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.