If children are people just like adults, why should we treat our children any differently from how we treat adults?

“If children are people just like adults, why should we treat our children any differently from how we treat adults?”

“If adult visitors behaved the way my children behave sometimes, I would show them the door and they would not be welcome in my house again. If my partner threw a Brussels sprout at me like my two-year-old kid did, I would never cook for him again. If my partner broke my new iPhone by peeing on it like my kid did, I’d expect him to buy me a replacement. If kids want to be treated like adults, they need to act like adults.”

If children are people just like adults, why should we treat our children any differently from how we treat adults?

Well first, notice that we treat different adults differently too. If your partner ruined your iPhone by peeing on it, you might be concerned about his sudden bizarre out-of-character behaviour and suggest he see a psychiatrist. But if a stranger did that, you would be more likely to phone the police, presumably? Similarly, if your beloved spouse shouted at you while in a state of stress about work, say, you might be understanding, whereas if the shouting was by someone you are not close to, you might not feel like seeing them again.

Secondly, notice that in society we have all sorts of different obligations to different people depending on the situation. If I am in a shop and people keep asking me to help them find things and reach high shelf items, I might be happy to assist if I am working as a shop assistant in the shop, but my willingness to help shoppers might well be more limited if I am just there as a fellow shopper trying to get a quick bit of my own shopping done so I can get home before the babysitter is due to leave.

Being with other people in society causes you to have some obligations towards each other. The same is true in a family. The moral obligations of the situation come from the joint problem situation, and if you are, say, piloting a plane, your obligations to your passengers will be different from their obligations to you, so the fact that there are aspects of the situation between a parent and a child which are also not symmetrical should not seem perplexing.

Why is there such an asymmetry? Because the parent has chosen to put the child in the situation in which the child finds herself, whereas the child has not chosen to be in that situation or to put the parent in the situation. That is to say, when we have a baby, we could have chosen to have that baby adopted. Then it would be the parents adopting the baby who thereby create the usual parental obligations to the child. (If I were having a baby adopted, I would feel obliged to find parents who would take the child seriously, here I am talking about the parental obligations just about everyone would agree parents have.)

If we choose to keep the baby instead of having had an abortion or having the baby adopted, we are thereby, through our own freely-chosen actions, raising obligations to that child. The child did not choose to be born, and did not choose to live with us. Therefore, the child has fewer obligations to us than we do to the child.

That means that the right thing to do in many situations with our child is for us, the parents, to help the child, and it is not necessarily right to expect our child to help us, the parents. It might be that our child helps us sometimes, but the standard argument paternalistic parents make, that in return for their place in the family, their children owe them help with the housework and the like, is a mistake. Choosing to raise your child rather than having the child adopted and raised by others raises obligations on you. The child has no such obligations in return.

It should not be surprising that the right thing to do for a parent, is, amongst other things, to earn money to buy food for the child, whereas it’s not necessarily the right thing for the child to do that for the parent.

That is also the reason we parents are not usually morally obliged to provide financial support for a child living with someone else, unless the problem situation is such that it is the right thing, such as that the child is our child who is living with the other parent following our divorce, say; but generally speaking we have a moral obligation to a child living with us that we do not have to other children, such as the neighbours’ children. Generally speaking, the person morally obliged to buy food for a child is the parent whose child it is, who chose to raise that child.

When parents make the bogus argument to their children that their children have obligations to help the parents, they are implicitly or explicitly threatening to withdraw their financial support, love and attention unless the children do or don’t do X. That is immoral. Our children are entitled to all that. We cannot, morally, withdraw it or threaten to withdraw it.

If there is something we want help with, we can ask our children if they would be willing to help us (as long as our children genuinely feel free to say no and do not mind being asked), we can offer to pay them what we would have paid the cleaner, say (as long as we are not withholding money to get them to do the chores to get money we should have been giving them in the first place). We can make an argument that the children will find interesting and persuasive. But ultimately, they do not owe us their help. They are in the dependent position they are in because of us; we are not in the position we are in because of them.

“Then why do you keep rephrasing parenting situations to be referring to adults, to show that the suggested parenting behaviour is not taking the child seriously?”

Because if the interaction would be jarringly bad if it were an interaction between two adults, it should be very clear that it is not consistent with Taking Children Seriously. Changing the words from being about how to treat children, to how to treat an adult, is just a useful way of just checking whether or not paternalism is being advocated. We are all so steeped in the paternalism of the culture that sometimes we do not notice it unless we make such a check. It does not follow that all ways of treating all adults would be morally right treatment of your child. As parents we have created more obligations to our children than we have to other adults.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘If children are people just like adults, why should we treat our children any differently from how we treat adults?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/if-children-are-people-just-like-adults-why-should-we-treat-our-children-any-differently-from-how-we-treat-adults/

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