The Intrinsic Goods of Childhood

I’m interested in children’s rights but also more generally in the relationship between rights and value.  Many, or most, children’s rights are justified in terms of the adult persons that the children may become and the goods those adults lives may contain.  Perhaps the most famous paper on children’s rights, "A Child’s Right to an Open Future," makes this explicitly clear.  Our focus on children is largely future directed. For the most part, I think this makes sense. But I also think there is a danger in focusing too much on the future and neglecting the goods of childhood. This is especially true if some of the goods of childhood are valuable in their own right, and even more so if some of those goods are incommensurable with the goods of adult life.  (Michael Slote makes this point but doesn’t develop it much further.) Suppose, for example, there is no amount of good in the future that could outweigh a childhood of suffering and misery. Let me give two examples to illustrate this point. Both are areas in applied ethics where this point makes a difference.
First, the literature on a child’s right to good sex education is entirely adult-directed. Sex education for children is justified entirely in terms of producing mature and competent adult sexual decision makers. There is little or no recognition of the positive role sex plays in the lives of teenagers. We focus on protecting children from adults and on the adult choosers they’ll become but largely ignore the positive aspects of teen sexuality.  The dangers here should be obvious. The most important strategic consideration is having one’s educational materials dismissed as largely irrelevant. We also fail children if we cannot provide them with the information they need. For philosophers, we also get it wrong if we neglect those aspects of the good life that occur before adult life begins.
Second, the literature on children and sport  likewise focuses on adults. And this cuts both ways. Sometimes an appeal to a balanced childhood is justified in terms of maximizing choices for adult life. This is a common argument against children’s involvement in one sport in a serious way. At other times the appeal to the adult athlete the child could become were her potentially fully developed is used to argue for children’s participation is seriously demanding sports. Both arguments have in common that they ignore the goods that occur within childhood.

I’m interested both to see whether you can think of other examples and whether you think the general point is correct.

13 Replies to “The Intrinsic Goods of Childhood

  1. Interesting post. I agree that “there is a danger in focusing too much on the future and neglecting the goods of childhood.” And I think that this is a danger not only because the goods of childhood are valuable in their own right, but also because it is not clear to me that the degree of psychological connection between the child and the adult that they will grow into is sufficient to make it a case of justified paternalism as opposed to a case of wrongfully imposing sacrifices on one person for the sake of benefiting another.
    Another example might be a child’s right to an excellent education. It seems that in some cases children are forced to study in such a rigorous fashion from such an early age with a lot of stress imposed by external forces (e.g., “you got to do well in preschool so that you can get into this elite private elementary school”) that these children lose out on the joy of living a carefree childhood.

  2. To expand on Doug’s point: children seem to benefit from relatively unstructured (leisurely) ‘play’ and for sundry reasons the space and time for such play seems to be shrinking, with little attention paid to the consequences of this (I’m not saying three-year old Katie should be allowed to pull all the cereal boxes down from the shelves in the grocery store or that six-year old Ethan should be allowed to go down the middle of the street on his skateboard in a vertical position…or a horizontal one for that matter). In some affluent nation-states, children are trained and groomed for ‘success’ by class and status conscious parents who find little value in play as such. The sounds of my neighborhood when I was growing up were often the sounds of children playing: in many suburbs the silence in this regard is eerie if not chilling.

  3. I don’t find the idea of a child’s “right to an open future” at all compelling. I suspect that it relies on overvaluing autonomy as opposed to other values one might be concerned that one’s child (eventually) appreciate/realize. For example, I regret that choices of my parents closed the future of violin virtuouso to me but not because I presume I had some “right to an open future.” I couldn’t care less that they likewise closed the future of star accountant to me. The difference turns on thoughts about what is more or less worthwhile in a life. Moreover, I fail to see why we should so easily suppose that the goods of childhood are incommensurable with the goods of adult life. They most often appear so, it seems to me, on some impoverished conventional views of what constitutes a “happy childhood” and a “successful” adult life. My own daughter may someday lament that her parents never took her to Disneyland, made her play outside instead of vegetate in front of a TV or computer, and made her compost her garbage. (The five-year-old already complains that the neighbors have softer – unrecycled – toilet paper.) That we thereby ill-equipped her for a “successful” adult American life is not a complaint I’m worrying about. If one prefers to talk about rights in this domain, then it seems to me that a child has a right to be brought up in a way that equips her to live a good life and that parents have the corresponding duty to inculcate in their charges the traits of character necessary (if not sufficient) to ensure that they are capable of such a life. Such an upbringing may close as many futures as it opens. Unless one is unwilling to concede that some lives are more worthwhile than others, or is wed to some silly existentialist fantasy of the adult choosing his/her life, one should have no problem with that.

  4. Michelle,
    I agree with you up to a point. Certainly I agree that an entirely open future is not possible, and that it is a mistake to try to use ‘open-ness’ as a substitute for thinking about the goodness of lives. But isn’t there still something significant to be said for leaving children’s futures as open as possible, at least within the limits set by such thinking about the good? After all there are many possible lives that might be justified as good, and we can’t know, in the early stages of our children’s lives, which they might eventually choose. So it seems to me that there is a strong reason to leave their futures as open as possible—though this reason must be weighed against other reasons arising from the claims of others, their own present happiness, etc.
    Samantha,
    I’m intrigued by and sympathetic to the idea that there are goods particular to childhood. Some of these goods, I would suggest, have to do with the potential of children to live lives uncorrupted by market considerations. Children shouldn’t have to worry about how to fund their material comfort and security, for instance. This may seem obvious, but more and more parents are allowing themselves to become convinced that the goal of “producing mature and competent adult . . . decision makers” implies that it is a good thing that children begin to develop, very early on, habits perceived as useful for later, consumerism-oriented lives.
    So, it is thought, children should have checkbooks to balance, and credit cards; and they should be encouraged to approach every life decision as if it were a shopping decision—i.e. a choice between various commensurable goods, each with its own costs and benefits. Whatever you might think of the adequacy of this ‘shopping’ model for adult decision-making, it seems terribly misguided when applied to pre-teens, and perhaps early teenagers as well.
    I’m also intrigued in a more general way because the issue connects with some thinking I’ve been doing lately about weakness of will. Specifically, the confidence many people have that there is even such a thing as weakness of will seems to depend, in part, on the idea that one’s later judgments of value are somehow authoritative over earlier judgments. Thus some people offer, as an example of a paradigm case of weakness of will, a case in which a person chooses to do something she knows she will later regret. But why assume that the later time-slice’s regret takes precedence over the earlier slice’s judgment that this is the right thing to do? If you don’t assume that, then the earlier slice’s decision is not automatically irrational, and so doesn’t count as a case of weakness of will; nor do we need philosophical gymnastics to explain how one might knowingly make such a decision.

  5. Samantha,
    You are right that “there is a danger in focusing too much on the future and neglecting the goods of childhood”, except one does not have to believe that there are goods that are unique to childhood to think that. When it comes to the question of what choices is it rational for an adult to make for herself, the balance of immediate harms or benefits versus future harms or benefits (especially if they are quite distant) can be difficult. But there certainly is no question that both now and later should count for something, even if it is not clear how much they should count.
    For children the same kind of question can arise. Yes, a child might prefer to play all day to going to school, but it seems right to say that this is a case where one’s future well being trumps the present, and so the rational decision is to go to school. And since the child cannot always be expected to grasp this, it is reasonable to require kids to go to school even if they say they would rather not go.
    But when it comes to things like sports, it seems much more reasonable to take the child’s current wants more seriously. If playing many sports makes one child happy now while specializing in just one sport is what another child wants now, then complex calculations of what might make these people happiest as adults might be quite beside the point. But one does not have to think there is a special or different good of childhood to reach this conclusion.
    The idea that children’s rights are justified in terms of the adult persons that the children may become can be a dangerous way of thinking. Too much focus on the adult that children will become can lead to either trumping a child’s expressed wishes or otherwise depriving them of immediate enjoyments based on a “you’ll thank me for this later” rationale.
    Woody Allen once said, “You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.” He’s right. Too much emphasis on future well being can make for a life less happy than it should be. Similarly, too much emphasis on the adult that children will become can make for a childhood less happy than it should be. While finding the right balance is not easy, the question should be seen more as one of trying to balance present and future than as primarily one that looks to the future.

  6. Troy,
    At the risk of taking this thread in a different direction, does not weakness of will depend on a distinction between first-order and second-order desires? In which case it is not simply an issue of temporal priority but whether or not the later judgment reflects the second-order desire, one that, say, owing to its cooler, less passionate orientation, is closer to the ‘self’ we imagine or want ourselves to be (i.e., we don’t identify with the person who acted in the grip of anger but the person who looks back with regret and corresponding wish or resolve not to act that way in the future). A kind of self-deception (after Fingarette’s account) may be at work here insofar as one does not keep before one’s mind beliefs about this better or higher self when making a decision one comes later to regret (e.g., when one says, ‘I’ll indulge myself this one last time, next time will mark the beginning of my ‘self-improvement’). [I’m not trained as a philosopher, so I trust you’ll cut me a bit of slack in response.]

  7. I think Troy’s response to Michelle is important. Certainly, however you parent, you’ll close off some futures, and (if you think there are some futures that are more worth having) you should try to guide your child toward becoming someone who is capable of having one of those better futures. But unless you have a very rigid picture of the human good, this still leaves room for the value of keeping a lot open.
    Samantha,
    On the sex education example it seems to me that future directed (adult) values are also frustrated by sex education programs that emphasize abstinence and how to avoid being assulated or abused. This is so because children who learn nothing but the risks and dangers of sex may be less likely to enjoy it (and more likely to feel guilty or shameful about it)later.

  8. Patrick,
    You’re certainly right that there are other ways of trying to argue for the existence of weakness of will. I’m not necessarily convinced that any succeed — but to pursue this here would be to hijack the thread. Maybe in a couple of days, if I’m feeling inspired, I’ll start a new thread on this topic.

  9. Samantha,
    Another example I should suggest is an appreciation of nature, especially through experience; not as a grade school class trip, but individually, or with a friend or two. Sorry if this sounds too late 18th cent and 19th cent style romanticism, but there is something to it. The good of this possibility of wonder – regardless of the ignorance (or if you prefer, innocence) of the children – is valuable on its own. It might not lead to becoming a better adult: some children even revel in the destruction, however small, of nature, and most of those who did experience nature (in develeped countries) nevertheless adopted a wasteful consumerist lifestyle anyways.

  10. Samantha,
    Perhaps the example of religion may help focus the question about whether the rights of children are (or should be) based on future-oriented considerations. What rights do children have in regard to religious expression and experience? If a child rejects the parents’ religion or chooses another, should parents be allowed to impose a particular a religious identity and accompanying practices? What would be the justification for doing this–would it invoke the goods of childhood (growing up in a context with clear values, security, authority, celebration) or the preparation for adulthood (future ability to function in a community, develop moral and social conscience for adult life, knowledge of one’s cultural ancestry, etc.)?

  11. Troy and Valerie,
    You’re both right, of course, that there is something to be said in favor of leaving a child’s future open in some respects. I like Troy’s formulation that such openness is desirable “at least within the limits set by such thinking about the good.” But if we find the limitation compelling, then it seems odd (to me at least) to speak of a child’s right to an open future. Why not speak instead of a child’s right to a good future, or a meaningful future, or a worthwhile future? To be sure, there are many possible good, meaningful, worthwhile, futures. But even here I would hesitate to speak of a child’s right to a future open with respect to the full range of them. Those inclined to disagree might consider the worry that their view has the consequence that such a child’s right would be met with parents who, in discharging their corresponding duty, ruin their child’s childhood(!)by raising a polymorph. As I see it, a parent’s duty necessarily involves shaping the child’s character so that she comes to possess the virtues necessary for a good life and requires attentiveness to the emerging talents, strengths, and interests whose cultivation is compatible with those virtues. The resulting young adult will face not an open future but some among the range of good ones. When that transpires, she will have no legitimate complaint that those who raised her violated some right to an open future.

  12. For those of you who mentioned play and the outdoors as part of the goods of childhood, you’ll be as appalled as I am about the amount of time children spend in structured and supervised activities. Fear of stranger abduction, about as common as lightening strikes, has now pushed some schools in the US to ban children biking to school. There is a great column by LJ Williamson in the LA Times, http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-williamson29mar29,1,7336979.story?ctrack=2&cset=true, on this theme.

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