Criticism of the children's rights movement:
Children need nothing less than rights
1. If one takes the list of children's rights – whether it is the 41 articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or a list of the 10 most important children's rights put together by children's rights action groups – it is hard to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Not because of the legal demands compiled in them, but because the physical and psychological mistreatments, torments and damages listed in the legal demands enumerate the forms of oppression and exploitation to which children are exposed all over the world. One must read children's rights as just what they are, as verbal testimonies of the extremely brutal and ruthless treatment of children: If children's rights demand that children should live healthy lives and receive medical care when they are sick, that nobody may beat, harm or sexually abuse them, that they must be prevented from using addictive drugs and may not be denied social benefits, that they must be protected from exploitation, prostitution, child trafficking and recruitment as child soldiers, etc., then it is established that this is exactly what is done to them. Why else would child rights activists demand that all this cease and desist?
This still incomplete list already tells us something. First: Whoever demands such rights, which as one may note arise in the first place from the good intention to – at least – keep children away from all this, knows however at the same time that he did not have to dream up such abuse, but that he can take it from the really existing treatment of children, not only in the so-called “Third World,” but also from the treatment of children in the capitalist metropoles – including the US. Second, on closer inspection, these lists formulate, with all their good intentions, nothing out of the ordinary, express no special claims, but demand only what goes without saying. Actually, one would think that it would just be self-evident that medical care for children and protection from abuse and exploitation are something like the minimal level of a decent treatment of – not only – the young. Which is why thirdly one can be surprised that implementing them requires long and costly campaigns, international conferences with lengthy debates over the wording of the articles of protection, and requires intervention by state powers so that these concerns – well, what exactly: are enforced, get attention, achieve legal status ...? It must therefore fourthly be concluded that the treatment of children being demanded is anything but self-evident; rather, it is obvious that allowing children to be treated in such ways counts in many countries as “moral” and customary practice, if not political, military or economic necessities; to turn them into child laborers, child soldiers, child prostitutes, not just to withhold everything children need for a reasonably decent upbringing but to unceremoniously send them off to slaughter as spirited and fresh material for pernicious social purposes, often with emotional or physical deformity or loss of life as consequences.
2. Much of this can also be shown in the way that children are treated in this country. But that's not all.
Certainly, in formulating some rights for children as they appear in the children's rights charters, one charges in this country through an open door. Here, violence against children and infanticide, sexual abuse and child exploitation, child neglect and selling drugs, tobacco and alcohol to minors are punishable offenses; nor may one sell children or force them into prostitution, turn them into dealers or pickpockets. Which, as said, points out that there are also reasons in a civilized democracy to formulate these as criminal offenses. They once again point out nothing but the fact that this type of treatment of children happens here too and that one is not dealing with isolated facts – otherwise one would not have to ban all this. A glance at the newspapers also shows that every imaginable nasty and vile treatment of children by adults is a common occurrence in this country.
But, in addition, there are in this country a whole range of harms to children that are by no means illegal: first – the issue of child poverty is quite openly announced. Official statistics calculate that 21.6% of all children in the US are categorized as living in “child poverty,” i.e. even according to the extremely problematic standards of the Census Bureau and poverty research, they grow up in circumstances in which such things as sufficient, regular meals, adequate clothing and satisfactory housing conditions are not met. These statistics show at once, when they report that the parents are low income or single parents with precarious jobs, that child poverty does not fall from the sky, but is the “byproduct” of adult poverty. A popular conversation topic on television – secondly – presents a form of damage which is seen as the product of “broken homes”: child neglect. “Supernanny” shows audiences how “overwhelmed” parents with “poor educations” give in to their children who have quickly turned into real monsters to whom vandalism, control over their parent's pocketbooks, violence against parents and ignorance of the necessary rules for family life are completely natural. It is of course no coincidence that harm to children – third – continues in school. Far from being seen as a scandal, schooling in this country is organized as a sorting mechanism to exclude the majority of the young from continuing education. This systematically pursued dulling of children's minds, genteely called “lack of education” – according to the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 26% of 12th graders cannot read at the basic level – becomes an issue only if the US comes in at the bottom of international education rankings or the sorting of children too obviously disgraces any ideals about equal opportunities. Fourth, for good measure, an approved and medically sanctioned specific drug use is increasingly common during school hours. The prescription of Ritalin for children who are quickly diagnosed with ADHD if they lack the compulsory attention and willingness to submit in school is considered almost necessary for education. Children are thus tranquilized – in school and at home. Side effects such as weight loss and apathy are accepted. Dropouts can forget about a later career in the capitalist world of work and rely on government assistance, extended families or careers as petty criminals, experiencing – fifth – school disqualification still in – official – childhood as entry into lifelong material deprivation, i.e. as the prospect of following in the footsteps of their parents. Also child labor is permitted – sixth – in this country in so far as it complies with the law. This permits people to work at age 12 because the definition of childhood undercuts that of UNICEF by about six years. Finally, it is still permitted – seventh – to deport the children of poor people who have not shared in the blessings of American birth to a “homeland” that their parents fled with good reason. And ultimately – eighth – the military version of infanticide known as “collateral damage” is likewise not a criminal offense. The “innocent victims from civilian life” are indeed regularly – like in the recent bombings of Pakistan – officially “regretted,” but our leaders are clear that in war you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. And how should “our boys in Afghanistan” distinguish between “innocent children” and the civilian-masked child soldiers of the Taliban?!
In this society, there are no bans on these treatments of children with all their tough, harmful and stupefying circumstances and hopeless prospects. They are just part of class society. It needs people held in poverty for the nation's growth and young people who then grow up in the corresponding proportions. Parts of them will then be dismissed already at a young age into useless poverty while others are allowed, along with their immigrant colleagues, to try to earn an income doing jobs for which their “poor education” is not an obstacle. The program of increasing people's impoverishment is consequently the ultimate reason for the harms to children and adolescents enumerated here, and this program in itself is never disturbing, but always only the consequences it has for the law and order of the nation – as will be explained in more detail shortly.
3. But that's not all: there is good reason to consider the overall position that the democratic state is taking toward the nation's younger generation as a whole. Their concern for the “the child” shows that a different welfare is intended when they speak about the “welfare of the child”; especially when their supporters, such as the Children's Defense Fund, make “investing in America's children = investing in America's future” an argument for children's rights.
If the USA has signed (if not ratified) the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in which the “commitment to the welfare of the child” has a high importance, then that is fitting in this way: the welfare of children matters, but only and only insofar as they will then be in a position to meet their future role as the burden-bearing part of the people in democratic capitalism. That's the only reason they shouldn't be worn out and rendered useless too early, i.e. as children – at least not in too large numbers. Consequently, their welfare means this: they have to be made into “mature citizens” by the family and school and qualify for the jobs in demand, i.e. they must be prepared mentally, morally and physically, out of their free will – thus without a guardian – for the various positions in the society, as teachers and storekeepers, as professors and hairdressers, as housewives and soldiers, as head physicians and clerks to perform their services for the success of the global project “USA.” And this includes the fact that later, when they are grown up, pretty much everything can be done to them that they should be spared from as children in this country: they may be exploited and “may” sell themselves for their entire lives as labor power – including all its ruinous consequences. This variant of human trafficking is considered, as everybody knows, a gold star for the market economy. Adults may drink, smoke and take drugs to try to compensate for the results of poverty. Their mental brutalization, vigorously promoted by the press, radio and TV, is desirable, especially when they are turned into soldiers – something they are also allowed to do; but it is also suitable for enduring 40 years of factory work. Mature, socialized adults are expected to cope with and endure all this; and indeed in the amount that is needed of a people useful for the state. Nothing that children should be spared from applies to the child; it applies rather to his role which he later has to cope with as an adult in capitalism. That's because anyone who is broken as a child is no longer useful as an adult for serving the state and its financial power. That sums up the whole difference between children and adults in this country. It would never occur to children's rights activists, in their narrow-mindedness, to protect adults from exploitation and abuse, from wars and narcotic drugs, etc.
That's why it annoys politicians if parts of the younger generation show a lack respect for parents and officials, become petty criminals, band together in gangs, etc., hence if they get out of control in relation to what is expected of them. And for the politicians it turns into a national crisis if Americans are not adequately looking after the production of a younger generation. In this context, all that is annoying to the politicians about the production of a new generation is nothing more than the result of their own political-economic doings: one can't afford to raise one's children because of a lack of money; and then the “brats” are only a nuisance; a fate that is shared by many children of poor people. And that's what many of them then act like – in the family, on the streets, at school.
4. And children's rights should be helpful against all this? Is not the reminder that the UN endorsed its children's rights convention 20 years ago – years in which the situation of children worldwide has not changed for the better – proof enough that completely false expectations are attached to such campaigns? Certainly, the children's rights movement should not be reproached for this as its failure. Failure, as everybody knows, can have many reasons, but here it is assumed that children's rights activism is in fact characterized by efforts to bring about secure material and intellectual improvements for children. But this is precisely not what is provided to children by rights. Children do not need rights, but proper nutrition, clothing and shelter, a space to play and a good education, along with an outlook that they will not have to direct their lives when they become adults as useful or useless servants of the wealth of others. Rights do not provide and secure all this – neither “protection,” “provision” or “participation,” as the credo of the advocates of children's rights says.
Children's rights activists are in fact wrong – in more ways than one. For one thing, they are pretty childish themselves. They do not seriously and consistently ask what causes all the child “abuses”; neither those that are considered to be such, nor certainly those damages that, desired or tolerated, are part of the social life of children in class society. Instead, this list of incriminated mistreatments only undergoes a reversal from negative into positive: what destroys children should not be. Like the stubborn toddler who thinks that by stamping his foot on the floor the world will be at his service, good is wished for against evil. And for a second thing the way these activists for children's rights want to implement these pious wishes that ignore causes is solely to demand – in this they are no longer childish, but well-educated – rights and their anchoring in law. They are not driven to state an interest in improving the situation of children, to consider and obtain the means for carrying this out against the existing resistance – all this, by the way, would be a matter for adults, not kids. They have swallowed the difference between the need and the interest that one has with the right that the higher authority permits. Only that which is granted as a right, what one is allowed to do, is ok. Insisting on one's own well-justified interest is regarded in this country as crass egotism; relativitizing all interests according to what is permissible is the prevailing stance that people take towards their own desires and goals in life. For a third thing, a right is not to be confused with material security and does not even guarantee that which is granted as a right. How does one benefit from the UN's most fundamental of all rights, the right to free development of personality? Free pursuit is ensured, but the objectively necessary conditions for it are far from ensured. And certainly not its success; that simply depends on whether in pursuing it one can rely on the resources that are necessary for one's well-being. What one can do with rights is consequently nothing but a question of the state-protected distribution of wealth in class society. Therefore, the activism of the children's advocates is subservient because it calculates that the same state power that organizes or permits all the well-illustrated bad experiences of children in this country will bring about the expected change for the better by rights being granted. Once again, in different words: has, for example, the rights signed into law about the inviolability of the person and protection of private property ever changed anything about rape, murder, theft and robbery still being on the agenda of many of our fellow citizens? No way! The fact at none of this is permitted by the state simply points out – one can not emphasize this often enough – that all this happens every day, and this is how people deal with each other in a society characterized by serious conflicts and a tooth and nail competition. The special merit of rights is that one is allowed, as a private person, to take legal action when they have been violated and to do so after it has happened. Is that what children's rights advocates want? Do they really want to argue before the court with the state's juridical agents about what is for the well-being of a child in this country if he or she has already been beaten and abused, hence the child – almost in the truest sense of the word – has already fallen down the well? And when – fourthly – a right to education, health care and freedom is demanded for every child, then a closer look at the education and health care systems, as well as freedom of speech in practice, could make it clear that these rights are nothing but duties for the same school system that makes so many young students illiterate and to a health care system that allows so many to go untreated for illnesses because they can't afford it and that takes into consideration only the well-being of the hospital. And it is also very questionable whether it is an achievement that anyone who has reason for complaint should be content that he or she may speak it freely and indeed without anything changing in what he or she complains about. The content of the rights demanded is simply not up to the free, imaginative, and well-intentioned formulations of the children's rights activists. Whenever they ask the state to kindly grant rights to children, it either does or does not for its own reasons, in which children – as I have said – factor somewhat differently than in the dream world of children's rights activists.
5. What would be good for children doesn't go for either side, for the children's rights activists or for those from whom they demand rights. The former only want to protect the “child” as a state-recognized legal status, completely indifferent to the esteem that a child undergoes in people recruitment policies, and completely indifferent to the question as to what children really get. Only the latter, the politicians, are faced with the problem of the extent to which their policies of maintaining world power are accompanied by “collateral damage” within the country for the raising and educating of the young into free and mature citizens. But one thing must also be noted: they do not see it as a very serious problem. They have more pressing issues to solve at home and abroad, issues of war and peace, crisis and growth. And they are quite certain that they will be able to do so, using the former children of all classes who have been brought up to be good adults.
[Arguments taken from an essay by Freerk Huisken]