What do you mean by ‘paternalism’?

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

Paternalism is the idea that certain people or groups need to be controlled (in a benevolent fatherly way) for their own good.

In our culture, children are almost universally viewed through the lens of paternalism. Our culture used to view women through the lens of paternalism too. Until that changed, women too were not taken seriously. 

It was not that women were seen as not human: they were seen as being a different kind of human – as being in a class of humans not quite having what it takes to be in charge of their own lives, and really needing, for their own good, to live under the benevolent patriarchal control of their father or husband.

Only men were allowed to vote, and married women were not allowed to own property, and working was seen as improper for a married woman. Even in 1933, my own grandmother lost the job she loved when she informed her boss that she was engaged to be married. 

“That was just how things were”, she told me. 

It was thought perfectly proper to discriminate based on sex or the marital status of a woman, and before women were emancipated, quite a number of women themselves were against the idea.

Similarly, in America in the past, slavery was legal, but even after it became illegal, many still viewed black people differently from how they viewed white people. Even now in America, although it’s illegal to discriminate on grounds of race, some Americans (including some black people!) view black people as being not quite equal to other Americans.

But whereas now most people take adults seriously as sovereign individuals irrespective of sex or race or marital status, almost no one takes children seriously.

Indeed, the very idea of taking children seriously sounds inappropriate, irresponsible, shocking and absurd to most people. After all, children are children, not adults!

Many similarly ridiculed the idea of emancipating women because women are women, not men! It’s a fallacious circular argument!

If you find yourself thinking, “But children are children, not adults! They’re objectively different from adults in a way that women and black people aren’t!” you are not alone. 

We are so steeped in the traditional view of children that even those of us who think that children should be taken seriously are sometimes unaware of the ways in which we are not doing so – sometimes do not notice that we are still viewing children through the lens of paternalism. It is not obvious – yet.

But I do predict that just as it now seems obvious that the differences once thought to exist between men and women either did not exist or only existed because of the patriarchal culture of the time, and were no justification for not taking women seriously, one day it will be obvious to everyone that the differences thought to exist between adults and children either do not exist or would not exist were we taking children seriously, and that they do not justify not taking children seriously. 

For some examples of viewing children through the lens of paternalism, including some you may find surprising, for example appearing in books by writers who think that they are against coercing children, watch my Oxford Karl Popper Society talk on Taking Children Seriously: a new view of children [video] [transcript].

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘What do you mean by “paternalism”?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/paternalism/