July 2, 2020   5 mins

If you’re wondering why we aren’t hearing more complaints from the boomers about the spread of social justice activism from the campus to the world, don’t. The generation hitting the streets are doing exactly what those parents raised them to do: dismantle authority while embracing authoritarianism. But it’s making them miserable.

The story dates back some years. In 1517, the German monk Martin Luther is said to have nailed his ’95 Theses’ to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. Among the arguments in this document, one of the foundational texts of Protestant Christianity, was the claim that the faithful don’t need tradition, custom or religious authorities to access the word of God, as it’s all there in the Bible.

This signalled a turning away from the general belief that you should rely on kings, priests or other human, worldly authority figures to tell you what was right. Don’t submit to them, Luther argued, read the biblical texts.

Some five centuries on, this anti-authority revolution has gone well beyond Christianity. Today it is hard to think of a mainstream cultural or institutional arena where it’s not generally accepted that authority and tradition should be questioned, challenged and if possible superseded.

First as Nonconformists and then as general non-conformists, we’ve moved beyond questioning the authority of the Catholic church to questioning the Christian church full stop. Having run out of priests and doctrines there, we’ve moved on to questioning everything from history, teachers and Boy Scouts to fathers, and all that lies in between. The aim has evolved somewhat; whereas Luther was concerned with what he saw as a more authentic faith, today we’re agitating for freedom from anything that hasn’t been freely chosen. One Mumbai antinatalist, Raphael Simons, even proposed suing his parents for having him without his consent.

This collapse of faith in authority poses a particular challenge to liberal parents. One Washington Post writer frames it: “I’m A Die-Hard Liberal. It Ruined My Parenting.” If you believe all humans are (or should be) as free as possible, then how does that apply to children? When children are neither fully rational nor capable of full independence, how does the doctrine of human freedom apply?

For one thing, liberal views make it harder to order your kids about. According to Pew Research, the more liberal parents are, the less emphasis they place on obedience in their children. Only 35% of consistently liberal American parents believe in teaching their kids obedience, compared to 68% of consistently conservative parents. Anyone who believes passionately in freedom for everyone will struggle with the prospect of telling your children to do as they’re told ‘because I said so’.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. Even the most right-on anti-authoritarian will drop the metaphysics and do Commanding Mummy Voice when a toddler runs into the path of an oncoming bus. But for those truly committed to the enterprise of freedom, a whole subculture of ‘child-led’ parenting practices has grown up. It’s full of advice to mothers on how to remain available so your child can breastfeed whenever he likes, stop breastfeeding at her own initiative rather than mummy’s, offer a range of weaning food for free choice rather than mush on a spoon, sleep in your bed for as long as they like and so on.

At the radical end of this child-led style lies ‘unschooling’, which takes the view that the structures of education themselves constitute an unacceptable impingement on a child’s autonomy, and that education is better and more effectively pursued by supporting the child to follow their own interests. Such approaches are common targets of conservative ire: the Daily Mail loves to make a spectacle of parents who devote themselves to their children’s absolute freedom, or inveigh at liberal parents raising a generation of ‘little horrors’.

What’s often missing from this critique, though, is the fact that this focus on freedom doesn’t in fact remove parents from the picture. Quite the opposite. ‘Child-led’ parenting is labour-intensive. I have mum friends who spend hours singing, back-rubbing or breastfeeding their pre-schoolers every night, because in their view imposing a bedtime boundary on their kids was in some profound way morally wrong. It’s also time-consuming: I remember once watching in bafflement as one especially anti-authoritarian friend waited patiently for her 18-month-old baby to put her arms voluntarily into a bib before starting tea. (It took a while.)

The upshot of this is a child who can’t easily be raised by a village. If parenting is a matter of being constantly present and attuned to your child’s needs, and following their lead at all times, then how can a mother ever be elsewhere, or doing anything else?

In effect, then, the shadow side of freedom-focused child-rearing is micromanagement. In this, unschoolers share an affinity with another contemporary parenting approach more commonly associated with micromanagement: ‘helicopter parents’. Unschoolers and helicopter parents are both, are in different ways, inheritors of Luther’s tradition: the former fixated on freedom, the latter on salvation through applying the Protestant work ethic, and both pursuing their aims through a pervasive presence in their kids’ lives. In both cases, too, we see an abdication of authority, in favour either of radical libertarianism or a kind of cuddly, enmeshed totalitarianism.

Parents are thus echoing in family life what’s going on in the wider culture. Our individualising and privatising of family life echoes a parallel collapse of social norms, institutions and shared values under the modern questioning of authority. And as Patrick Deneen has argued, the fewer shared social norms we have, the more the state must intervene to ensure order and social harmony. In the state, as in the nursery, freedom and tyranny are two sides of the same coin.

The standard conservative harrumph about kids today, whether at home or rioting in the streets, is that they should just be made to do as they’re told. But in practice, at least as a parent, it doesn’t really work like this. Evidence suggests that punitively authoritarian parenting is associated with bad behaviour and psychological difficulties in children, something echoed recently by Met police chief Cressida Dick to much Right-wing anger.

The more nurturing ‘helicopter’ style of absolutist parenting doesn’t fare much better, with children raised by helicopter parents showing trouble controlling their emotions in childhood and early adolescence. Nor does this resolve when they grow up, with one study showed such children struggle to self-regulate as adults. They also lack confidence in their own agency – that is, their ability to affect their lives or environments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, having grown accustomed to intrusive and ever-present authority in family life, helicopter-parented young adults also express higher than usual support for surveillance and nanny-state policies.

Others have drawn a link between social-justice discourse of ‘safety’ and ‘harm’ and risk-averse, highly involved modern approaches to raising kids. But unlike Jonathan Haidt, I’m unconvinced that a front-brain, rationalist solution is the answer when the heart of the problem isn’t a rational one.

I’ve long since learned that when my three-year-old is crying uncontrollably, the quickest and kindest solution is not to offer choices, reasoning or punishment but a big hug and confident authority. When I trained and practiced as a psychotherapist, my experience was that this human yearning for kindness mixed with authority isn’t exclusive to children. It wasn’t unusual to meet a client who would try to bend the ‘rules’, test limits, sometimes get very angry at me — only to acknowledge some time later the relief they found in neither succeeding nor being punished for testing boundaries. But if all someone encounters when pushing back is empty space, they will push still harder, and with growing fear.

Mixed with the real-world conditions driving today’s increasingly mutinous politics, I see young adults behaving exactly as they were raised to behave, having grown up amid the endgame of our rebellion against authority. Dysregulated activists screaming at authority figures, as though begging a parent to relent. Debates about ‘systemic’ oppression that none of us can fix (because we have no control over anything in our lives), but which must be tackled by authoritarian means anyway. A politics of harm and safety. It leaves me wondering just how much fear and distress lies under relentless search for a boundary, any boundary, that might offer some resistance.

It also leaves me deeply pessimistic about the future. Because while I can contain my own young daughter’s distress with a mix of love and appropriate authority, no institution now exists with the public support to make an equivalent intervention in our public life. We’ve devoted some five centuries of progressive politics to dismantling all the structures that might be capable of doing so. It’s far from clear what comes next.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.