One of the most common arguments against adult-child sexual or romantic relationships is that the child is at an irreconcilable disadvantage becuase of the immense power advantage of the adult. Proponents of this argument state that the adult possesses superior experience and mental capabilities that make it possible to manipulate and coerce the child and, failing in that, has an overwhelming physical advantage that enables him to obtain what he wants by force. They also point out that the adult has an additional societal advantage by virtue of the fact that children are taught to be obedient to adults and to respect their authority. Whilst I would agree that these conditions do indeed exist, I do not believe that power imbalances between children and adults or the potential for their abuse are the exclusive domain of romantic or intimate relationships. Throughout childhood, children are subjected to many highly unequal relationships with adults. The most lopsided of these relationships is also the most hallowed: that which they share with their own parents. Unfortunately, it is also within this relationship that children are most likely to be abused. We cannot assume that a biological link between parent and child ensures the altruism of a parent’s behaviour towards the child. Increasing the rights of children can reduce the potential for abuse in all power-imbalance relationships, including those that are romantic or intimate.
Life and Death
Modern society gives parents almost absolute power over their children. From the moment of conception until they reach the age of majority, a minor is dependent upon the parent for many things. Food, shelter, education, medical care, even life itself are within the domain of the parent to provide or to withold. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson’s ‘inalienable rights’ — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — are only available to children if the parent sees fit to grant them.
The absolute power that the parent has over the child is the most evident when the child is still residing in his mother’s womb. While the killing of an unborn fetus is considered homicide in many states, the homicide is defined as ‘justifiable’ if it is the mother who chooses it by terminating her pregnancy. There cannot be any greater power imbalance than that between a woman, who is infinitely more economically and physically empowered than the fetus, and the fetus, who is unable to express any opinion or make any sort of protest about her decision to terminate its life. Still, this power imbalance is supported by legal precedents and is one of the most sacred doctrines of the ‘liberal’ establishment.
Once the child is born, of course, it is no longer legally permissible for the parent to physically kill him. Still the parent in many ways continues to hold the power of life and death over the child. Since the child, especially the infant, is dependent on the parent for the means of sustaining life — food, shelter and medical care — if the parent is neglectful or for some other reason withdraws these vital things, the child can experience serious health problems or even death. As the parent also has the right to discipline the child including, in many places, by the use of corporal punishment, there is also the risk that such punishment can lead to severe injury or death. While death by neglect or physical violence is punishable and there are agencies devoted to finding such homes and removing children from them, there are countless cases where these agencies arrived too late to prevent death or returned children to environments where they were subsequently killed.
The child can often only hope that his parents do not place him into dangerous places or situations that could possibly lead to injury or death. He is usually unable to decline riding in a motor vehicle with a parent or other driver he believes is an unsafe driver or is under the influence of mood-altering substances and most children who are found baked alive in closed, unattended automobiles did not choose to be left there. Similarly, the child is usually unable to refuse the company of people his parents choose to maintain contacts with or to go to the places his parents choose to go, even if he believes that these people or places may be dangerous for him.
A more insidious threat that many children are exposed to by their parents is that of being exposed to substances, habits or situations that are harmful to one’s long-term health. If his parents choose to smoke in his presence, he must endure the smoke and its proven long-term health risks. If his parents choose to expose him to unhealthful foods and eating habits and do not expose him to a life full of physical activity, he must live with the health risks that are related to such a lifestyle.
Whilst the social organs of the state often attempt to protect children in situations they perceive to be precarious, the approach usually taken is not appropriate. There are two primary reasons for this. Firstly, children themselves are often given little say in what happens to them. Rather than empowering children and allowing them the right to self-determination, the state simply assumes the absolute power over the chidren that it has removed from the hands of the parents. Once the state intervenes in a child’s life, either the social welfare department or the courts make all of the decisions for the child: where he will live, where he will go to school and ultimately whether he will be returned to the family from which he has been taken.
It is in this last situation that the second primary flaw in the system becomes evident. The philosophy adopted by many governments is that a child is best off with his own parents, especially if they are his biological parents. Therefore, the system leans heavily towards returning children to their own parents, even if there is a history of abuse. Usually, once parents have fulfilled a set of criteria given to them by the state, they are allowed to petition for the return of their children. In many cases, this decision is made irrespective of the wishes of the child.
As long as the child remains a voiceless pawn in this process, he will remain a victim. To truly empower the child and take his best interests to heart, the state needs to ensure that he is guaranteed the right to make decisions for himself. He should have the right to request to move to another home and he should have the choice of what that home should be. If he has trusted friends and relatives who are willing to take take him in, he should be able to elect such an option rather than being placed into a foster home of the state’s choosing. More importantly, he should have the right to refuse being returned to his own parents, no matter what court-imposed conditions they have fulfilled. Ultimately, it is the child who knows best what he wishes and needs. Considering the power that adults can wield over him, he should be able to decide which adults he wishes to have close to him.
As well as having the power over the life or the death of the child, parents have nearly total control over the economic aspects of his life. Most minors are economically disempowered and therefore wholly dependent upon their parents for the basic means of survival. They are usually totally removed from the process of household budgeting, having little say in how the parents manage or mismanage their resources. Even if the government provides economic assistance to help with the costs of child-rearing, this money is disbursed to parents rather than children. If the parents choose to use this money for other purposes, the child can do nothing to stop them.
Children and youths who desire to work are often unable to do so without parental consent. Even if they are allowed to work, they are limited in what they are able to do, not only because of their lack of skills and experience but by environmental factors such as the ability to secure transportation and time constraints given them by their parents. Once they secure the means to generate income, young people often still do not have full control over their earnings. They may be required by parents to use these earnings in a way their parents see fit or may even be required to supplement the family budget with their earnings.
Minors are also at a distinct economic disadvantage as they are unable to perform many other functions without parental consent. Amongst these functions are the ability to open a bank account, buy or sell securities, sign a contract or secure a loan or credit card.
As well as granting them the right to self-determination, the state should also ensure that minors have the ability to become economically independent if they so choose. The state should guarantee a minimum level of financial support for children that is transferrable to whatever household that the child chooses to participate in. Adults who mismanage these resources should be both civilly and criminally liable for economic misconduct and neglect. Once the child has become a youth, the minimum support should be guaranteed as long as he is involved in academic pursuits. Youths who decline academic pursuits should be considered as desirous of joining the workforce and have the level of support curtailed or suspended.
Although no minor should be forced to work, any minor who desires to work ought to be allowed to do so. No parent or guardian need have the right to prevent this. So long as the minor is engaged in academic pursuits, any money he earns should be his to dispense with as he sees fit. To this end, any minor should have the right to open and maintain a bank account with any financial institution without any sort of involvement, interference or permission from any adult. While he may elect to have an adult provide advice in financial management, this should never become mandatory and no adult should have the right to assume control over his finances.
One of the keys to success in life is education. The lack of a good education puts a minor at a disadvantage and a biased education can leave a minor with unnecessary prejudices or an inaccurate perception of the world about him. The child’s parents have near absolute control over how the child is educated. What power they do not have is wielded by the state, so once again the child is left with very little ability to decide or influence the course of his own education. It is the parents who decide if the child will receive a public or a private education. It is the parents who decide if the child will receive a secular or religious education and if the child will be taught scientific theory or religious dogma as fact. It is the parents who decide to what level the child will receive education about sexuality. Additionally, it is the parents who decide if and to what extent the child will be allowed to pursue ‘extracurricular’ learning experiences such as instruction in the arts or other disciplines not included in his school’s curriculum.
As well as controlling access to both the type and quality of the child’s formal education (or lack thereof), parents also wield considerable control over the child’s access to information. The tools a child needs to conduct his own enquiries and make his own discoveries can be withdrawn or strictly limited. Access to books, libraries and the Internet are not guaranteed and even those children who do have access to these resources may find that their access is limited by controls imposed by their parents. Decisions about what is appropriate for the child to know or learn about is made by his parents. All too often, these decision are made in the name of ‘protecting the child’ but are in fact in the name of protecting the parents’ control over the child.
If a minor is to learn to make decisions for himself, then he must have unfettered access to information. If parents believe that there are truly threats to his well-being, informing him about these perceived threats rather than simply forbidding certain things or saying that certain things are bad are a more effective approach. Instead of teaching the child to fear, parents ought to equip children with the proper tools to face any dangers they may encounter. Education ought to be a means of empowerment, not indoctrination.
Since education is so crucial to a minor’s future life, he ought to have a significant say in it. Not only should he have the right to pursue an educational track most suited to his particular aptitudes and interests, he ought to be able to reject educational content or style that is culturally imbalanced. He should not be forced to receive a religious education if he does not find that relevant for him, nor should he be forced to learn Creationism, or any other non-scientific belief system, as fact. Additionally, he should not be forced to be indoctrinated with patriotic sentiment by the recitation of pledges of allegiance or any other means.
As well as having little control over what enters his mind, the child has little control over his body. Until he reaches the age of majority, the child is unable to make medical decisions for himself. Even if he has educated himself on the possible side effects of risky or experimental treatments and is willing to take that risk, his parents must ultimately consent to the procedure and can overrule him with their absolute authority.
While such extreme cases are rare, the much more common results of medical dependence are also very disturbing. Medical neglect, having one’s medical complaints ignored by parents or dismissed as ‘growing pains’ or being prevented from receiving medical attention due to the religious beliefs of the parents are hazards that many young people are forced to endure.
Sexually active young women often have the added burden of being unable to make wise family planning decisions without parental consent. Rather than being able to take responsibility for their own bodies they must risk parental refusal of their desire to obtain contraceptives as well as exposure of a facet of their personal lives that they may not wish to share.
As well as being educated about the body and being taught how to take care of it, each child ought to have the final say in what medical attention he receives as well as full disclosure of what conditions he may be suffering from. Rather than having to go through parents, the child should have the right to seek medical attention on his own as well as access to any treatments or therapies he, with qualified medical advice, believes are best for his physical well-being. Schools should have medical staff who are empowered to provide children with what medical attention they may not otherwise receive.
Quality of Life
I have already mentioned the numerous ways that parents wield absolute control over many facets of the well-being of the child. These have been things that directly affect not only the very survival of the child, but also his long-term survival and success in the world. The following points, though often not as crucial as the previous, still have a significant effect on the child’s present and future perception of the world as well as on his emotional well-being. Whilst the previous points have addressed concerns pertaining to the child’s life and his physical and intellectual liberty, the following take into account his emotional liberty and his right to the pursuit of happiness.
Whilst parents may provide all of the basic needs of existence, they still have the absolute power to make the child’s life miserable by exercising control over his quality of life. He may attend the best schools, have access to the finest medical care, even have the money to purchase whatever toys, sweets and other diversions he may desire, yet still be unhappy. This is because his parents can control the level and quality of his human interactions with others. Not only can they withold their own affection and time from him, they can limit, even prohibit his interactions with others. Especially if his chosen friends and playmates live far from him, parents have the ability to approve or disapprove of his friends and accordingly limit or deny his access to them. Even if they live nearby, parents have blunt tools such as forbidding the child to leave the home at all or controlling which friends he is allowed to invite into the home.
Whilst there may be times that parents have legitimate concerns about the qualities of a young person’s friends, all too often their judgments are arbitrary or based upon self-serving criteria. They may not approve of a child’s friends solely on the basis of their own prejudices as to the friend’s race, religion, socio-economic status, parents or age. Rather than equipping the child with the tools to make wise social decisions (and mistakes) for himself, they impose their own social code upon him. Instead of protecting him, this merely makes him less prepared to make these same decisions later in life, when their import is likely to be more significant.
As well as controlling his choice and access to human contact, parents have enormous influence over what activities he engages in. Parents have the final say over whether a child becomes involved in sports or the arts or other ‘extracurricular’ activities. This control is not merely the ability to disallow a particular activity; it is also the ability to force a child to engage in an activity he would not otherwise choose for himself. How many children have been forced to take years of piano lessons when they have been steadfastly opposed? How many have been forced to compete in sports of their parents choosing, with little choice of their own in the matter?
The ability to choose the influences in one’s life is a crucial form of self-expression. Whilst parents ought to be honest with children about their own experiences in certain situations to show children what the possible outcomes might be, they ought to strive to give the child the ability to make choices for himself. It is important not only to show the child that he must ultimately take responsibility for his actions but to allow him the freedom to take this responsibility for himself. If his choices lead to mistakes, he must be allowed to make them and to learn from the experience. Sheltering him and making decisions for him will not achieve this. They will only succeed in making him dependent. Worse still, they will render him helpless in situations where his normal support network is absent.
Religion & Morality
One of the most damaging things parents can do to a child is to impose their own religion or morality upon him. Force-feeding anybody a set of subjective, culturally-biased or irrational beliefs, often based upon documents of dubious authenticity, can significantly alter, compromise or prejudice one’s worldview. Such indoctrination is often highly effective and only with great effort reversed later in life. More often, the person winds up with inner conflicts due to his inability to release the emotional baggage that he cannot rectify with his own evolving worldview or circumstances.
It is useful to show a child the value of respecting the life and liberty of others as well as indicating to him what actions are lawful or unlawful as well as the possible consequences of either breaking the law or disrespecting the life and liberty of others. A child may eventually choose to adopt a religion or other form of belief that possesses a code of morals or ethics to guide him. But if he does so choose, it should be only his decision, not one that he has been pressured into by family or society. He may also choose to be an atheist or an agnostic yet still retain a fundamental respect for life and liberty.
Ultimately, however, the child should have the ability to decide what he wishes to do with these concepts. Simply indoctrinating him with a parochial concept of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and answering his ‘why’ with ‘because’ does not create a ‘good’ or ‘moral’ person: it creates a clone. History is littered with examples of groups of such people who have committed great atrocities in the name of their narrow ‘morality’. Had more of these people been taught critical thinking rather than blind acceptance, much of this hardship may have been averted.
Even in some of the most loving, supportive families can be found the specter of undue influence. In many cases, the child has been given every opportunity and privilege, been exposed to a wide range of points of view, taught how to make wise decisions and take responsibility for them. Yet, at the end of the day, there appears to be some sort of quid pro quo. Even though he may be told that he is free to do as he pleases, his parents indicate to him that there is a particular course of action that they want him to take. It may be a course of study, a career path or a spouse. Whatever the case, the parents make it clear that he will disappoint them if he deviates from their desire for him. In some cases they may even be more overt about their intentions and withold financial support or other favors from him if he does not give in to their desires. How many young people have followed in their parents’ footsteps against their own wishes and aspirations? How many young adults have gone into the family business even though they would have chosen an entirely different life for themselves? How many relationships have been destroyed by parental disapproval? How much unhappiness, dissatisfaction and depression is experienced by people who have been manipulated or inveigled by their parents into making life decisions that were unsuitable for them?
Such undue influence is not limited to life decisions. Even smaller decisions can be easily affected by such. In fact, any situation where the parent takes advantage of the young person’s need for love and acceptance or desire to please in order to get their way, they are using this undue influence. Any time they withold their love, approval or any of the things that contribute to the life of the child and its quality, they are abusing the power that they wield over the child.
The purpose of this essay has not been to indict parenthood per se but to point out the unfortunate paths that it so often takes in our society. The parent-child relationship has the potential to be one of the most valuable and enriching relationships anybody can have. It also has the ability to provide the child with a valuable tool in learning how to interact with other adults. Parents who treat their children as individuals rather than as possessions, who give them rights rather than directives have gone a long way towards empowering their children and showing them a healthy example of adult-child interaction. Children who have the respect of their parents and who have learned to make decisions for themselves are likely to expect to be treated with the same respect by the other adults that they encounter in their lives, be it at school, church, the athletic field or in an intimate setting. On the other hand, if they are reared in surroundings where their rights are witheld or the wishes of others are routinely imposed upon them, they are more likely to accept this as normal, even if the person imposing his will or suspending their rights is not one of their parents.