Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Horde of Rebellious Kids

by Kristin King

As I was reading a book on child discipline, I learned something about the role of children in shaping anti-authoritarian movements. (The book is Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., copyright 1987.)

A lot of people in the United States have a vision in their head of "the good old days" when children were obedient and didn't have this teen pregnancy, drug use, gang violence, etc.

Nelson writes:
Remember when Mom obediently did whatever Dad said, or at least gave the impression she did, because it was the culturally acceptable thing to do? In the good old days few people questioned the idea that Dad's decisions were final. Because of the human-rights movement, this is no longer true. When Mom quit modeling submissiveness, children stopped being submissive. Rudolph Dreikurs pointed out, "When Dad lost control of Mom, they both lost control of the children." (9)
My first thought upon reading that passage was: "If only I had been obedient to my husband, my children would behave!" Tongue in cheek, of course.

But my second thought was: "Whoa. As a parent, I'm not providing anti-authoritarian discipline simply because it's the right thing to do. I'm doing it because my children wouldn't stand for the old style of authoritarian discipline."

It's a boring truism that raising kids is hard. Yeah, and what isn't? What's interesting to me is in which ways it's hard. What's hard is to get children to change their behavior without yelling at them, locking them in their room, and taking other authoritarian measures. Apparently, now that the feminist movement has liberated me, it's that much harder.

That is to say, feminist social movements also gave children the tools to liberate themselves. In the broader society, children are extremely disempowered and marginalized, but in the family situation, they have the ability to make their parents' life a living hell. (Or heaven, of course.)

In response, many parents have of necessity adopted an anti-authoritarian style. (Whether they adopt an anti-authoritarian style or an authoritarian one depends partly on ideology and partly on the skills they have on hand.)

Now what gets really interesting here is that once children are raised using anti-authoritarian methods, they become anti-authoritarian adults who participate in social movements.

That is to say, social movements that cause the liberation of adults can cause the liberation of children, and the liberation of children can strengthen social movements. It's a two-way street.


I have a final note about Dreikur's associate Alfred Adler, who made important contributions to positive discipline.

"Alfred Adler was a man with ideas ahead of his time. He was advocating equality for all people, all races, women, and children long before it was popular to do so. Adler, an Austrian of Jewish descent, had to leave his native land during the Nazi persecution in order to continue his work." (23)

I'd be curious to learn more about his history, but I take this to mean that his work was so threatening to fascism that he had to get the heck out of Nazi Germany.

My takeaway is this: if we want anti-authoritarian social movements to be successful, we need to pay close attention to children. They're marginalized, they're ignored, they're disempowered, but they can still sock it to The Man.


tree-and-leaf said...

I take this to mean that his work was so threatening to fascism that he had to get the heck out of Nazi Germany.

I don't imagine his work helped, but being of Jewish descent would do it, surely? The German universities dismissed their Jewish employees (or those of Jewish descent) even before employment law made this mandatory, and the same thing happened in Austria after the Anschluss. What you were actually working on had very little to do with it. And if you wanted to carry on working, then you had to get a job abroad.

JM said...

"I take this to mean that his work was so threatening to fascism that he had to get the heck out of Nazi Germany."

He was of Jewish descent, therefore his work didn't need to be threatening for him to have to leave in order to escape the concentration camps!

Lesley Hall said...

I read this and think 'deja vu all over again', while querying the claim that the phenomenon is an outcome of feminism, or at least, to so-called 'second-wave feminism', which seems to be what's implied. I can remember the generation of the late 60s and early 70s and the rebellion and protest that was in some circles blamed on their being reared according to the (at least relatively) permissive edicts of Dr Benjamin Spock.

But in a longer historical view, doesn't the retreat from punitive methods of childrearing go back at least to the Enlightenment? I can certainly track back organised movements against corporal punishment to the late C19th-early C20th - cf the Humanitarian League ( in the UK

Timmi Duchamp said...

It's true, just as there has been a centuries-long history of individuals and groups opposing capital punishment, so there's been a centuries-long history of opposition to corporal discipline in child-raising. Hell, back in the twelfth century Heloise argued (to Abelard) against the routine use of punishment in pedagogy. How much actual effect did such opposition have, though, I wonder? Certainly Dr. Spock had no positive influence on anyone I knew when I was being raised in the 1950s. People who routinely hit & kicked & spanked their children with belts etc considered distinguished themselves with ease from those who were monstrously abusive, which is something I don't imagine happening quite so easily today. & not many parents in the 1950s had problems with the use of physical punishment in schools. So sure, there was Dr. Spock. & before him many other reformers. But Dr. Spock's approach was for television-style families (the upper middle class). Though people I knew had heard of Dr. Spock, he was an object of ridicule rather than a source of wisdom.

Back in middle-america 1950s, most people also ridiculed psychologists. The very idea of sending a child to a therapist, I clearly recall, was met with anger as well as ridicule-- anger at what was regarded as interference in family life & violation of family privacy, which were all-important & sacrosanct. (Even when you knew someone was abusing their wife or children, it was unthinkable to interfere in any way. & I do mean unthinkable. The abuse would be discussed, but I never heard anyone expressing any idea of there being anything that could be done about it.) One thing that second-wave feminists did well was shattering that absolute prerogative of family privacy. It might also be that the saturation of US culture with the upper-middle-class values represented by Dr. Spock is due merely to the success of television (which also, however, offers constant entertainment via images of violence). Who can say? I do think, though, that the second-wave feminist attack on the sanctity of family privacy can take some of the credit.

Kristin said...

In response to Lesley Hall's comment:

"while querying the claim that the phenomenon is an outcome of feminism, or at least, to so-called 'second-wave feminism', which seems to be what's implied"

I'm not implying second-wave feminism, but feminist and other social justice movements in general, which I believe have been present in some form for millenia. The author probably was referring to second-wave feminism, since the book was first published in 1981. I don't have a date for the Dreikurs quote about Mom and Dad losing control of the children, but he died in 1971, so most likely he was remarking on the massive social change at the time.

As for Dr. Spock - my parents were fans of his, and they never spanked me, but otherwise, the parenting from my dad was fairly authoritarian. There has been more research into child development now, and many recommendations are more anti-authoritarian. The trouble is that a lot of parents don't have the skills or training to apply them. If that changed - what would the world be like twenty years from now? What would the global levels of machismo look like?