A popular libertarian videocast show host who was about to become a father asked: “How do you raise a child to believe in freedom?” He seemed quite concerned by the idea of any child of his growing up not believing in freedom, and was anxious to know how to ensure that his child-to-be would arrive at adulthood having similar values to his own. (Was he perhaps fearing his child developing nefarious authoritarian tendencies that might be an embarrassment to him given his position in the public eye? Or was he thinking that it would be terrible if he himself were to be bringing into the world yet another authoritarian to make others’ lives hell? 😳 )
To me, the question “How do you raise a child to believe in freedom?” is self-contradictory. It is in effect asking “How do I mould and shape my child into a person who believes that individuals should be free from unwanted moulding and shaping by others?”
If you believe in freedom except when it comes to children, whom you think need to be controlled for their own good, that paternalism – that authoritarian might makes right view – will be your children’s experience of you. In which case, how likely is it that your children will grow up believing in freedom? (Notice how few people are free of the coercive authoritarian anti-rational memes of their parents despite how much people complain about their parents.) Freedom is indivisible. “Freedom for me but not for thee” is incoherent. If you believe in freedom for some groups but not others, that is an inherently authoritarian position.
When people (including children!) are not free to choose what values and beliefs to hold – free to reject ideas and values they find unpersuasive – in what sense are they free?
It is very understandable to hope that our loved ones might share our ideas and values, and there is nothing at all wrong with having interesting, enjoyable discussions about such things. (The more the better, in fact!) However, there is a big difference between on the one hand having a mutually enjoyable conversation in which we make a good argument for our ideas and values, and on the other hand, channelling our child into our own pre-determined vision of how the child should be – i.e., imposing on the child our own agenda for the child that is independent of and impervious to the child’s own wishes.
Ultimately, holding values such as freedom is a type of knowledge, and knowledge is created by the individual. You cannot cause another person to adopt your preferred value using coercion. You cannot cause another person to grow up believing in freedom by controlling them – not even if you hold the paternalistic theory that the unfreedom to which you are subjecting them is for their own good. You cannot ‘get’ someone to value freedom by manipulation (which is a more covert form of coercion). You cannot condition someone to believe in freedom using behaviourist conditioning. You cannot pour values (or any ideas!) into the person’s mind, like pouring water into a bucket. Knowledge (including the idea of freedom and valuing freedom) is not like a fluid that can be poured from one bucket into another, and the mind is not passive like a bucket receiving water, it is actively creating knowledge.
You can make your case for freedom (to the extent that your child wants to hear it), and your child might find your argument persuasive. Your argument might speak to your child. It might make the child’s heart sing. Or it might not.
Are you yourself necessarily persuaded when someone argues something? Sometimes, but not necessarily. Sometimes, even if the other person thinks that you will be persuaded and that you will want to be persuaded and that you will love the idea, it just does not persuade you at all. It does not connect. You may have explicit criticisms of it, or it does not seem right to you in the light of your existing ideas. Or it may not feel right to you even if you cannot put your finger on quite why: it may conflict with unconscious knowledge you have.
Perhaps later, you have another conversation and suddenly you see how what the other person is saying makes sense, and now you feel persuaded. Or perhaps it is not a conversation that persuades you. It might be something else entirely that sparks you to make a connection in your mind, or that sparks you to see the other person’s argument in a wider context that then resolves previously-unresolved conflicts within your mind, resulting in you being persuaded.
The point is that the process by which a person develops a belief in freedom or acquires any other idea is not something one can control from outside, and actually, it is not something we ourselves can ‘get’ ourselves to do either: our minds have a mind of their own, as it were. (If you have ever consciously wanted very much to be persuaded of something, yet have not felt persuaded, you will know what I mean!) Our minds actively notice anomalies and seek explanations and assess and check everything against existing knowledge in the mind including unconsciously and inexplicitly. The mind actively does this all the time. And it is not simple or controllable.
But even if it were possible to put a particular value in another person’s mind, if the value we are wanting to put in the person’s mind is a belief in freedom, surely that person should be free to reject our idea, and surely we should be seeking the person’s consent rather than acting as an authority imposing our preferred value on the person?
So if you value freedom, have the courage of your convictions and act in alignment with that value. Actions speak louder than words. Do not make an exception for children. Do not set yourself up as an authority over your children. Do not try to channel them into your own predetermined idea of who they should be and what values they should hold. They are sovereign persons. Their lives are their own. Honour and embrace the individuals they are, and the individuals they become.
In freedom our children may find our ideas persuasive or they may see mistakes in our thinking that we have not seen. They may improve on our ideas and values instead of being saddled with our errors. And we may have the privilege of learning from them.