Thursday, March 09, 2006

What to Do with Child Beaters from a Libertarian Perspective.

Given that most libertarians would say that they think it right that the state intervene as little as possible in family life, it may therefore follow that it is right to let people who beat their children with or without implements to just get on with it. Their family, their decision.

But hang on a second. From Wikipedia:

"Libertarians support an expansive view of liberty as the proper basis for organizing civil society. They generally define liberty as the freedom to do whatever one wishes up to the point that one's behavior begins to interfere with another's person or property. At the point of interference, each party would become subject to certain principled rules for adjudicating disputes, generally accepting that one who has demonstrated a proven lack of respect for the rights of others should be subject to sanctions, including possible constraints on their freedom. They believe that liberty is the right of every individual, with some viewing it as a natural right."

Yep...there it is. Liberty is the right of every individual. So in the above case, either we regard children as individuals, as proper members of the human race, or we do not. If we do not, then we are right to let families carry on beating their kids. If we do, we then have to decide whether beating a kid is sufficient to the description of someone "beginning to interfere with another person".

Clearly the only answer here is to ask the kid. Sometimes there will be cases where being beaten by the parent does not constitute infringement in the mind of the child, though one would query what inferior theories have been fed to the child in order to allow him to draw such a conclusion. (Of course, the provision of poor theories could well be considered a matter of abuse and constitute a matter of serious interference with another person. But to stick to the main point, for the moment: )

In the situation where the child expresses his view that the action of his parents does constitute negative interference, what should an outsider do? Well as above they should consider the fact that "each party (ie: parent and kid) would become subject to certain principled rules for adjudicating disputes". In other words, proportionate action on the part of members of civil society seems to be appropriate here: one might start with an attempt at re-education, with explanations, arguments; private then more public expressions of disapproval and obvious refusal to liase with those who partake of such behaviour may extend the pressure. But if all else fails, it rather looks as if, should we want to take libertarian principles seriously, the parents who physically assault their children should be subject to the same laws that adults who assault each other should.

How can we raise a generation of freedom-loving kids, if we don't explain and demonstrate that the principles work in as wide a domain as possible? I personally vividly remember noting all those internal contradictions in the religious faith that was handed down to me as a child. It made me sceptical and then a non-believer. Children may well notice if libertarian principles are applied to adults but for no obvious reason, are not applied to them. This may well make them sceptical. And they would be right to be so, not least because libertarian principles can and do work for kids. See eg: Taking Children Seriously, for more explanations.

Children can enact libertarian ideas and should be in receipt of them. They can be rational beyond the expectation of many in the situation that adults give them this chance and bother to explain things in a rational and consistent manner. There is absolutely NO reason or excuse to beat a kid in any rational scheme of things and in the situation that a child does not want to be interferred with in this way, the beater should be subject to the usual laws of assault.


merry said...

If i may make so bold, i think using the term "child beaters" slightly undermines your point here.

if you mean people who use it systematically like the Pearls, then okay, but say so and i'm with you.

But if you are including in your sweep people like me, who occasionally smack when a child has put themselves or another in danger by sheer naughtiness, then you've lost me and probably others in your broad sweep.

It's a bit too condemnatory as a phrase. I'm a world away from that woman and i don't want to be caught up in a remark aimed at people who kill with a beating, i don't think it's fair. I know you might think i'm just as wrong, but i'd argue i wasn't. None of my children consider themselves beaten children, no one thinks that they get beaten to be trained, or that it is a standard form of punishment here, no one has ever been marked or left crying in pain. No one has ever been set up to fail so i can beat them.

There are graduations of all things; the last time my dd2 got smacked it was when she hurled her rice across a field when i'd just struggled to cook it on a difficult day camping, very pregnant and looking after 3 kids. She decided she didn't like the colour and chucked it. She was hungry, it was rice she liked normally, there was nothing esle to eat. She got a smack. She didn't do such a hideously thoughtless and wasteful thing again because in the midst of her fury, she registered she was in deep trouble for it. That was 2 years ago.

What i'm trying to say is that i can't engage in a debate i'm interested in unless you either clarify what you mean, or refer to smacking/implement-beating as either different or in less emotive language.

Carlotta said...

Hi Merry,

Thanks for your crits. I do find it hard to express myself as accurately as I would like, and the usual constraints are the reason for this!

"Child beating" as a term is emotive, I guess and I can see how it would make debate more difficult. Perhaps I should replace the term.

However from where the argument in the post concludes, (ie: that the law of assault should apply to children, if one is to apply libertarian principles consistently), it would be fair to include in this argument any degree of physical assault, since it is the case in law that even laying a finger upon another adult without consent is potentially a matter of assault.

(Not so incidentally, I do indeed see a huge difference between the actions you describe and those put out by the Pearls, not least because you have said elsewhere that you regard smacking as a suboptimal solution that happens in extremis when the parent is finding it very, very difficult to find better solutions.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Merry,

Just to make it clear that what you say sounds completely understandable to me. We all get really cross occasionally when the stupid actions of others feels like the last straw...and looking after three kids AND being pregnant sounds a bit of a stressful situation at the best of times!!

However, because I have come up against these sorts of questions occasionally, I wonder if you could tell me if your comment:

"None of my children consider themselves beaten children..."

is a result of discussion with the children?

From personal experience, one example, is a young child who was smacked just the once for a similar event and did, when questioned about it, actively refer to it even years later in various terms as an act of violence, being 'hit', and how wrong it was etc - even though it could hardly be referred to as more than a slap from observation.

Such comments as the one above by children, who were very rarely smacked too, did surprise me. Do your children view it in the same way or did they feel they had been very naughty and merited a slap?


Clare said...

I agree with what Merry's said, and with what D's said. I have done the same as Merry, but realise the negative effect this must have on my children. How on earth can I tell my daughter that it's wrong to hit her sister when I have resorted to a quick smack in extreme situations my young daughter, having your toys grabbed off you when you're trying to play with them is also an extreme situation. This is why I try to accept her anger and understand why she's done it at the same time asking her to find a more acceptable way of expressing her anger. I constantly have to tell myself the same thing, as I know that my daughter does, and will remember that I've hit her in the past, even if she doesn't word it as 'beating'. In fact, I remember once when she said a very, very rude word and I asked her not to say it as it was a very unpleasant word and what did she reply? "But Daddy says ****!"!!!!


Anonymous said...

The Libertarian term is very misleading. It's not about freedom, is it? It's just about better rules and creating better ways for people to co-exist.

In natural freedom the body is your body until a bigger body is strong enough to eat you. That's that, nature doesn't care for wimps. Life is cruel and only human rules have a chance to make it better.

When you say "Clearly the only answer here is to ask the kid" how would you ask a baby? It's not simple.

I think parents should be allowed mistakes to an extent. To what extent the law has to decide.

The issue with the Pearls and co. is an issue of a society that freely allows for extremist religions to prosper. Some freedoms are not compatible with others and governments have to realise that. It's a matter of better rules, of creating better lifestyles, not of pursuing a freedom ideal.

Allie said...

I believe that children should have the same legal protection from assault as adults. That doesn't mean that I think that any and every smack should result in prosecution - any more than every slap between adults should, or does. But I think that there are many good reasons for promoting the idea that children have the right not to be hit - too many to go into here!

I know that moral absolutes are tricky in real life - and especially so when dealing with the stresses of life with small children. But any hope I have for the future of the human race (not much sometimes...) is based on a belief that we can do better than violence. I feel that I have to live this in my parenting. It's something about trying to live the change I want to see in the world.

I've never hit either of my kids but I have shouted, manhandled into bedrooms and been a bully. In those times I got it wrong, I made real mistakes. There were many reasons for that behaviour - but it was still a mistake. I think children can understand that we make mistakes as parents - just as they do. If we can talk about our mistakes we can all learn.

Yes, I do think it is wrong to hit children and it should not be legal. But I think that what we really need is to learn and promote more positive ways of being together. I think that most people don't want to hit their kids, and feel bad when/if they do.

Carlotta said...

Hi Leo,

The whole point of the post was to explain to libertarians why the better application of existing laws is compatible with a libertarian angle. So the term libertarian was pretty integral to the whole thing really.

Carlotta said...


I agree completely with everything you say, and think that the use of the law should be regarded as the last possible recourse, after all other attempts to prevent abusive behaviour has been attempted.

Anonymous said...

Allie, good one.

merry said...

We've talked about it with regard to NSPCC adverts, where i've explained that some children are quite literally beaten. From the way we've discussed it and how they've responded, i've never seen a flicker of feeling that they consider it to be something they've experienced.

They've usually had an understand that they've really pushed beyond all limits when they've been smacked; we an talk quite clearly about it after. That said, it really doesn't happen often, nor is it something i consider myself to do routinely in any way what so ever. It doesn't make me feel good, or improve our relationship, so why would i? And i think i'd know if my children lived in fear of me :)

When i was growing up, in my teens, my mum would often scream and rant at me for a couple of hours at a time; i wasn't allowed to reply, or defend myself or be angry for the slapping, becuase i had always "driven her to it" - we have a good relationship now but that is a very dark period in our past. We were always at war and i was utterly without a say. I lived in horror of being ranted at; it often went on for a whole ar journey to school, or all through and evening. I still don't think of myself as beaten, but i do remember those slaps round the face; they were designed to humiliate me and show she was in charge. the were intended to hurt, whereas i smack, on occasion, to illustrate quite clearly that something very bad has happened. Honestly, i might have smacked occasionally, but i can't see i'll ever do that kind of thing.

My smacking largely died out with dd2, because her autistic edges cannot handle it; not much point in smacking to make it clear someone has gone way too far if you then have to grovel to fix it! On the other hand, on the rare occasion i do, i do always say i'm sorry it got that far and we always make up and forgive each other for whatever went so badly

Anonymous said...

That sounds like such a useful conversation to have had with them! Shall have to show that campaign to my ds (now nearly grown up!) when he next reminds me of how I was so nearly a violent mother - after the one slap I gave him under the influence of Toddler Taming & Co when he was 4!!

I totally agree about how awful shouting can be when coming from parents. I gave up even talking to my mother - and still don't for that matter - I was so scared of a hysterical and, from my point of view, irrational response. And whilst I have occasionally shouted at my own son I am aware that this is no better than smacking.

I would hate him to grow up - further that is - as scared to talk to me as I always have been to my mother.

Thanks so much for your analysis.