“What is Taking Children Seriously?”
Taking Children Seriously is a new view of children – a non-paternalistic view: like other groups of human beings, children are people, not pets, prisoners or property. Full people whose lives are their own, not a different kind of person who can be coerced, enslaved or discriminated against. Full, equal humans, not inferior.
Like other innocent individuals, children should be free. Free from incarceration, free from coercion and manipulation of all kinds, free to think their own private thoughts and free to say what they think (even if the powerful disagree, even if what they say is wrong or offensive), free to be how, who and what they themselves want, free to act in accordance with their own conscience, free to pursue their own interests and concerns rather than being channelled into someone else’s paternalistic, pedagogical or other agenda for them, free to own their own property, free from unreasonable search and seizure, free to associate with whomever they want to associate, free to free to make their own choices for their own lives in every respect.
Children have as much right to control their lives as we adults have to control ours. They are fallible (make mistakes) – but so are we adults. They are not omniscient (they do not know everything) but neither are we adults. As the philosopher Karl Popper said, “We are all alike in our boundless ignorance.”
Human beings have many problems and lack knowledge and make mistakes. But the vast majority of human beings are reaching for the light, well-intentioned, trying to do the right thing, trying to improve, trying to make progress, solving problems, both as individuals and globally. That includes parents – and it includes children too.
We can all see many terrible problems in the world where progress is desperately needed, but it is also true that in many respects, over time there have been improvements. Not in all respects, and not all changes have been in any way positive, but there has been progress. And since the Enlightenment, the pace of progress has been accelerating.
Before the Enlightenment, change happened very slowly and the prevailing worldview was authoritarian. Some sources of knowledge were deemed authoritative (such as religious leaders and texts, kings, rulers, bureaucrats, the powerful), and what they said was “The Truth” and absolutely not open to question. New ideas were regarded with great suspicion if not as the work of the devil, their proponents being imprisoned, maimed or executed. It was not safe to dissent. People were unfree.
The danger inherent in all forms of power, coercion and authority is that because people are not free to question the sources of knowledge deemed authoritative, errors tend to be entrenched rather than corrected. Without error correction there can be no progress. Human beings flourish in freedom, because freedom does not interfere with or impede error correction. When people are free to think new thoughts and express new ideas and opinions including ones others find outrageous, dangerous or otherwise wrong, all ideas from all sources can be on the table for consideration. And people are equally free to ignore any ideas and opinions they do not find persuasive. In such an atmosphere of freedom, progress can flow.
The Enlightenment was a transformational new worldview. It ushered in a culture of political, economic, religious, intellectual and scientific freedom, rejecting the authority and dogmatism of old in favour of reason, individual rights, tolerance of dissent, openness to criticism and change, embracing progress both individually and globally.
In the tradition of the Enlightenment, over time, some of the old injustices against different groups have been corrected. Almost no one now (at least in cultures embracing the Enlightenment) thinks it right to enslave people or to discriminate against people on the basis of race, gender or marital status. No one now thinks that science says that women or certain races are inferior, like so many did not much more than a hundred years ago. No one now thinks that women need to be living under the benevolent patriarchal control of their husband or father. No one now thinks that women do not have the mental and emotional capacity to control their own lives and to be politically active, but many still did think that in my grandmother’s lifetime.
Yet although almost everyone now believes that all groups are equal rather than the sinister idea that “some [groups] are more equal than others”1, almost no one even thinks to include children. “All [people] are equal, but some [people – adults] are more equal than others”1 – children. Taking Children Seriously is a philosophy of family life in the tradition of the Enlightenment, reason, fallibilism, and freedom, that takes everyone seriously as equals, including children.
Not as in: let’s pretend that we think children are just as equal as other groups but obviously they are not really, and we adults need to control them for their own good. That is still viewing children through the lens of paternalism. Equal as in: children actually are equal and should have the same freedom, rights, respect and control over their lives as adults. Equal as in: they should no more be coerced and manipulated and moulded and shaped by others than we should be. As I said in a speech 22 years ago, Taking Children Seriously is the final phase of the Enlightenment.
If you are a parent new to Taking Children Seriously, you probably have many questions, concerns and criticisms. (Some of them, such as “If children are equal, doesn’t that mean fending for themselves, like adults?!”, may be addressed in the Taking Children Seriously answers to frequently-asked questions (FAQ) or elsewhere on the site.) If you would like to, please do share your thoughts and questions in the comments under the relevant post. Others may have similar concerns.
1. George Orwell, 1945, Animal Farm, Chapter X, p. 105