Totalitarianism Makes a Comeback in Politics and in Parenting

Remember the tank man at Tiannanmen Square in 1989? He looks a lot like the lone kid in an American neighborhood trying to play today. He's lonely. He's repressed. He needs our help.

In 1987, US President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate of the Berlin Wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Two years later, indeed, the wall was torn down, and the era of totalitarian communism ended with it. For those of us old enough to remember this historic event, it was a dramatic repudiation of the idea that human behavior should be tightly controlled.

Today, though, it’s easy to find widespread acceptance of governmental repression. In its prosecution of the War on Terror, the George W. Bush administration inflicted torture on “enemy combatants” and extensive surveillance over American citizens. Then, he won re-election.

On the other end of the political spectrum, thought leaders like New York Times columnist and bestselling author Thomas Friedman regularly heap praise on China’s government, despite its extensive record of repression and brutality. In addition, many of America’s elite universities, bastions of liberal thinking, have limited speech that doesn’t agree with their dominant points of view.

Parenting has similarly reverted back to more totalitarian practices in recent years. On the one hand, in her study of parenting advice,* Markella Rutherford finds that the “discipline of earlier decades [was] discarded, and parents were advised instead to recognize the individuality of each child and to follow the child’s lead, responding to her developmental readiness.”

However, Rutherford finds that parents’ newfound permissiveness is limited to their children’s lives inside the home. Thus, children have channeled their quest for independence into their activities on the Internet, rather than explorations outside the home. Rutherford writes, “While it may be true that today’s parents tolerate more in-home rebellion and sullen attitudes than past generations, they are also facing parenting demands that require near-constant surveillance of their children.”

In other words, parents are controlling and restricting their children’s lives outside the home like never before. Is this really what we want? Should we model our parenting behavior on the Bush administration’s war apparatus or China’s repressive economic-growth-at-all-costs regime? Perhaps you think my analogy is far-fetched. OK, leave out the physical aspects – i.e. American torture of “enemy combatants” or China’s jailing and torture and execution of political prisoners. We’re still left with America’s extralegal surveillance of its citizens (e.g. wiretaps & financial record snooping) and China’s severe limitations on free speech and its “Great Firewall.”

I, for one, see a strong parallel between the comeback of totalitarianism in governments and the comeback, albeit in a different guise, of controlling parenting practices.

I’m not happy about this. Individual liberty is paramount to me for all people, especially for our children. Our culture seems to value it less today than it did decades ago.

When I advocate for children to be able to play freely in their own neighborhoods, I’m really fighting for their individual liberty. I have company. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child lists the “right to play” as a fundamental human right, and the International Play Association was created to fight for this right.

Do you think that children’s right to play freely is a fundamental human right? Do you see any connection between a society’s suppression of play and its suppression of other fundamental human rights?

* “Children’s Autonomy and Responsibility: An Analysis of Childrearing Advice,” by Markella Rutherford, Qualitative Sociology, (2009) 32, p. 340.

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4 Responses to Totalitarianism Makes a Comeback in Politics and in Parenting

  1. haha says:

    It’s all related to dehumanization of people (children and adults). With respect to children, they are seldom considered individual humans anymore. To schools, they are nothing but test scores that can literally determine whether teachers/administrators keep their jobs and indeed whether entire schools even continue to exist. NCLB and its state law spawn have created a culture where scores matter more than children. A school’s value and a child’s value are determined by a cheaply made, computer graded, multiple choice test, often given in stressful circumstance. From K through high school, my children will have had over 200 standardized testing days. That’s about 10 months of nonstop testing.

    Computers cannot tell us whether a school is a safe, engaging place, where childhood is valued and knowledge is eagerly sought after by students rather than reluctantly swallowed like a bitter medicine. Computers cannot tell us who is the next Michelangelo.. who is the next Mahatma Ghandi or even who is the next Albert Einstein. The traits that these people possess are not measured by cheap multiple choice questions…. the most comical of which is the “creativity” standardized test administered by my very own school system.

    This standardization/dehumanization craze has also infected families. Children are no longer seen as individuals with their own interests, abilities and motivations. They are instead extensions of their parents. Parent’s egos are so tied up in their children’s accomplishments that kids are pushed to excel in school as well as several extracurricular areas. They are expected to get into top colleges… more for parental bragging rights than for the best interest of the child. Families allow themselves and their children to sink into dangerous levels of debt just to have the right name on their college diploma.

    It’s all about criteria not people. When parents, govenments, schools start seeing human beings as test scores, SAT scores, dollar signs or trophies, those human beings lose their humanity… and quickly after that.. their rights.

    Before you flame me… I’m not talking about all parents or all teacher. By definition.. if you are visiting this site, you are probably not one of the people that I am talking about. They are everywhere though… and it’s scary to watch.. and very difficult to cope with for parents who don’t want to play the game.

  2. RobertH says:

    I couldn’t help but comment on this blog post from last year. With Chua’s book “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” now a bestseller, it turns out that Mike was right on the money when he compared Chinese-style totalitarianism with today’s parenting style last February.

    The problem with totalitarian parenting, I agree with Mike, is really much more than just about how strict or permissive we are with out children. It’s how we view humans in general.

    In China people seem to be just human “resources” to be disposed of by the government at will. Hence it is no surprise that Chinese children should be viewed by their parents as objects to be manipulated at will. After all, that’s how their parents grew up themselves and that’s what they will need to know how to do when they grow up – subordinate their own humanity to the interests of the government.

    Clearly, this is not how most Americans see themselves or their children. Our country has always been about individual liberties and the pursuit of happiness. We don’t to live our lives primarily for the pleasure of some higher authority, and we don’t want such lives for our children.

    Hence it is utterly incongruous that Chuanese parenting should be able to gain any traction in this country. The only way to explain this trend is that some parents have quite literally lost their minds. I only hope that they want also lose their hearts down the road.


  3. Mike Lanza says:

    Here’s a new Time article that just appeared today:

    Why China Does Capitalism Better than the U.S.

    What a bunch of horse____.

  4. RobertH says:

    Yes, a total crock ….

    Because American corporations abuse our democratic institutions and the media have polarized the nation, China’s totalitarian system is better.

    Yeah, right, got it … Fukuyama really is an “intellectual heavyweight”