this produces their vulnerability or simply exploits it is not as important as one might think. What is important is that it paints segregating one-third of the population as just because adults cannot be expected not to abuse their (cultural or natural) power.