Youth, Parenting, & the Left
Interviews with Mike Males, Brian Dominick, & Cynthia Peters
A common portrayal of youth is that they have life easy. A recent Newsweek lead story “Generation 9/11” boldly pronounced that youth have grown up in peace and prosperity and the implication was that now they face fear and adversity for the first time in their lives. Is this an accurate portrayal of contemporary youth?
MALES: Kids are prosperous? Even at the peak of the recent economic boom, 37 percent of children/youth lived in families the 2000 Census lists as low income (less than $27,000 for family of 3), double the level for middle-aged adults. One in four white and six in ten black and Latino youth live in low-income households. Five million kids live in destitution (family incomes less than $7,000), nearly half the nation’s destitute population. The incomes of young families (18-34) have been stagnant for 30 years, heavily dependent on economic cycles now in downturn, while incomes of older families rose sharply. Instead of confronting rampant child poverty, more interests today complain that youths have too much money. In 1999, teens age 12-19 spent $153 billion on consumer items (one-third for family needs), drawing widespread condemnation about teenage “affluenza” and ad-driven consumerism. No one mentions that teens account for a “whopping” 2.4 percent of
More than any past generation, today’s kids are far more likely to grow up with parents who abuse drugs, get arrested, go to prison, disappear, fail to maintain stable families. More youths assume adult roles at younger ages because adult disarray forces them to. They live with tax-defunded schools and universities and huge education debts. They graduate into a service economy comprised mainly of low-wage jobs and home ownership market no longer affordable for the middle class. All this is symptomatic of the adult abandonment and intense hostility youth have grown up with over the last 15 years.
Another common portrayal of youth is that they are out of control. The “average kid” is crazed on dope, sexually irresponsible, maybe even planning to murder their high school teacher. Are youth out of control? And how is their behavior different than that of adults?
MALES: Nearly every dire assertion and statistic about youth today reflects one of two things. First, many negative statements about youths’ supposedly “high risk behaviors” and bad attitudes are grossly exaggerated or just made up by some self-interested group, confident no one will challenge them. Those negativism’s that are true almost always measure the harsh risks imposed by poverty. We (Justice Policy Institute) have been doing detailed studies of
It’s true that if you wait long enough, a rich kid somewhere will do something terrible, and that example can be exploited by those who claim “poverty and racism don’t matter, all kids today are evil.” The truly baffling crisis is why exploding numbers of middle-aged adults, mostly white, suffer from drug abuse, criminal arrest, and imprisonment. It’s not young black and Latino men who’re filling prisons; it’s old black and old white men, nearly all addicts. Poverty, disownment, and messed-up adults are by far the biggest problems kids face, and the mystery is why only a relatively small fraction of modern kids are acting dangerously. Yet, most interest groups evade the serious threats to youth well-being and thrive on fun trivialities: fabricating phony youth crises to blame on media violence, MTV, advertising images, video games, junk food, Eminem, Internet porn, and chimerical teenage “developmental deficiencies,” “innate risk-taking,” and “peer pressure.”
What is adultarchy?
DOMINICK: It became clear to me early on that the source of the oppression of people based on age is parallel to the source of oppression of people based on sex. I dubbed this source “adultarchy” to demonstrate its similarities to—but also to declare its separate status from—what is commonly understood as “patriarchy.” Adultarchy promotes the privileges of adults at the expense of young people. Moreover—and this is what is unique about adultarchy—this system exists in order to manufacture adults. Whatever might otherwise be useful about differentiations between adults and children has been rendered obscure by massive exaggerations of adults’ illegitimate authority over kids. Maturing to adulthood has come to mean a process of submission to social norms established by elites and, notably, by existing adult society. To get concrete, nearly all schools and the typical nuclear family are two examples of such institutions of adultarchical institutions. An oppression (if that term is to have significance) has roots in institutions and ideologies. In demonstrating the validity of the oppression called ageism—which alternately victimizes and empowers various classes defined by age—another activist and I had to demonstrate the existence of such institutional and ideological roots.
We looked at the “tactics” all oppressions use to establish dynamics of dominance; at racism, classism, sexism, and authoritarianism, and we realized that each of these oppressions employs five mechanisms. Those mechanisms are indoctrination, abuse, coercion, deprivation and invalidation. We found not only that adultarchy employs all five of these mechanisms in myriad ways, but it does so within all four spheres of social activity: politics, economics, culture, and kinship.
How extensive is youth oppression?
DOMINICK: Children are the only classification of citizens in our society against whom discriminatory abuse is not only legal, but is encouraged and carried out by laws themselves (non-citizens are the other group). This isn’t to suggest that young people are more oppressed than women, people of color, etc. The tremendous laundry list of oppressive acts, from curfews to conscription to physical brutality, suggests that the oppression of young people is as far-reaching as the oppression of any other group in our society.
While it can be argued that African Americans, for instance, have not faired better just for having been recognized as full human beings by our written laws, children have not even been recognized as full human beings by the same legislation. Runaway slave laws were revoked a century and a half ago; yet children are still technically property of their parents, according to the letter of the law—a law that returns them to the custody of their parents despite severe oppression.
Finally, it is the only oppression experienced fully by all people everywhere, as victims. Everyone is or was once a child. The status quo relies on universal oppression in order to begin weakening and molding people for future roles. But at the same time, this universality leads to a commonality of experience: because of ageism, everyone has had the experience of being oppressed. As terrible as that sounds, it also provides hope for the potential of humans to identify with various forms of oppression, if only we can expose adultarchy and tap into people’s various experiences.
Is there any logical or ethical reason why youth should face curfews, age based laws, restrictions on their right to vote and/or serve on a jury?
MALES: For a three-year-old, yes. For a youth past the age of puberty, no, with certain refinements. The question is not ethical or logical, but developmental. Are youths as a group so cognitively deficient that they should be custodialized and denied basic rights to protect them from themselves and societal dangers?
Whenever a population is under official attack, politically attuned social scientists who lend scientific veneer that the targeted minority is “biologicaly inferior” and the dominant group is superior receive vast attention. Responsible researchers then spend decades debunking their colleagues’ politically warped nonsense and another shameful chapter in social science mythology is slowly corrected. Nothing changes except the targets.
A few researchers receiving overhyped attention claim youths process information through primitive brain regions, and/or lack abstract reasoning, future orientation, operational thinking, whatever abilities adults are presumed to have. Other than glossing over our vast ignorance of brain functioning, these studies (like the race-based studies before them) ignore decades of massive, consistent research and obvious realities. First, on practical tests of cognitive ability, abstract reasoning, and moral development, adolescents beginning at around 12 and older score very similar to adults. Second, in the real world, adolescents behave very much as adults around them do; youth behaviors can be predicted very closely from those of adults of their families and societies, but not from those of youths in other societies. None of today’s teen-incompetence researchers has been able to explain why, if age is such a big deal, European 15 year olds behave more maturely in virtually every respect than do American 40 year olds.
What teenagers lack is not mental capacity, but experience, a need adults best help them with by guidance, not bans. I see no justification for curfews, parental consent laws for abortion, or denial of voting rights, jury rights, access to alcohol or other adult instruments, or other basic adult rights for anyone around 16 and older (although, ideally, we would allow families to decide these on individual bases). If we have no confidence in families, adults probably are incompetent to exercise rights as well. Further, I believe phasing in of rights is preferable to abrupt, age-based transitions. For example, novice driver laws (applied to all ages), requiring professionally supervised on-the-road training, are reasonable before driver’s licenses are granted.
How can parents behave in a non-oppressive way?
PETERS: There is no getting around—nor should there be—the fact that parents have a lot of power over children. We exercise the greatest power of all, which is deciding to bring children into the world, or, as in the case of adoption, deciding to bring children into our families. Once I bring a child into my family, I continue to exercise a lot of power over her. I decide where she will live, what her name will be, who she will live with, whether she will have siblings, which community subcultures she will experience, what language she will speak, what she will eat, how often she gets a bath, and how often she will be held.
Not all of this power emanates directly from me. I am influenced by other institutions in society. My salary will help determine where I live, and therefore what community I raise my kid in, for example. How I was raised will affect how I raise my own child. My access to privilege or my sense of what my child can expect from the world will affect what I communicate to her about what she should expect, etc.
Making these institutions less oppressive is probably the single most important thing we could do to influence parents to be less oppressive towards their children.
For example, removing the stress of poverty and of living in a culture that emphasizes marketplace values would liberate parents and children to create families outside the confines of financial concerns. When my daughter breaks her arm, my first thought should be concern for her well-being, not dread at how much it will cost and anxiety about how to get time off from work in order to fit in all the doctor’s appointments. It would be nice for parents and children if we could significantly reduce the amount of time we spend negotiating the pressure to buy Disney products, conform to Disney values, and consume various forms of instant gratification. Parents would be less oppressive with children if they did not have to pass on oppressive behaviors that come with living in violent neighborhoods, near toxic landfills, and in poorly designed cities and suburbs that create overcrowding and/or isolation rather than community.
Reducing sexism would steer the family away from being the site where gender roles are reproduced—and would be instead a place where people experience attachment, comfort, nurturing, and mentoring in non-gender-specific ways. Reducing the myriad ways parents are oppressed by racism, sexism, classism, etc. would make it possible for adults to be challenged, supported, and nurtured to their full human capacity in their workplaces, communities, and organizations—a scenario which would eliminate or greatly reduce the need to return to “hearth and home” for rejuvenation and the chance to recover a few shreds of humanity. When the private sphere is the only place that people operate according to values like sharing, caring, nurturing, and non-remunerated giving—then there’s a disastrous amount of stress on that one site.
Let’s assume we are working to change oppressive institutions and thus improve parents’ prospects at behaving non-oppressively. Meanwhile, we want to create families and we want to behave well as parents. How can we do that?
PETERS: Most important, is to acknowledge and take responsibility for the power we exercise. We can’t avoid it, but we can be judicious in how we employ it, and we can use it in such a way that empowers our children as they grow.
Parents can try to structure families so that the kids are not completely and utterly dependent on them for all their emotional needs. Familial relationships determine so much about how we think we’re supposed to relate to other humans. Giving our children the opportunity to experience some variety opens doors for them and empowers them at least a little to explore ways of relating that they don’t see modeled in their own families.
Parents can do what they have to do to not hurt their children—emotionally or physically.
Parents can be careful not to treat kids as appendages, expressions of our own desires and unfulfilled wishes, or as little human strategies for working out our own childhood issues. On the other hand, they have to know what we expect of them. We have to offer clear guidelines, norms for behaving, and expectations around how we interact in the world, so that we raise children we like and can live comfortably and productively with, and so that we enjoy somewhat functional families.
We can prioritize developing relationships with our kids based in mutual respect, not fear. Our authority should be rooted in honestly trying to do what’s best for the child. When you say to your kid, “Sure, you can play outside, but please don’t cross the street,” you’re not arbitrarily throwing your weight around. You’re looking out for your kid’s best interest according to your best judgment of how safe your kid would or wouldn’t be crossing the street. Ideally, your kid understands this and basically takes it for granted since you have a long track record of taking good care of him, and he, astutely, has noticed. Thus, the child can get down to the serious work of playing in the yard. If on the other hand, your track record is one of inconsistent use of power, arbitrariness, and mixed signals about how much you care, then your kid is unlikely to pay any attention to even your sensible rules because she, again astutely, has noticed that you care more about being in control, than you care about her.
In the past you have mentioned setting up runaway shelters or boycotting institutions that discriminate against youth. What are some of the fights that people can organize around?
DOMINICK: One of the most severe instances of oppression of young people takes the form of runaway slave laws that still govern kids today. We hear all the time about children being taken away from their parents by the state, when the parents are shown to be abusive. The stories we don’t hear are those where kids are repeatedly returned to their parents, by force, because of those antiquated property laws; or confined to institutions we don’t have the stomach to show on the evening news. The idea of underground runaway youth shelters has come up as the only effective way we know to keep children hidden from authorities—be it the cops, the courts or their parents—and allow them the choice of avoiding the cycle of perpetual escape and recapture. The types of alternative shelters I’m talking about are youth-run—sometimes with the aid of adult allies, sometimes not.
Obviously, operating an underground runaway shelter is not easy, or even safe, legalities considered. It’s unlikely to appeal to anyone as their first activist project. Issues that are more likely to garner broad-based interest and support are anti-curfew campaigns, anti-recruitment actions, all manner of protest inside schools, the creation of alternative educational facilities, “free spaces” (slightly less confrontational and illegal versions of the runaway youth shelter). The interesting element, when looking at youth activism, is a much higher penchant for direct action—for kids taking power into their own hands. Grown-up activists are bogged down in street protests and lobbying and all that crap—kids are more likely to be impatient, and thus to get out there and create what they want or tear down what they don’t. Whoever said patience is a virtue hadn’t met some of the young rebels I’ve had the privilege of knowing. Adult leftists could learn a lot from youth activists, if they ever decided to pay attention.
What I’ve noticed over the years, though, is that most activist kids are interested in issues that have nothing to do with youth, per se. They work on environmental stuff, they work on anti-racist projects, animal rights is a popular struggle for kids, and so on. Only a tiny minority of youth activists are actually fighting for themselves, as kids. I can’t tell you how many workshops I’ve led, in which half the kids present will admit they’d never thought of the idea that they were oppressed. Once you realize kids are an oppressed group and you want to work for youth liberation, there is no end to the list of stuff you can work on. A strong argument can be made that liberation in all the spheres of social activity is interdependent upon the liberation of youth. Revolution has thus far been an adult-dominated undertaking. It has also, thus far, been dismally unsuccessful. That has to change.
Tim Allen is a freelance writer. He is also a Znet volunteer and a graduate of Z Media Institute, 2001.