Children’s Freedom: A Human Rights Perspective

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

By Peter Gray Ph.D. Freedom to Learn

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.

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 anxietydepression, 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 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 in 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 5 weeks longer than when I was a child in the 1950s.
  • The school day has gotten longer. It now averages just under 7 hours nationwide in contrast to 6 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 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 compare 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 & ‘30s when my parents were kids, in 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 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?

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