Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Is Slavery Too Strong A Word?

Over the weekend, I read a story about a father who forcibly cut his daughter's hair because he objected to her new highlights. I imagine he was attempting to teach her a lesson through shaming, a cruel practice that has become even more so in the age of social media. We don't resort to punishment at Woodland Park, mainly because there are better ways to teach children, but this type of thing goes beyond the run-of-the-mill punishment. Indeed, this sort of public humiliation can be be far more emotionally damaging to a child than even the physical pain of corporal punishment.

I get anger, I've been there as a parent, even to the point of losing control, but when I read about things like this, I can't help but see a deeper problem, one that strikes at the core of adult attitudes about children. There are some of us, it seems, that consider our children to be our possessions to be used and abused however we see fit, and the dictionary word for that is slavery. It's a strong word, I know, perhaps too strong, but it's one worth exploring in the context of adult relationships to children.

Children are expected to do as they're told, to live where they're told, to behave as they're told. They must stay indoors when adults tell them to and go outside, likewise, when commanded. Most are confined to their bedrooms at certain times of day, are expected to eat and sleep on a schedule not of their own making, and are made to do tasks whether they want to or not. And should they object to any of this, they can be punished at the whim of the adults in their lives. To be certain, the adults aren't always cruel, and what they do is often done out of genuine caring; the cages might be gilded, but they are cages nevertheless.

And school can be even worse, where every minute of their day is structured to serve not their ends, but those of the adults, who, channeling the spirit of the so-called "good" slave-owners, are "doing it for their own good."

Children have no money of their own, no freedom to live elsewhere (other than another prison-like setting such as foster homes or institutions), no ability to undertake paid labor of their own, their sex lives are regulated, and they don't even have the right to vote, all characteristics of slavery. As is illustrated by the example above, they don't even get to control their own bodies unless their adults grant them that right. And to those who would assert that "as long as they live under my roof" I have these rights over them, I respond that they did not ask to be born, they did not ask to live under your roof, and that the obligation seems, in fact, to run in the opposite direction. Parents owe their children at least as much as their children owe them; probably, from a purely moral standpoint, the owe them more.

But they're children, people argue, they aren't capable of handling freedom: it's up to us to protect them until they are old enough to take care of themselves. To which I answer, it's true that we are charged with their care and safety: it is a necessity of biology, at least for a certain period of time (a time that for most children should end far before they are 18). Humans are a species that is born dependent upon adults and continue to be so for a longer time than other animals. They are without a doubt our responsibility, but that does not lead to the conclusion that they are our possessions.

We argue that we love our children and therein lies the difference. Our love is the thing that makes these rights of ownership something other than the rights of a slaveowner, and there is no doubt that the love many parents feel toward their children mitigates some of the more extreme abuses, but I have little doubt that the father who forcibly shaved his daughter's hair at least believes that he loves her; indeed, perhaps that he did it out of love, not anger. But that just furthers the point that most children are indeed slaves. We can do nearly anything we want to them, restrict any freedom, command any behavior, just so long as we assert it is done in the name of parental rights and parental love. No adult would stand for it.

Certainly, there are limits set by our laws. We cannot unreasonably beat them, although most states still grant parents the right to hit and otherwise manhandle their children. We cannot unreasonably confine them, although it is legal everywhere to confine them to their rooms as punishments, to commit them to house arrest (ground them) indefinitely for whatever reason, to set strict curfews, and to demand that we know their whereabouts 24 hours a day, not too much different that the ankle bracelets put on prisoners when they are out on furlough. We must provide them with food, clothing, and shelter, but the bar for this is no higher than the one we must clear when providing necessities for convicts: in fact, they are lower in many cases with inmates often having a legal right to better overall treatment than the typical child.

And as for the excuse that we must keep them in this state by way of preparing for the realities of the world beyond the cage of childhood, what kind of logic is it that concludes that we should prepare humans for freedom by keeping them in slavery?

There was a time in America, not so long ago, when both adults and children were owned by others. There was a time, not so long ago, when our marriage laws gave virtual ownership of wives to their husbands. The arguments in favor of continuing these clearly immoral arrangements were in many ways the same as the arguments for our continued ownership of children.

I imagine that I'm as uncomfortable with the word slavery as anyone reading this, but this is something we need to be talking about. Maybe slavery is too strong a word, but I'm having trouble making a case in my mind for why it is not the right one.

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