"Youth rights" can be difficult to pin down. The term itself is vague (although no vaguer than most terms used to describe more established social movements and philosophies). Youth rights is difficult to pin down primarily because there are a number of philosophies similar in some respects to youth rights that ultimately differ in critical enough ways to distinguish themselves from youth rights. There is also a great deal of ideological diversity within the youth rights movement itself. Those differences may be highlighted in more depth elsewhere on this blog, but this post is intended to focus on the commonalities that make us youth rights supporters as opposed to something else. Youth rights is, like feminism, first and foremost a frame for viewing issues (in this case issues affecting young people). It emphasizes the prevalence of ageism as a key prejudice affecting the lives of young people. It problematizes institutions like the family and compulsory education which are central in the lives of youth. It calls into question assumptions that most thinkers about childhood, education, and the family take for granted about children's capacities. Most critically, youth rights thinkers tend to regard child abuse and child protectionism as two sides of the same coin.
In the words of philosopher Howard Cohen, "Child protection has been concerned with the quality of care of the child, and therefore with the fitness of the caretaker. It has not been concerned with fundamental questions about the nature and limits of adult authority over children. It is the sense that the ways in which adults control children and make decisions for them are themselves a part of the mistreatment and oppression of children which is absent from the ideology, and is ignored by the government when it becomes involved." To paraphrase psychologist Richard Farson, we believe that we best protect youth by protecting their rights. That which undermines the right of young people to autonomy and self-determination (even under the misguided assumption that it is for their own welfare) demeans, oppresses, and endangers them. Child abuse and child protectionism are two sides of the same coin.
Youth rights supporters believe that youth don't usually need protection from themselves - they need protection from the social, political, legal, economic, and cultural forces that make them a subject class. We recognize that, as has been the case with people with disabilities, when youth need protection it is usually from the institutions such as schools, the family, and social services agencies that were ironically enough set up for the purpose of protecting them. This is because it is impossible to truly protect someone within a framework that denies them liberty, autonomy, and self-determination and thereby deprives them of the ability to meet their own needs and desires and to protect themselves.
This isn't to say that there aren't some worthwhile things being done from child protectionist perspectives and that sometimes youth rights advocates' goals may not overlap with those of other people concerned about the welfare of children. They often do. Many non-youth rights child advocates care deeply and sincerely about children's welfare much as we do and there are of course times we will be working together for some of the same things. But it is to say that unlike most people concerned with youth issues, we are working within a tradition which centers concerns of autonomy, liberty, and rights while calling into questions many fundamental assumptions about child development.
|Attitudes and policies which silence and stifle young people (even under the assumption that it is for their own good) contribute to young peoples' oppression and abuse.|