Saturday, August 25, 2012

How Ageism Destroys the Family, How Youth Rights Can Heal Our Broken Family Bonds

   When we speak of youth rights and the benefits that will accrue to people of all ages when we live in a more anti-ageist society, we tend to focus mostly on the many horrible abuses against youth that will be prevented. Teachers won't be able to abuse their power so easily, violating the rights of their students and sometimes even jeopardizing their futures. Parents will no longer be legally allowed to assault and batter their children. Youth will be able to consent to or refuse medical care of all kinds on their own terms. People will no longer be arrested for consensual sexual activity simply because of their age or the age of their partner. Young people will no longer be denied the right to work and keep their own money. Governments and parents will no longer unilaterally dictate to youth where they must attend school. This list could go on and on and on.

   All of these things are good and important. All of them are a major part of why I am a youth rights supporter. But I'm not just a radical youth liberationist because I believe that the worst abuses against youth will be curtailed in a society with less ageism. I am also a radical youth liberationist because I believe that youth and adults, parents and children, teachers and students - will have more meaningful, sincere, loving, and respectful relationships in a pro-youth society than they currently do today.

   In this particular post I want to focus on the the parent-child relationship although much of what I say could apply to other adult-youth relationships. But I am focusing here on this particular relationship because it tends to be lifelong and of paramount importance to all involved. Therefore, it will also be the adult-youth relationship most dramatically affected by a reform in society's attitudes towards childhood and adulthood.

   This satirical article from The Onion caused me to begin thinking about all of the ways in which ageism hurts children and their parents as individuals and as a family unit. While I laughed at the piece, it brought up some uncomfortable truths that I have noticed my entire life. Although we tend to see these trends as normal, we shouldn't - they are a symptom of ageism and the dysfunctional relationships that ageist ways of thinking produce.

   Personally, I have always had a close relationship with my parents and my aunt (who has lived next door to my parents my entire life and has been much closer to a third parent than a relative where I'm concerned). They know about my friends, my romantic relationships (with both men and women), my political views, what hobbies I enjoy, the people in my life I can't stand, and my aspirations for the future. When I go to the doctor I want their input about what questions I should ask him. I like them knowing my friends and the people I date. I even like them knowing that I've made some choices they wouldn't make themselves and that I believe some things they don't agree with because I want the people in my life that I'm closest to to know and love the real me.

   Over the years I have realized that such a relationship between parents and their children is incredibly rare once children reach their teenage years and that the relationship rarely fully recovers even once the child is an adult. This should sadden us greatly - most people that choose to have children don't do so because they want a distant relationship with people they know little of substance about. They enter into such a relationship with the best of intentions, only to watch themselves and their children grow more distant from each other as the years pass.

   Since graduating from high school and becoming a legal adult, I have watched people I otherwise respected and admired go to pathetic lengths to avoid their parents finding out things that even casual acquaintances knew about them. One ex-boyfriend went to considerable trouble to hide his sexual relationship with me from his parents despite the fact that we were both extremely responsible about preventing pregnancy and STDs, were well into our twenties, and had dated for quite a while. One friend has refused to tell her parents that she is a transsexual despite having taken hormones for years and looking in every way like the woman she has worked hard to become. Other friends have taken pains to keep their parents from knowing that they hold religious, political, or other views which their parents do not share. These families are by no means extraordinarily oppressive or abusive - they would be regarded by most people as normal families and yet in the context of any other important human relationship, keeping secrets of this nature from people one loves would be seen as extremely problematic, even dysfunctional. So why does this happen and why are we, individually and collectively, willing to tolerate it?

   Almost every institution in our culture sends parents and children alike the message that their relationship is supposed to be an adversarial one. Parents are supposed to perform parenthood by laying down rules, punishing their children when they transgress them, and generally seeking to "keep their kids in line." Children are supposed to perform their role (both as minors and later as adult children) by attempting to subvert these rules, sneaking behind their parents' backs to do things their parents disapprove of, and keeping secrets from their families. If parents and/or children aren't following this script, we perceive something as being somewhat "off" about them despite the fact that the script itself is inherently oppressive to both parties and makes no sense if the goal is to foster open, honest, loving relationships among parents and children.

   This is where youth rights comes in. Youth rights supporters do not believe in double standards - a list of things it is necessarily okay for adults to do but necessarily wrong for younger people to do. We do not believe in a parent-child relationship where parents have to give permission for everything their child does as a minor and then give approval for the child's adult decisions only if it matches the parents' expectations. We don't believe that children are quasi-property whose decisions always reflect on their parents. We do believe that the hypocrisy, cynicism, and disingenuous nature of the current model of parent-child relationships serves neither parents nor children.

   Basically our society tells young people that they're weird if they have more than an acquaintanceship with their parents. If they really let their parents in on their feelings and beliefs as they do with their friends, they're doing something wrong. Similarly, parents are taught that if they aren't freaking out at even the slightest suggestion of sexual activity, drinking, drug use, swearing, anger, or disagreement of any kind coming from their offspring (often even after the children are adults themselves!!!) they are failing to perform the role of parenthood responsibly. This model, while widely prevalent in American culture, sets children (including both minor and adult children) and parents alike up to fail. It encourages repression and insincerity in what should ideally be a relationship forged around the concept of unconditional love. The good news is that, as dismal as the situation is, we can do better.

   Young people, when possible (and I know it always isn't), have to insist that their parents love them for who they really are, not who they pretend to be around their families. This, of course, is not by itself enough. That is because in our society parents still have the power, money, and social capital that their children lack. So it is chiefly up to them to unlearn the antagonistic model of parenting taught in our society and instead begin to see their children of all ages as equals - people whose choices they may not always agree with but whom they are prepared to love, accept, respect, and support anyway.

   It is important to note that there is a precedent for radically reinventing family relationships in our society through a combination of political/legal/economic and sociocultural reform. Feminism did not destroy the relationships between men and women, husbands and wives, whatever certain individuals on the far right may claim to the contrary. Instead it made these relationships more mutual, more voluntary, and perhaps in many ways more loving. Similarly I believe that the youth rights movement will ultimately strengthen parent-child relationships as opposed to destroying them.

   As a youth rights supporter, I believe in abolishing guardianship because it is a terrible injustice when youth are forced to stay in family situations that prove unfulfilling or even intolerable simply because of a legal construct known as custody. I want youth in abusive and oppressive situations to have the option of getting out of those situations without being forced into something worse. I also want youth in positive family situations to know that even then they have rights over themselves that no adult, including their parents, can violate. These legal and political changes will be important, but they aren't the whole story.

   I also want these legal/political changes to be accompanied by changes in attitudes that ensure that parents would be less oppressive and abusive towards their children, even if they could, because their consciences would tell them that this is wrong and the messages they received from society would be that their children should be treated with respect for their autonomy. The same social changes which would make it easier for children to distance themselves from their families would also hopefully make this distancing less necessary.

   As a radical youth rights supporter, I don't just want to demolish guardianship, minority, compulsory education, status offenses, and all of the other evils blighting the lives of youth. I also want to replace them with more sincere and loving connections between parents and children, students and teachers, adults and youth in general. As movements for the rights of women, people of color, LGBT people, senior citizens, and disabled people have learned again and again over the years, it isn't enough to change laws. We must also change hearts and minds. Sometimes this may be easier than changing laws and other times it may be harder. But it will always be necessary if we truly want to create a society where neither adults nor children are oppressed and both are free to pursue the healthiest relationships that they can, including across generational lines and within the family. Youth rights is both child liberation and parent liberation.

Mama and me.

1 comment:

  1. This was certainly an interesting and thought provoking article to come across and should be referred to by every parent that feels their child is frustrated/ is having issues with their children. There's no real idea of mutual respect these days- in fact, my parents have removed the lock from my door and frequently search my room and take my items and money. Not like the law is on my side with that though. I'm going to be 16 soon- my birthday soon to be rearing its ugly head. Even if I do manage to land a job, I'll have to get one of my siblings to help me prevent my money from being swindled from me.
    My parents frequently put my generation down casually, using it as conversation starters even. I wouldn't dare bring up any aspects of my personality around either of them, as when I hinted at my paganism and tried to come out with my pansexuality, they immediately put me down and insisted I wasn't old enough to make choices like that, since then having tried their damndest to smother me with Jesus and keep my friends away. It's a wonder they haven't pelted me with bibles and Chippendales posters.
    Me and my friends, all of us on the edge with family issues, plan on escaping our hellholes in about 4 years. One of or group is suffering from testicular cancer, so it'll be tough for everyone. Hopefully by then, gods willing, hopefully even sooner, youth rights will be better and we won't have to struggle too hard.
    Sob story aside, this was a great article- I envy the relationship between you and your mother. I can't even talk to mine without being called fat and lazy because I don't want to be her child servant.