Why allow minors to disregard the guidance of their elders?

From the archives: Posted on 8th February, 1995

A poster wrote:

“Is it moral to allow or encourage children to disregard the wishes of their parents, who support them and mean them no harm?”

Yes 🙂

That is – to avoid equivocation on the word “disregard”– it may not be ideal for a child to arbitrarily ignore his parents’ opinions (or anyone else’s), as the parents might have good ideas; but if what the child wants to do himself is irreconcilably different from what the parents want him to do, I don’t see grounds to favour the latter. Support and good will don’t cut it: why do you not also ask, “Is it moral to allow or encourage wives to disregard the wishes of their husbands, who support them and mean them no harm?”, or, “Is it moral to allow or encourage physically infirm elderly parents to disregard the wishes of their children, who support them and mean them no harm?”

“[…] Why are all parents seen as potential child ‘oppressors’?”

In practice, because it is sometimes very hard for adults to act non-coercively toward children, however good their intentions. Particularly when stressed, the bad ideas learned from one’s own upbringing may be irresistible.

“[…] Why grant minors the legal privilege to disregard the guidance of their elders and benefactors?”

Everyone else has the legal privilege to disregard the guidance of others, benefactors or not. (“Elders” here seems to be begging the question.) Specific arguments against the “guidance” (in the coercive sense) of children have been discussed here before; e.g. the epistemological argument that coercion damages rationality.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge had written:

“If consent is the real issue, why is there this difference of approach? Why not be consistent about this competence criterion and apply it to adults? Because they are adults? Does that not strike you as a little circular?”

The poster replied:

“No. Adults are responsible for themselves. They are not dependent as children are on their parents. This is a significant difference.”

It is not clear what you mean by “responsible for themselves”, if it is not a matter of competence. Many adults are entirely dependent economically on others, yet they are neither relegated to the legal status of children nor (generally) treated like children in personal relationships.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge had written:

“In addition to the issue of power, there is the related one of the adult’s duty to protect the child.”

The poster replied:

“That’s it. First strip parents of any control over the child, then remind them of their alleged “duty” to protect the child.”

The order is not crucial; we might first remind them, then strip them. 🙂

“Your proposal undermines the parent’s role as the child’s protector.”

How so? You speak, below, of protection from the parents, rather than protection by the parents.

“Granted there are cases where some children may need protection from their parents. But, fortunately, vanishingly few, certainly not the majority of children require such protection. Your proposals would erode the fabric of the parent-child relationship and have the child standing alone before the state.”

What does Sarah propose to erode, beyond the coercion of children? Is this, coercion, “the fabric of the parent-child relationship”?

“Whether you realize it or not, whenever you invoke the law you are substituting state power for individual power.”

No different for adults. The question is which individual’s power. If, say, I were to abduct you, the state would indeed seek to “substitute” its power for mine (that is, to override my wishes), but that is not generally seen as objectionable.

“The state is no substitute for a parent.”

I don’t think that has been suggested.

“What is in this deal for the parent? Sounds like a very unfavorable situation for parents. Why would any reasonable person assume such a compromised role?”

Perhaps because the role of the parent is not inherently ‘compromised’: it is possible to obtain satisfaction from personal relationships in the absence of the ability to force the other person to do what one wants.

Perhaps because one might care about the other person and thus not feel ‘compromised’ in doing things to benefit them.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge had written:

“We want to provide even more in the way of security and commitment, and demand even less in return.”

The poster replied:

“I don’t. I want something in return for my efforts. Like any relationship, there needs to be a mutual benefit involved.”

“Like any relationship”, then, there should be mutual benefit – that is, each party should recognise it as beneficial on their own terms; one should not expect to dictate the terms of “mutual” benefit.

“If I didn’t expect to get something for my efforts, I wouldn’t have voluntarily chosen to have children in the first place.”

You have voluntarily chosen to have children, but they didn’t voluntarily choose to have you. Why should your choice to expend effort on someone oblige them to do what you want?

“[…] Is it moral to organize the state in such a fashion as to grant children the legal privilege to ignore their parents’ guidance, before they are even independent of parental support? It will break the natural connection between children and their parents to whom they would otherwise look for advice.”

If there is nothing more to this “natural connection” than the ability of the parent to compel the child’s obedience, then why preserve it?

“It will eliminate the necessity for interpersonal relationships.”

I think this is exactly backwards; coercion is necessarily inimical to personal relationships. To the extent the other person merely does what one wants, it doesn’t matter who they are – rather than an interpersonal relationship, one has a “relationship” with one’s own fantasies.

“Children will become dehumanized and alienated from their own human nature.”

Again, I think this is backwards. To be treated, legally, as less than fully human is to be dehumanised. To be forced to act contrary to one’s own (presumably human) nature is to be alienated from one’s own human nature.

“They will lose sight of their interconnection to their own family.”

Again, if this interconnection is merely force, it is better lost sight of.

Kevin Schoedel, 1995, ‘Why allow minors to disregard the guidance of their elders?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/why-allow-minors-to-disregard-the-guidance-of-their-elders/