Recently The Washington Post published a story which has been getting a great deal of attention as of late. Entitled "'Free-Range' Kids And Our Parenting Police State," the article by Petula Dvorak focuses primarily on the case of two youth - siblings aged six and ten years respectively - who were picked up by police officers in Montgomery County, Maryland and held in police custody for hours because they were out walking about two and a half blocks from home without adult supervision. Due to this incident, the parents of the two young people were forced to appear in court and were eventually even found guilty of "unsubstantiated child neglect." As far as this incident goes, these parents and these youth deserve our sympathy and our solidarity as well as our outrage at the horrible ordeal which they were all forced to endure. The Montgomery County Police Department and the county's judicial system deserve our condemnation for it.
By referring to a "parenting police state" in the article and its title, Dvorak was undoubtedly intending to evoke the bizarre and dystopian aspects of this situation and this impulse is no doubt one which we all ought to endorse as far as it goes. However, this phrase fundamentally misconstrues the true nature of social, cultural, and political problem at the heart of this incident and other incidents like it and in so doing, makes it more difficult for us to understand and thereby combat these injustices for the benefit of youth and parents alike. Parents, even when grievously harmed as the parents in this incident no doubt were, are not the primary targets in the vast network of laws, discourses, customs, social norms, ideas, and practices which have led to a situation in the contemporary United States in which it is not all that unfathomable for two young people to be picked up and detained for hours by police for being in public without adult supervision a few block from their home and for their parents to have to appear in court due to this incident and to be found guilty of child neglect when they do so. The targets of this network of laws, discourses, customs, social norms, ideas, and practices are young people themselves. The recognition of this reality is not in any way intended to detract from the very real suffering and injustice experienced by the parents in this situation and others situations like it. However, by framing this injustice primarily in terms of its negative effects on parents, Dvorak makes it harder for anyone aware of the incident to understand it because the motives and discourses which make such an event intelligible are obscured.
The latter part of the twentieth century and the earliest part of the twenty-first century in the United States may well be remembered later in human history as the era in which the world became an increasingly closed and oppressive place for young people. During this period of time, the notion that young people require constant adult supervision and that it is inappropriate for young people to ever occupy public space without an adult escort present to surveil them has gone from being virtually unheard of to taken for granted by American adults and youth alike across a variety of demographic lines. The same impulses driving the laws and attitudes which have created so much hardship for the family profiled in Dvorak's article are also at work in a constellation of discourses and practices which define what it means to be a young person or a parent today including but certainly not limited to school zero tolerance policies, developmental psychology, age-based curfew laws, and movie, videogame, and television ratings based on age. These discourses and practices do not exist for the purpose of subordinating parents qua parents. On the contrary, despite the fact that individual adults and individual parents may oppose some of these restrictions on young people, these discourses and practices are the products of the efforts of adults (including parents) as a political class to subordinate young people as a political class. Adults, in particular parents and teachers opposed to these discourses and practices, may be harmed when they attempt to act on this opposition but from the perspective of this network of ideas and the regulations targeting youth which these ideas support, these adults are something akin to collateral damage. Adults in these incidents are not punished qua adults or qua parents but as traitors to adults and/or parents as a political class who dare to defy commonly held social expectations that young people must be kept, to the greatest extent possible, under the thumb of adult control.
No two social systems of oppression are the same but there do tend to be common impulses undergirding them. One of the main ways in which almost every type of oppression operates is to place burdensome restrictions on the right and/or ability of members of the oppressed class to appear in public. From the infamous "ugly laws" of the late 1800s and early 1900s targeting Americans with disabilities to the legal restrictions placed on contemporary Saudi Arabian women to prevent them from appearing in public without a male guardian to the anti-African-American Jim Crow laws of the antebellum American South, marking certain classes of allegedly inferior persons as unfit to appear in public is a common tactic used by oppressor classes against oppressed classes. Whether the rationale be phrased in terms of protecting members of the oppressed class (as in the Saudi case) or in terms of protecting the rest of the public from members of the oppressed class (as in the case of Jim Crow), the message is that members of the oppressed class do not belong in the public sphere with the rest of us. (Interestingly, both rationales tend to be used in attempting to justify ageist restrictions which attempt to remove youth from public space. The former discourse tends to be used more often in reference to the youngest youth while the latter discourse tends to be used more often in reference to preteen and teenage youth.) Indeed, it is true that there is a group of people in our country who live in a deeply oppressive dystopia of sorts but that class is not defined in reference to one's status as a parent. It is defined in reference to one's youth.
In order to show why it is that the notion of a "parenting police state" is something of a red herring in this discussion, it makes sense to look not only at those situations in which parents find themselves harmed qua parents due to certain attitudes and actions but also to explore situations in which parents qua parents are allowed to get away with what strikes most reasonable people in our culture as highly questionable behavior. How can we explain the fact that parents can find themselves in legal trouble for allowing their minor children to be seen unsupervised in public a couple of blocks from home but that many American parents can avoid outside interference when they deny their children medical care under the flimsiest of religious pretenses or pull them out of school to brainwash them into support for a white supremacist cult (to take two especially egregious but not uncommon examples)? Clearly something else is at work here apart from a social obsession with policing the conduct of parents. That something is ageism directed towards youth. In a true "parenting police state" miscarriages of justice like that in Maryland may unfortunately continue to occur but you probably would not also be allowed to get away with abusing and/or oppressing your child in some of the most egregious ways of which we are aware in our culture by doing things which most adults in our society correctly consider to be examples of terrible parenting. However, if we understand both sides of the coin as instances of systemic ageist oppression directed at young people then all of these things begin to make a lot more sense.
Petula Dvorak is to be commended for helping to start a public dialogue on these issues. I am glad that she wrote and published the article to which this blog post refers. However, by ending her analysis with the superficial notion of the "parenting police state" Dvorak makes it difficult to truly understand the phenomenon which she so rightly opposes and seeks to shed light on. We need a youth liberationist theoretical framework to accomplish this task so that we may begin to really undo the harm caused by the sorts of situations which Dvorak so passionately and right-thinkingly draws attention to in her article.