child liberation image by c.m. duffy

The Possibilities for Child Liberation

Children's liberation movements have challenged the notion that limited responsibilities for young people must come with limited rights.

In 1972, a 13-year-old named Peter Cane launched a youth liberation group at his junior high school in Huntington, New York—and was quickly reminded of his reason for doing so when his efforts to rent a P.O. box for the group were mercilessly thwarted by the Greenlawn Post Office. There, Cane was told he would either “have to show proof he was 18 or come back with his parents.” So it goes, he explained to Newsday, in the “no-man’s-land” into which all youths come of age. It is a landscape characterized by extreme vulnerability, little legal recourse, and a thousand petty humiliations children must contend with between the post office, the primary school, and their parents’ house. “Our lives are considered the property of various adults,” explained an activist with Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor in an edition of the Ann Arbor Sun from the same year. “[But] we do not recognize their right to control us. We call this control Adult Chauvinism and we will fight it.” 

Cane may well have been inspired by the unexpected success of Youth Liberation. Founded in early 1971, about six months before 18-year-olds were even granted the right to vote in the United States, the Ann Arbor group (and the wider movement it represented) followed on the heels of Civil Rights and second-wave feminism. It came, too, just a few years after the youth-helmed protests of 1968 shook the world. Youth Liberation was the brainchild of founders who were, legally speaking, children themselves: 15-year-old Keith Hefner and several friends, whose “modest goals” included “taking over the Ann Arbor, Michigan, public schools[...] and building a nation wide movement for youth civil rights” from Hefner’s parents’ basement. “If we happened to spark a nationwide uprising, as the youth of France had done just three years earlier,” Hefner quipped when he reflected on the movement in a 1988 essay, “so much the better.”

The group quickly made a splash in local politics, persuading the Ann Arbor City Council to retire outmoded curfew laws on the grounds that “any law which proposes to regulate a segment of the population on the basis of an unavoidable physical characteristic is inherently discriminatory and must be abolished.” They also attempted to run a ninth-grader in the 1972 election for the local School Board. Sonia Yaco’s campaign was thwarted by a state election law setting a minimum age requirement of 18 for would-be candidates, so she proceeded to file a lawsuit against the State of Michigan in the U.S. District Court in Detroit. This failed when the judge ruled that the age requirement was, in fact, necessary to “assure [sic] some measure of maturity” in elected officials—though Yaco still managed to snag 1,300 write-in votes. With youth liberation on the tip of everyone’s tongue, the School Board announced plans for Community High School: Ann Arbor’s very own experimental “school without walls,” which maintains a radical social and political activist bent to this day.

Despite these direct and indirect victories, however, youth activists were dogged by disbelief. A 1976 article in the Asheville Citizen mocked Youth Liberation’s stance that “since Americans under the age of 18 can’t vote, they are subjected to ‘taxation without representation’ just as their forefathers were under King George III.” A 1974 piece in the Vancouver Sun, meanwhile, admonishes, “Let’s not insist... that day-old babies have credit cards. Let’s face it—some are simply not ready.” And a 1975 letter to the editor in the Los Angeles Times dismissed the movement’s other demands as follows: “We must allow our children complete ‘freedom’ to be run over by cars, be morally and physically destroyed by criminals, and seduced in cutting school and heisting banks by people who talk about ‘rights.’” 

Attrition posed its own problems as the 1970s arced inexorably toward the 1980s. Gradually, many Youth Liberation members left town for college or graduated into other radical movements. A 1977 edition of the Detroit Free Press found 22-year-old Hefner—by then the last member of Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor standing—alone in the Youth Liberation HQ in his parents’ basement, contemplating early retirement from the cause. But the urgency of liberation for children, whom one ACLU lawyer referred to in 1974 as a population of “unseen people,” remains as immediate now as it was then. It is something every child knows—and adults would do well to remember.

No More Kidding Around

In 1980, the year after Keith Hefner aged out of activism and into the nonprofit world, the anarchist folk singer Utah Phillips set the trials and travails of children to music. “I ain't a broom that you hide in the closet,” he sings, in character as a child. “And I ain't a dog that you bribe with a treat / I'm tired of your threats and your punches and promises / And I'd run away, but I can't cross the street.” The near-homonyms threat and treat capture the vast majority of childrearing tactics, and Phillips’s tongue-in-cheek point about the perils of crossing the street is an apt reminder about the hostility of the modern world’s very infrastructure to children’s lives. In some ways, the problems facing children are simple: “How would you like to be shorter than everybody and not have any money?” asks a 1974 article in The Atlanta Constitution.

But if the problems are simple, the stakes could not be higher. “Since the Age of Reason created ‘benevolence’ for children,” opines another 1974 piece, this one in Wilmington’s Evening Journal, “millions of kids have been battered about in the name of humanity.” The American Humane Association had reported just a few years earlier, in 1969, that as many as 10,000 children were “beaten, burned, boiled and deliberately starved in the United States” annually by family members and guardians. In 1975, meanwhile, the U.S. Office of Child Development reported that between 50,000 and 500,000 children were abused each year. And these figures came nowhere near capturing the psychological impact of childhood, the exact nature of which eludes theorists to this day. The Marxist-feminist theorist Shulamith Firestone offers one possible account in her seminal work of family abolition and children’s liberation, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970). “Children … are not freer than adults,” she writes in an attempt to puncture the American fantasy of Huckleberry Finn—who was, after all, only ever a fictional character:

They are burdened by [...] an unpleasant sense of their own physical inadequacy and ridiculousness; with constant shame about their dependence, economic and otherwise (‘Mother, may I?’); and humiliation concerning their natural ignorance of practical affairs. Children are repressed at every waking minute. Childhood is hell.

It is because of this enormous repression that children lash out, Firestone explains; and it is because children lash out that they are, in turn, subject to ever greater oppression—too often the very physical discipline that teaches children to hit, bite, and scratch in the first place. If any symbol represents childhood as Firestone sees it, it is the ouroboros.

Accordingly, that age-old scourge of corporal punishment (and its close cousin, outright physical abuse) was one of the primary issues that mainstream children’s activists, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), took to task. Another legal target was the practice of arrest for “status offenses,” i.e., non-criminal acts including truancy and running away from home, for which thousands of children languished indefinitely in juvenile detention centers. The demand for due process for children arose following In re Gault (1967), a Supreme Court case that overturned the conviction of a 15-year-old. Gerald “Jerry” Gault, the youth in question, had been sentenced to six years in juvenile detention for allegedly making an obscene phone call to a woman—a crime for which an adult would have only faced two months. He’d been arrested without a warrant, questioned without a lawyer, tried for a charge that was never formally made, and heard by a judge who neglected to inform him of his right to counsel. 

“The condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court,” ruled the Supreme Court. But such had been the legal landscape since at least the Progressive Era, during which unofficial and indefinite sentencing had been implemented for the “good” of youth, though in purpose and in practice it served mainly to get Black and immigrant children off the streets and into institutions. The abusiveness of those institutions has been well-known for decades: “It is not unusual to find that tranquilizing drugs are given to young inmates rather than constructive therapy,” an ACLU lawyer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1974, “that solitary confinement is used and that corporal punishment is common practice.” 

But the demands of groups like Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor went even further than mere legal reforms. It was only by liberating youths, they explained, that new human futures might become possible. It was only by liberating all people from oppression that children could ever truly be free. “There is a basic decision to make: either we stay quiet and become part of a system of oppression, or we seize control of our lives, take risks, and struggle to build something new,” declares their 1977 manifesto. “If our program strays from the specific needs of youth, it is because we know that we are not free until all people are free and the earth is a healthy place to live.” The document included demands for not only “full civil and human rights,” but also the “freedom to form into communal families,” the right to “form [their] own education according to [their] needs,” the “right to be economically independent of adults,” and the right to “sexual self-determination.” 

Youth Liberation was inspired by the work of radical theorists like John C. Holt, who—in his Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1974)—demanded that children have the right to vote and partake in politics, to own and exchange property, to borrow money and establish credit, to travel and even live independently of their parents, to enter into quasi-familial relationships outside of their own families, and (should the government ever implement a universal basic income for adults) to receive money from the State: “The right to do, in general, what any adult may legally do,” he summarized. Another prominent theorist of children’s liberation, Richard Evans Farson, made similar demands in his own treatise, Birthrights: A Bill of Rights for Children (1974). Farson’s book opens, matter-of-factly, as follows:

Our world is not a good place for children. Every institution in our society severely discriminates against them. We all come to feel that it is either natural or necessary to cooperate in that discrimination. Unconsciously, we carry out the will of a society which holds a limited and demeaned view of children and which refuses to recognize their right to full humanity.

Farson and Holt were behind much of the coverage that the children’s liberation movement would receive in the media. Their books were reviewed across the U.S. and inspired many youths to think of themselves as a class and begin organizing in their own interest. Perhaps it is because of the sobriety of the arguments outlined in Farson and Holt’s respective works that so many adult readers—like the Kirkus reviewer who blasted Birthrights as “ignorant of psychology and anthropology alike”—would react with such wildly inflamed tempers. Could it be the irascibility of the guilty conscience?

After all, both books were released in 1974, still a year before the Vietnam War would come to an end. And the Vietnam War would not end until more than 33,000 18-year-olds—people in their very first moments of adulthood—had been drafted into the U.S. military and dispatched abroad, where 101 would die in combat. Back on the home front, American youths had already spent more than a decade protesting not only American imperialism, but also sexism, segregation, and rampant capitalism. For some there, as abroad, the cost was death. Three Freedom Summer activists in their early 20s were abducted and murdered by the KKK in 1964; a 21-year-old Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) member was murdered while trying to desegregate a gas station bathroom in 1966; a group of 31 protesters between the ages of 15 and 23 were wounded and killed by police officers in the infamous Orangeburg Massacre of 1968; four 19- and 20-year-old anti-war protesters were shot down by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State in 1970. These were not just martyred activists, presumably, in the eyes of their fellow young people. They were youths and students sacrificed by the adult world in defense of an oppressive status quo. 

“Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was a common slogan prior to the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which reduced the voting age from 21 to 18. But that left many people under 18, who had become politically activated by the times in which they lived, still disenfranchised. Just to name a few examples, the Amendment did nothing for the 360,000 elementary- and secondary-schoolers who had participated in the New York City school boycott in 1964; the 1,000+ kids as young as seven who had marched in 1963 with the Birmingham Children’s Crusade—and been confronted like adults in the streets with fire hoses, batons, and dogs; and the countless student participants in the 1968 East Los Angeles Walkouts, which alarmed even J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI with its strength. (In the aftermath, the movement’s 17-year-old leader was named "one of the hundred most dangerous and violent subversives in the United States" by the Senate Judiciary Committee.) 

“Most people who believe in the institution of childhood as we know it see it as a kind of walled garden in which children [...] are protected from the harshness of the world outside until they become strong and clever enough to cope with it,” writes Holt. “But Childhood, as in Happy, Safe, Protected, Innocent Childhood, does not exist for many children.” For if it did, such a thing would not need to be enforced at gunpoint. Nor would it be maintained at the expense of children who dare try to actualize the fantasy of happiness, safety, protection, and innocence by asserting that—for such abstractions to ever become reality—racism and war must be eliminated first.

Life on the Wrong Side of the Law

The narrative of the happy childhood is nonetheless so pervasive as to obscure the reality experienced by most American adolescents. It excludes the 13 million who are currently going hungry, the 2.5 million living unhoused, the 600,000 passing through foster care, the 60,000 languishing in juvenile jails and prisons, and the 203 who have died in preventable school shootings in the quarter-century since Columbine. “A major bulwark for this myth of happiness is the continued rigid segregation of children from the rest of society,” writes Firestone. “Such an absence of contact with the reality of childhood makes every young adult ripe for the same sentimentalization of children that he himself probably despised as a child.” But to renounce the fantasy of youthful fulfillment would mean acknowledging the reality of cradle-to-grave suffering under capitalism. Easier said than done. “In a culture of alienated people,” deadpans Firestone, “the belief that everyone has at least one good period in life free of care and drudgery dies hard.” In the meantime, millions of children slip through the cracks of the daydream and experience the playground for what it really is: a kind of candy-colored prison. 

No one knows the agonies of adolescence better than the posters of the Reddit group r/Teenagers, who commiserate across hundreds of posts about seemingly intractable situations involving abusive parents—who, from a legal perspective, are not abusive in the least. “My parents put parental controls on my lights,” writes one beleaguered kid. “I cannot TURN ON MY LIGHTS at night. Like, the lights will not turn on and they spent hundreds of dollars to make it that way.” More common (and disconcerting) than that is the loss of the bedroom door, posts about which are often accompanied by a picture of an empty door frame like a mocking, gap-toothed grin. “My parents say, ‘What privacy? You don't have any privacy under this roof,’” reads a common complaint. “[They] constantly read my texts, look at my search history, force me to keep my door open, and read my diary.” These are actions with unclear antecedents—things that, if done to a roommate, lover, or friend, would invite immediate intervention and even (in the case of the many adolescents who describe their parents physically abusing them with impunity) assault charges. But when an adolescent is the victim, the law looks the other way.

In other cases, the law is even explicitly permissive of parental excess and abuse. One particularly depressing post on the Reddit board r/Advice comes from a 15-year-old Oklahoma boy whose homophobic parents want to send him to conversion therapy. “Everything they’ve done/want to do to me is still legal where I live, and I’m afraid to do anything that could backfire and worsen the situation,” he writes. “Is there anything at all I can do?” 

As it turns out—no. “Try to get out of the therapy,” suggests one commenter, “but if you must go, then go, pretend to be straight and cured, and then come home, pretend you are straight until you are a young adult, get a job, move out and go meet a nice guy and be happy.” In the meantime, he can only endure until he reaches the age of majority. Until that time, his life is only nominally his own. 

Youth liberation goes beyond the mainstream interest in strengthening child protection laws and peddling cheap pseudo-empowerment, like the many student governments and extracurricular programs that allow students to play-act as political agents (without, of course, wielding any real power). It strives instead for true autonomy, demanding the right to make choices about the shape of one’s life before the arrival of one’s 18th birthday—a totally arbitrary occasion to which inordinate import has been attached. Above all, youth liberation is a rebuke of the Faustian bargain (made by proxy, since youths, after all, cannot enter into contracts) that curtails youth rights the world over: the widespread belief that limited responsibilities must necessarily come with limited rights. Within the existing system, what is generally framed as freedom from the many tedious obligations of adulthood—like serving on a jury, assuming and paying debts, filing taxes, and voting for the best of bad options each election season—is, in essence, “freedom” from legal citizenship. Which is to say, no freedom at all.

Mainstream children’s advocates believe that the lives of children can be best improved by bolstering the very same protective legislation that differentiates their legal status from that of adults. They “take for granted the permanent disability of children and their lack of power to act for themselves,” writes Farson in Birthrights. “Their efforts to ‘help little children’ have led to paternalistic attitudes which may [...] have [had] just the opposite effect.” The same kind of paternalism served as an ideological justification for some of the most oppressive systems in modern history, from Black slavery to the violent imperialism of the “White Man’s Burden.” By asserting that a particular kind of person is helpless or incapable of making their own decisions, and promising to act on their behalf, paternalism forms an insidious kind of oppression. It demands relationships of economic dependence, employs violent coercion in the name of benevolent protection, and masks exploitation in the guise of edification. In the 20th century many major European colonies threw off the yoke of imperialism, revealing through revolution the emperor-wears-no-clothes emptiness of paternalist promises. And so paternalism was relegated back to the one place its existence remains largely unquestioned: the home.

That is not, of course, to compare the paternalist oppression of the home to that of the Belgian Congo. A better and far more commonplace comparison is to the plight of American women. Prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment, withholding rights from women was justified by a long list of so-called protections—from the dangers of the draft, from the burden of political engagement, from the “mental strain” of full public participation, and so on. “In trying to be protective of women,” writes Farson, “legislators were perpetuating a system of discrimination whose effects were far worse than the imagined problems of equal rights. So we might … be particularly careful about our inclination to do something special for children.” After all, historically, there has been real danger to membership in any supposedly “protected” class.

In Escape from Childhood, Holt describes the experience of childhood as one of total “subservien[ce] and dependen[ce], of being seen by older people as a mixture of expensive nuisance, slave and super-pet.” Children are also treated very much like the property of their parents. Indeed, with few exceptions, their earnings can be confiscated by their parents, much like interest earned off an invested asset. When they run away from home, they are generally returned by the police into the hands of their legal guardians, whether the kids like it or not. “Many courts have claimed that the [custodial] right is based on principles of morality and natural affection,” writes the renowned lawyer Sanford Katz in a 1977 compendium on children’s rights. “However, the common-law history of the doctrine reveals that it may have been created for considerations of wealth rather than the dictates of a moral code.” Hence the fact that custodial rights could be transferred and sold like financial assets during the feudal period. 

Even though the implications and expectations of “custody” have changed greatly over time, our language reflects a capitalist riff on the ancient feudal notion of children as property of the father. In the capitalist present, the biological child is understood to be the “product” of their father and mother engaged in the “labor of love.” With the invocation of words like “product” and “labor” comes a cascade of capitalist signifiers and assumptions that continue to circumscribe the scope of pre-adult personhood.

The Children's Crusade Continues

In some ways, youth activists were far more successful contributing to other movements than liberating themselves. “Everyone's trying to get liberated,” Utah Phillips concludes in his aforementioned 1980 song “Kid’s Liberation.” “You've all got the notion you want to be free / Red folks and black folks and poor folks and women / Now all you damn grownups, stop picking on me!” In the recording of the song most readily available online, this sentiment is met with laughter. So have most demands for the liberation of children in the decades since. And in the meantime, many of the movement’s staunchest advocates have grown up. A more recent wave of activism, led by groups like the Pacific Northwest Youth Liberation Front—which has the honor of appearing on the Counter Extremism Project’s list of far-left extremist groups—has fizzled. The PNW Youth Liberation Front has not updated its website since 2020, and its most recent activity on Twitter/X came by way of a Florida chapter in mid-2023. The radio silence is no doubt the same as that which descended over the Youth Liberation HQ in 1977: the high school activists of 2020 are college students today focused on the many other issues that draw the attention of adults. They have made like 1 Corinthians 13:11 and “put away childish things.”

That said, the youth liberation movement presided over certain undeniable victories in its heyday. In 1970, for example, corporal punishment was unquestionably legal in every school in America. Seven years later, the Supreme Court was forced to hear a case alleging that such punishments violated the Eighth and 14th Amendments—and although the judges upheld the legality of corporal punishment in Ingraham v. Wright (1977), the majority of states would go on to ban the practice anyway. Another case, In re Winship (1970) asserted that youth incarceration required a standard of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt," as in adult proceedings. The 26th Amendment—passed in 1971 following ratification by three-fourths of the states—lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia (1972) guaranteed free public education to children with disabilities, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 required that the education of children with disabilities should take place in the “least restrictive environment commensurate with their needs.” 

Along the way, young people have become the primary culture-brokers of the country—in the sense that they are at the financial center of American culture, buying it and selling it on every television set and TikTok feed. One projection estimates that companies will spend as much as $5.26 billion advertising their products to children in 2024 alone. In between commercials, children’s shows like Cocomelon and Bluey regularly garner some of the highest viewership rates in the United States. Offscreen, the Young Adult (YA) genre in literature, which only emerged in 1967 with the publication of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, has grown into a market worth $11.34 billion—and its readers include not only teenagers, but also a huge number of over-18s who admit to preferring YA to adult-centric literature.

As ever more culture revolves around kids, it is hard to imagine them as a subjugated population—but consumer power is no substitute for citizenship, and representation no substitute for rights. The dire reality facing American children has become bracingly clear in recent years as the self-proclaimed “parental rights” movement scores victory after victory across the United States. Opposition to sexual education in public schools has been a favorite cause of conservative parents for decades, but fresh targets—like gender-neutral bathrooms and critical race theory—have revived the movement for a new political era. In the past few years, right-wing parents have scored significant political gains, from the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act (better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law) to the 24 active state bans on transgender students’ participation in school sports. All of these are predicated on an ideology that masquerades as natural intuition. “The parental-right doctrine is often treated as if it were an expression of ‘the best interests of the child,’” writes Katz, though it is, in fact, an “archaic notion” that over-valorizes the importance of “blood ties.” The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child concurs, pointing out that “traditional perceptions of children as objects and as the ‘property’ of parents and elders rather than as subjects of rights hinder their right to express their views and to participate in the family, schools and local communities.” No surprise, then, that the U.S. remains the only country in the U.N. that has not ratified the Conventions on the Rights of the Child. Parental rights activists have raised issues (and strawman arguments) against the Conventions, claiming they include provisions that “undermine … the role of U.S. parents” by condemning corporal punishment, privacy violations, and parental censorship of their children’s access to media, among other things. So far, they’ve been successful. 

But for all the liberation movement’s criticisms of parents, theorists like Farson don’t blame them personally for the challenges facing children. “Parents are already overly victimized and need liberation in their own right,” he writes. “[They] need to be freed from the burden of guilt that comes from believing that they are solely responsible for what their children become.” Only in a liberated society, where children are entitled to the rights and responsibilities prescribed by Youth Liberation, can their parents also find freedom. In a society where children are afforded a far greater degree of self-determination, and their healthy development was made the responsibility of more than the two adults who happened to accidentally create their life, “[parents] would not need to feel guilty about their failure to make a success of the nuclear family, or about not being all-wise in matters of child rearing, or in sometimes not setting a good example, or any of a million ordinary frailties or inevitable social conditions that now produce an abundance of unnecessary guilt.” In fact, Farson notes, plenty of adults—not just parents—would benefit from a revolution in the realm of children’s rights:

If we were to design more of our physical world to children's scale, for instance, most handicapped people would also be accommodated. Parents, especially women, would be benefited if various forms of alternative child care were available. Old people would find that a consciousness of ageism at the lower end of the age spectrum would lead to consciousness of ageism at the upper end. If the criminal justice system were made to fit both adults and children without a double standard, it would probably become more humane and efficient for adults.

Perhaps children and adults each have a monopoly on something the other wants—and adults would no doubt benefit as much from the legal permissiveness and protections afforded (in theory) to children as children would from the self-determination that (in theory) characterizes life on the other side of 18. Firestone seems to think so: “We need to start talking not about sparing children for a few years from the horrors of adult life, but about eliminating those horrors,” she demands. “In a society free of exploitation, children could be like adults (with no exploitation implied) and adults could be like children (with no exploitation implied).” 

At present, the U.S. would seem to be heading in the opposite direction, extending an exploitative adolescence ever further into adulthood. Although age 18 supposedly marks the end of childhood and the beginning of the rest of one’s life, the vote and the draft come with little else by way of political power. In fact, the demands of American youths are dismissed well into their 20s. When American politicians court the support of young people, they do so not with policy, but vapid posturing: think Hillary Clinton dabbing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and telling young people to “Pokémon Go to the polls” in 2016. When youths do show up en masse for something, a pernicious war on two fronts begins. Political leaders deploy militarized law enforcement at full-force while simultaneously, in the media, dismissing youth activists as childish know-nothings. “Do the Gen Z pro-Palestine protesters even know what they’re screaming, yelling, and encamping about?” asked a recent piece in The New York Post. That same week, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) chided members of Columbia University’s pro-Palestine student encampment to “go back to class and stop the nonsense.” What exactly, one might ask, is so nonsensical about youths calling for a ceasefire in a war that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has called “a war on children … on their childhood and their future,” a war that has destroyed nearly 90 percent of schools in Gaza, orphaned an estimated 17,000 children, and killed more than 13,000 under-18s since October? 

There is a political expediency to extending the tropes associated with childhood into people’s 20s, because children are expected to be seen and not heard. When millions of youths take to the streets demanding ceasefire, police abolition, and climate change mitigation, politicians can simply turn their eyes skyward in a Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do fashion and move on without substantive engagement. “It is much easier to justify control over persons called ‘young,’ ‘immature,’ and ‘irresponsible,’” explains an essay in The Children’s Rights Movement: Overcoming the Oppression of Young People (1977). “This ‘strangling of the free mind at its source' ... helps prepare a citizenry that is largely passive and apathetic, willing to accept authority unquestioningly, willing to think of themselves as incompetent and incapable of making changes.” Indeed, despite the fact that most of the Founding Fathers were far from fatherhood—Alexander Hamilton was 21, and James Monroe a mere 18—when they signed the Declaration of Independence, present-day youth advocates can expect only tragedy or farce from the U.S. government in response to their demands. For the latter, recall former President Donald Trump dismissing then-16-year-old Greta Thunberg as “a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future” following her impassioned speech before the U.N. General Assembly in 2019. For the former, there are the Georgia state troopers whose multi-agency raid on a protest encampment against Atlanta’s “Cop City” left the unarmed 26-year-old activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán dead from 57 bullet wounds, including through the palms of the hands he had raised in a gesture of nonviolence. 

As long as children remain unseen and unheard, all youths—in fact, all people—are imperiled. The status of the child can easily become the status of the “childlike,” allowing for state-sanctioned mistreatment and marginalization. This is true of everyone from the politically-inconvenient college student to the controversial celebrity—even the megastar Britney Spears, after all, ended up in a conservatorship arrangement that rendered her unable to make many of her own personal decisions until recently. This point has been taken up by activists for disability justice in particular, who note that childhood is seen as “disabling,” allowing children to be “presumed incompetent and incapable of managing their own lives, not as individuals but as a class.” This mirrors the way disabled people have often been denied full citizenship and autonomy in the name of care, compassion, and protection. “When capitalism is not … able to use you for the production of surplus value,” explains the Marxist-feminist theorist Sophie Lewis, “[you wind up] positioned in our society, culturally and socially, very much at a disadvantage because of [your] relation to the workplace.” In that sense, both childhood and the legal netherworld inhabited by disabled people serve as holding zones for those who cannot contribute to capitalist production. It’s a position that need not necessarily, but so often has, come with the erosion or outright eradication of political rights and representation. So long as children remain entrapped by this set of assumptions, there will always exist a population for whom it is widely accepted that it is “in their best interest” that they not be full citizens—and whose grievances with that plight are met with growing rates of psychiatric intervention by a technocratic class of “child professionals,” rather than anything even approaching meaningful political engagement. It all adds up to a dangerous precedent that even self-professed child-haters should be keen to upend. And as for those who are sympathetic to children? “Good radicals must think more like parents,” writes Mark Gerzon, a youth-activist-all-grown-up by the time he penned the words in 1977, “and good parents must think more like radicals.”

As unlikely as large-scale children’s liberation may seem from our current godforsaken vantage, it might prove inevitable—should the capital-R revolution ever come to pass, that is. If there is one contemporary thinker who has taken up the gauntlet thrown down by Youth Liberation and its intellectual godparents in the 1970s, it is Sophie Lewis. Her most recent book, Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation (2022), is almost Cassandra-like in its quiet insistence that children’s liberation is on the horizon. Lewis frames it as a necessary byproduct of any and all other forms of liberation: “There is no question in my mind,” she writes, “that [prison] abolition entails changing everything about the family, too.” Of course, children’s rights will only be a priority if we (as our culture so often admonishes us, though the words are little more than lip-service) remember, now and in the future, to “think of the children.” Even more importantly, we must listen to the children. “Adults who seek to describe the human condition of children hold reality in a sieve,” wrote Helen Baker in The Children’s Rights Movement. “What we desperately need are the voices of the children. Not just their voices in the classroom, or the student council, or even in the pseudo-unstructured weekend retreat,” but their voices everywhere that adults can expect to be heard: at home, before the school board, in court, on the streets—and everywhere in between.

Only then might we be back on track to someday reach that land whose existence was first heralded by that most famous song of the children’s liberation movement, which arrived even before some of its seminal texts were penned. “Free to Be … You and Me,” debuted by the New Seekers in 1972, is sung in cars and kindergartens to this day: “There's a land that I see / Where the children are free,” it goes. “And I say, it ain't far / To this land from where we are.” We would be remiss to dismiss this distant land—glimpsed by countless people, young and old, over the years—as no more than a mirage.

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Announcing Our Newest Issue


A superb summer issue containing our "defense of graffiti," a dive into British imperialism, a look at the politics of privacy, the life of Lula, and a review of "the Capitalist Manifesto." Plus: see the Police Cruiser of the Future, read our list of the summer's top songs, and find out what to fill your water balloons with. It's packed with delights!

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