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Children’s Freedom: A Human Rights Perspective

For most people, human rights have increased—but for children they have shrunk.

 pxhere/Creative Commons CCO
Source: pxhere/Creative Commons CCO

We’ve made progress in many realms of civil rights over the past decades in the U.S. The rights of African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, and handicapped people have expanded, thanks in part to deliberate civil rights movements, in which significant numbers of people demanded rights for these groups. But the rights of children have shrunk.

Civil rights form the bedrock of American political ideology. Our progress as a democracy can be measured by the degree to which we have expanded our guarantee of rights to more categories of people. In the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Jefferson declared that the “unalienable” human rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution was designed to guarantee such rights as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and liberty. Liberty is the basic right; the others are correlates of it. Amendment 5 in the Bill of Rights declares, “No person shall be deprived of liberty without due process of law.” Nowhere in the Constitution, or anywhere else in law that I know of, is there any statement that a human child is not a person. Yet children are regularly deprived of liberty without due process of law.

In fact, children today are far more deprived of liberty than they were when I was a child more than 60 years ago, or when my parents were children 90 years ago. And children are suffering because of that deprivation. As I’ve documented elsewhere, children today are suffering at record levels from anxiety, depression, and even suicide (Gray, 2011; 2013). The estimated rates of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders among young people, based on analyses of standardized clinical assessment questionnaires given in unchanged form over the decades, are now roughly eight times what they were in the 1950s; and the suicide rate for school-aged children is six times what it was then. Serious mental disorder in children has gone up in direct proportion to the decline in children’s freedom; and there is a good reason to believe that the latter is a cause of the former (Gray, 2011; 2013).

Two Categories of Causes of the Decline of Children’s Liberty

Many changes in society over the decades have had the effect of reducing children’s freedom, but the main ones fall into two categories.

The first category has to do with schooling.

It’s obvious that compulsory schooling (which literally means forced schooling) is an assault on children’s liberty. Children are required to go to school, and in school, they are not free. In fact, children are more deprived of their liberty in school than adult criminals are in prison. They are told exactly where they must be and what they must do almost every moment; freedom of speech and assembly are banished; they have no say in the rules they must follow; and when they are accused of violating a rule, there is no due process in determining guilt or innocence or what their punishment will be. School has always been like this, but it is worse today than in times past because there is more of it and it is even more rigidly administered and restrictive than in the past. Here are some examples of the changes:

  • The school year has gotten longer. It now averages five weeks longer than when I was a child in the 1950s.
  • The school day has gotten longer. It now averages just under seven hours nationwide in contrast to six hours when I was a child.
  • Recesses and lunch periods have been greatly reduced, both in time and in the freedom permitted. In the 1950s, it was common in elementary schools to have two half-hour recesses and a full hour of lunch, during which children were free to play in whatever ways they wished. Today in many elementary schools, there is no recess or just 15 minutes of it, and I’ve heard from parents about schools where the lunch period is only 20 minutes and children aren’t allowed to talk during that period, let alone go out and play.
  • Homework has increased enormously over the years. Now even elementary school children are given homework, which their parents are supposed to enforce, so children are not free of school even after they have gone home.

Sometimes people say that a child’s experience at school is like an adult’s at work, but that is a delusion. A job might sometimes feel like prison, to some adults, but school is a prison. Adults are not forced by law to work at a particular job, and adults are always free to quit. Involuntary servitude is illegal for adults; it’s called slavery. I don’t know of any adults who would willingly accept a job where they are so tightly micromanaged as children are at school; a job where you can’t talk with your co-workers, can’t leave your seat without permission, and are continuously monitored, tested, and compared with your co-workers in a manner almost deliberately designed to shame. More than a century ago we banned full-time child labor for children, believing it was not good for them. But now schooling has become, in time commitment, the equivalent of a full-time job and, in onerousness, something worse than the kind of full-time job that adults would tolerate.

The other category of decline in children’s freedom has to do with increased regulation outside of school.

In the 1920s and ‘30s when my parents were kids, in the 1950s when I was a kid, and even in the 1970s when my son was a kid, children spent huge amounts of their non-school time outdoors, playing and exploring with friends, with no adults around. In that freedom, children practiced and learned the most important skills of life, skills that cannot be taught in school. They learned how to create their own activities, solve their own problems, make friends, negotiate with peers, deal with bullies, and manage their emotions. In other words, they learned how to take charge of their own lives. In that process, they acquired the kinds of skills that promote confidence and resilience and protect people from depression, anxiety, and suicide.

But now we have pretty much banned children from public spaces. Most parents don’t allow their children outdoors without an adult to monitor and supervisor, and those who do are in some cases arrested for child neglect. We tend to want to blame the seductive quality of technology for the decline in children’s outdoor activity, but surveys of children have shown that they would like to spend much more time with friends outdoors if they were allowed to do so (see Boyd, 2014; Gray, 2013).

So here is the situation for children in our society today. They must spend far more time than they did in the past in the prison of school, and when not in school they are more or less under house arrest. At no time in history—except in times and places of child slavery and intense, slave-like child labor—have children been less free than our children are today.

Why Aren’t We Outraged by the Deprivation of Children’s Liberty?

Why aren’t we marching in the streets chanting “free the children”? Why aren’t we signing petitions demanding that politicians back children’s freedom if they want our vote? Why are we allowing children to be so denied of human rights, even when we can see that they are suffering because of such deprivation?

I don’t think it’s because we hate children. Most people like children. I think the problem is ignorance. Here, more specifically, are two reasons why most people are not outraged.

1. The gradual pace of the changes that have occurred.

Even though the difference between now and the 1950s or before in children’s freedom is huge, the change has been gradual. It’s been gradual enough for most people not to notice, gradual enough for people to adapt to the change and believe that what we see at any given time is normal, not much different from before. It’s a bit like those awful demonstrations with frogs. If you drop a frog into near-boiling water it immediately struggles and frees itself; but if you put it in lukewarm water and very gradually heat it up to boiling it accepts the change until it dies.

If the change had been sudden—if suddenly, say, in 1955, it were decreed that children’s time in school would be increased to the degree it has been increased, that even little children would be required to do homework, that recess and lunch hour would be abolished, that children would spend huge amounts of time drilling for tests, and that even during non-school hours children would be barred from playing freely outdoors with other children away from adult control—there would have been rebellion. Teachers, parents, and children themselves would not have accepted it. But the change has been gradual, so gradual that people think it’s always been pretty much like this, that what we have now is how things have to be.

2. Underestimation of children’s abilities.

Another reason for the lack of support for children’s rights lies in the ever-growing belief that children are incompetent. The assumption is that children are not capable of making reasonable decisions, so we adults must make their decisions for them. This sort of argument was regularly used in the past to justify the subjugation of women and African Americans. Women and African Americans don’t have the reasoning capacities of white men, so white men must make their decisions for them. We don’t hear that argument so much today, but we hear it more than ever about children. There are even theories in psychology that children think qualitatively differently than do adults, that they are incapable of logical reasoning. We now know that those theories are wrong (e.g. here). All of us, beyond the age of about 4 years old (here), think pretty much the same way.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that children are just like adults or are no more in need of care and protection than adults. Children are on average smaller than adults, generally know less about the world than do adults, and are economically dependent on adults. So, yes, children need care from adults; but our understanding that children need care can go to extremes and interfere with our understanding that children also need liberty.

The Problem of Conflict Between Children’s Need for Care and Their Need for Liberty

Children’s need for care and their need for liberty can conflict; and when they do, where is the appropriate balance? Over recent decades, this balance has gone completely out of whack. Our concern for care, or what we believe to be care, has overwhelmed our concern for liberty. We keep children indoors or always under adult surveillance because we think we are keeping them safe that way. We require them to undergo ever more schooling in part because we think that their future depends on it.

In all this we fail to recognize that a big part of proper care for children is to allow and encourage their independence—so they can learn how to solve their own problems, direct their own learning, and take charge of their own lives. These are the major tasks of childhood, and when we deprive children of freedom we prevent them from taking on these tasks. We also lose sight of the fact that part of proper care is to make sure that our children are happy. No human beings are happy without liberty. We also, in our constant monitoring, prying and snooping, deprive children of privacy, deprive them of the right to private inner life (for an interesting article on that, see here).

This conflict between care and liberty can lead to a kind of Orwellian doublespeak when people talk about the rights of children. Examples can be found in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is an international treaty aimed at guaranteeing children’s rights. It was drafted in 1989 and has since been ratified by every country that is a member of the U.N. except the United States. In reading some of the tortuous language of this document, one becomes very aware of the conflict between liberty and care. For example, Article 37 includes the words, “No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily.” The catch here, of course, is in the qualification “unlawfully.” If you make a law saying that children have to attend school, then forcing children to go to school is not unlawful deprivation of liberty.

Even more telling is Article 28, which includes these words: “States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right, they shall make primary education compulsory and available free to all.” I wonder if the people who wrote this article even noticed the irony. What this says, essentially, is that nations that ratify this agreement guarantee to children the right to be forced to go to school, whether they want to or not.

In concluding this post, I note that our society’s suppression of children’s rights comes largely from good intentions. Our fault is not ill will, but ignorance.

People believe that it is more dangerous for children to be outdoors or anywhere away from adults than it was in the past, even though objectively this belief is false. Educating people about this is part of the task of the Let Grow Foundation (founded primarily by Lenore Skenazy with me as one of the Board members). People need to understand that severe restriction of liberty reduces children’s long-term well-being and safety by preventing them from developing the resilience and coping skills needed to deal with life’s inevitable challenges.

People believe that compulsory, intrusive, curriculum-based schooling motivated by reward and punishment is essential for children’s successful development to adulthood and that more such schooling is needed now than in the past. People believe this even though we now have lots of evidence that this is untrue. That evidence comes from the growing number of families that have found ways to get around or ignore the compulsory schooling laws and have “unschooled” their children or enrolled them in democratic schools where children freely pursue their own interests without institutional judgment. The research with these groups, including my research, shows that people who have educated themselves in these ways are doing very well out there in the real world (Gray, 2017). One of the tasks of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, of which I am a founding member, is to make people aware of this research, make people aware that there are ways around the forced education laws, and that people who have chosen those ways are doing very well in the world. Another even bigger task of the alliance is to promote changes in society that will make opportunities for self-directed education available to all children, regardless of family income or background.

The idea that children need to be deprived of liberty in order to become educated is no longer defensible. The evidence is overwhelming, to anyone willing to examine it, that children are remarkably good at figuring out and learning what they need to know to live the kind of satisfying and productive life that they choose for themselves. They come into the world biologically designed to do that (here).

A huge first step in a movement to promote the civil rights of children is to show people the evidence that children are happier, learn more, safer, and better off in the long run as well as the short run when they have ample freedom to pursue their own interests than when they are continuously controlled by adults. Our nation’s Declaration of Independence declares that one of the inalienable rights the pursuit of happiness. That right should belong especially to children; and today, far more than in decades past, we are depriving children of that right.

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Boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press.

Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in childhood and adolescence. American Journal of Play, 3, 443-463.

Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books.

Gray, P. (2017). Self-directed education—unschooling and democratic schooling. In G. Noblit (Ed.), Oxford research encyclopedia of education. New York: Oxford University Press.

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