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The lunacy of Child Liberation My feral delinquents don't deserve rights

'Children are maniacs.' Marni Henderson/PYMCA/Avalon/Getty Images

'Children are maniacs.' Marni Henderson/PYMCA/Avalon/Getty Images


May 1, 2024   5 mins

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, Mania, starts from the wild and wacky premise of a world in which “the last civil rights battle” is being fought against discrimination on the grounds of intelligence, and the “s-word” is as taboo there as the n-word is in our own.

Good old Lionel, hitting on the sort of woke nonsense you couldn’t make up. But, hold up, what’s this? The real world has decided to compete. It has just been announced in the Bookseller that a female academic is publishing a book calling for the emancipation of the last class of people it’s still okay to oppress: children.

Allen Lane — one of our most prestigious publishers, by the way — boasts of acquiring a book by the philosopher Lorna Finlayson called Child Liberation: The Oppression of Children and the Case for Change. But this isn’t a put-on. In the words of its acquiring editor, it “reminds us that children are subject to legal and social discrimination, denied basic freedoms of movement and speech, and disproportionately likely to be in poverty and subjected to violence”.

But, but, but (you may think) aren’t some of those restrictions intended to reduce their chance of being subjected to violence? Aren’t things like, say, requiring children to go to school intended to reduce their chance of poverty? Apparently that’s not how the author sees it.

Dr Finlayson complains that nobody takes the idea of child lib seriously. “I think we have a bit of a collective mental block about childhood […] even within politically radical circles. If the idea of child liberation comes up at all, it’s reduced to caricature and summarily dismissed.”

Well there’s a tempting invitation if even I heard one: reducing the idea to caricature and summarily dismissing it is exactly what seems appropriate, not least because the book’s ahead-of-publication hype machine is reducing it to caricature already.

We can recognise that our ideas about what constitutes the span of childhood are culturally contingent and historically determined. We can recognise that there’s no natural or immutable law that tells us how we should police and protect children, or that tells us at what age they should be allowed to smoke, drink, take international flights and make whoopee. But to argue categorically — as the puffery for this book unequivocally seems to — that we should “break the consensus that children’s lives are not their own” is eye-catching but bananas.

I don’t know if Dr Finlayson has any children, or has even met any children, but if she has, they are clearly out of the usual line. Children, in my experience as the parent of a 14-year-old, a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old, are not to be trusted with implements any sharper than a butter knife — let alone a vote, bodily autonomy or the decision as to whether they should go to school.

“Basic freedoms of movement and speech”? Any radical progressive in favour of giving children more freedom of speech than they already have will get a nasty surprise if they check out what teenagers say to each-other on their class WhatsApp groups. The last time I gave my 12-year-old freedom of movement, he left his guitar lesson, climbed on the W3 bus instead of the 144 and my co-oppressor, his mum, had to miss her Thursday football game to go and rescue him from the far side of Alexandra Palace.

Children are maniacs. Left in charge of their own lives, they will subsist entirely on Lotus Biscoff Spread eaten from the jar with a dessert spoon. They are excellently good at losing things, breaking things, and setting things on fire. Given a free choice as to how to spend their days, they would play Rocket League on the PS5 or browse early Nineties indie songs on Spotify until their eyeballs fell out. Were we to take seriously the notion that children should be put in charge of their own destinies, I feel confident we could reverse the goods of western civilisation, patiently accumulated over millennia, in a generation or two.

An “oppressed group”? Sure, my 14-year-old will regularly make clear that she feels oppressed by the way that the boss-class, ie me, occasionally asks her to do her homework, stop looking at her phone, go to bed on time, leave for school before midday, empty the dishwasher or wave even a cursory hello to members of her extended family when they come to visit. By the orthodoxies of identity politics — in which her “lived experience” is sovereign and it is your task to listen humbly and “educate yourself” — you could construct the case that she is indeed oppressed. But it is not oppression as the medieval Russian serf, the plantation slave or the employee in a Chinese iPhone factory will tend to recognise the term.

Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that the feral delinquency of my own children and all the children I have ever met may be a symptom of living under the normative yoke of late capitalism. Let us suppose that, were they only freed from the crypto-fascist structure of the nuclear family, the little brutes would at once become public-spirited, communistic, outward-looking, self-directed and responsible: pint-sized versions of the “organic intellectuals” mid-century Marxists dreamed of springing up in the proletariat like mushrooms after rain.

Nevertheless, it bears noting that the state of childhood autonomy for which Dr Finlayson appears to campaign — a state in which age discrimination is cast off, and children enjoy the freedoms and responsibilities of adults — isn’t a glorious and untried future. It’s an inglorious and well-tried past.

Childhood itself — at least as we conceive it now, of a period between toddlerhood and early adolescence associated with play and education and (thank you, the Romantics) “innocence” — is an invention of the early modern period. Until relatively recently, in historical terms, children were to all intents and purposes treated as tallness-challenged apprentice grown-ups. The strong version of this case — the historian Philippe Aries’s flamboyant declaration in Centuries of Childhood (1962) that “in medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist” — has been largely discredited. But the weak version is unarguable.

“There’s a whole two-century long, hard-fought history of campaigning to remove rights from children, and personally I’m all for it.” 

Daniel Defoe, touring the UK in the early 18th century, reported approvingly from Norfolk that “the very children after four or five years of age, could every one earn their own bread”.  It was only after decades of campaigning through that century and right up towards the end of the 19th century in this country that laws were passed to protect — sorry, oppress — such children.

Writing in 1818, Samuel Taylor Coleridge took aim at the “free labour” of children (the term given to those child workers who still lived with their parents rather than being formally apprenticed), pointing out sourly that “If the labour were indeed free, the contract would approach, on the one side, too near to suicide, on the other to manslaughter.” Coleridge’s view, gradually, won out. Children were oppressed first by an 1819 Act which prevented children under the age of nine from being employed in cotton mills, and limited working hours for those over nine. They were oppressed again by the 1908 Children Act, which removed their right to the death penalty, their right to visit brothels, their right to buy tobacco and — unkindest cut of all — raised the legal drinking age to five. There’s a whole two-century long, hard-fought history of campaigning to remove rights from children, and personally I’m all for it.

And to state what will perhaps be obvious: no matter how high-minded the philosophical case for Child Liberation, we should be uneasy that there are people who will cheer such a case to the echo for non-philosophical reasons — specifically, those who will find distinctly appealing the idea that a liberated child will be capable of consenting to sex with adults. Nambla (the North American Man/Boy Love Association) and the UK’s now-happily-defunct Paedophile Information Exchange — both of which surfed the wave of contemporaneous late-20th-century liberation movements — were very keen on respecting the rights of children to express their sexuality freely.

I don’t for a second suggest that this is the agenda that Dr Finlayson is pushing, but it should give us — and in my view should have given her publishers — serious pause. Not all radicalism is a good idea just because it’s radical, and it’s possible to construct a theoretical position that’s very clever but doesn’t have a lick of sense. Perhaps the book itself will prove more sensible and more subtle than its hype, but from this far off it sounds just a tiny bit s-word.


Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.
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Lindsay S
Lindsay S
14 days ago

My grandfather left school at the age of 12, like many children of his generation. He got a job as a butcher’s apprentice so he could supplement his parents income and help feed his siblings. He could read and write. He joined the war effort and on his return he managed to set up his own shop and support his wife and children.
I think there are arguments on both side. When we over protect, children don’t get the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and will continue to make poor choices. They’re also more inclined to rebel. Too much freedom can also be overwhelming and exploited by undesirables. Finding a balance is key.
I also think young people need to understand that you don’t age into freedom, you age into responsibility. That nugget of wisdom seems to fly straight over their head. Hard lessons to learn and they don’t benefit from being protected from it or being bailed out of it.

William Jackson
William Jackson
13 days ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

I think there is something missing in your post. I left school aged 15 with no qualifications, since then, amongst other things, I have run two businesses, gained a Maters Degree in Education, worked within the NHS, and I will have been married for 45 years this coming September. No qualifications, but an extremely keen sense of responsibility, of respect, of honour, of duty to society and family, much as your Grandfather would have done. Responsibilities come before rights, infact to my mind responsibilities come before all else, again much as your Grandfather demonstrated. Question, how many in today’s infantilised society would grasp what I am alluding to, let alone adhere to the required discipline?

Peter D
Peter D
13 days ago

Since the left has done away with responsibility and replaced it with rights, this return to a period where you could begin an apprenticeship at 12 plus help provide for the family is just not possible today. I have a 13 year old who is very family minded (probably because she is an only child) but she would spend her money on herself first and foremost.
The left has also targeted more rights for youth because the youth are the one naive and idealistic enough to fall for their nonsense. As we get older, it is only the stupid who are left behind. The left is the utopia of perfect behaviour and empathy for all things. The right is the reality of personal responsibility that for better or worse actually works. But time and experience is the only teacher of this reality.

P.S. Sam is right about how school kids treat each other, and their circle of friends it is even worse. Slay!!!!

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
13 days ago

When the Left talks about liberating children it just means “liberating” them from their parents as the state takes over raising them. Thus they can be marinated from birth in the “correct” political views without the interference of parents – a pilot program of which we’re already seeing in public schools.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 days ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

Yep. That’s it. This isn’t about kids or their welfare at all. It’s just the opening salvo in the next phase of the war between the totalitarian state and the only thing that still stands in its way: the family.

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
12 days ago

Oh boy, another day, another wholly gratuitous reference to the “happily now defunct” Paedophile Infornation Exchange. As if at the last moment the author is hastily presenting his bona fides, just to, you know, make sure ‘nobody gets the wrong idea’.

I would like to ask the Unherd commentariat: how many of you have actually bothered to read Tom O’Carroll’s “Paedophilia: The Radical Case”, and discovered just what a thought-stimulating work it really is, very far from contributing to any suffocating *ideology* by which a person might crystallize that precious thing they call their mind?

Does anyone here care to seriously examine our long crystallized discourse on children, and just what it has cost us – since say, the early 1970s – to maintain and reinforce that? Does anyone care what really happens when “the child” is conceived in terms not of what it is, or indeed might be, but in terms of what it is NOT? To wit, not any of those manifold nasty things that oh so mysteriously come to comprise an adult, now doomed to gaze helplessly back across the abyss at that other species it allegedly once was – a “child”?

Does anyone care to examine the utterly inextricable relationship of taboo to the generativity of desire, and how forbidding so much as the first suggestion of speaking the child and sexuality in the same breath has created a subliminal Fort Knox of erotic capital throughout the W E I R D nations that is nonethelss exploited daily in a host of different, mostly maximally coy, devious and hypocritical ways?

Is this truly the best we can ever do?

Samantha Stevens
Samantha Stevens
2 days ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

I am a survivor of CSA. Your comment reeks of mealy attempts at justification. There is none. If someone has such “desire” for whatever reason, the only decent thing to do is seek help, and very intentionally stay away from children. Not write books that attempt to explain, mitigate, dilute, or lay blame elsewhere.

William Brand
William Brand
11 days ago

When I grew up (I am 75) children were able to free range about town and play outside within walking distance. The latchkey child was everywhere. The next generation does not allow a child to walk to school for fear of being attacked by pedophiles. Parents who allow this are often visited by the police. Children need to be granted more freedom. They also need to be spanked when they mess up.

Samantha Stevens
Samantha Stevens
2 days ago
Reply to  William Brand

Yeah, no. I was free. I was abused. It scarred me forever. Spanking just makes kids feel humiliated and angry.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
14 days ago

Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that the feral delinquency of my own children and all the children I have ever met may be a symptom of living under the normative yoke of late capitalism.
Does not the child live in a state of natural communism?: “From him according to his ability (which is negligible), to him according to his needs (which are infinite).” Hence also the Two-Year-Old’s Catechism: “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is also mine.”

Sylvia Volk
Sylvia Volk
14 days ago

That is also my cat’s catechism.

alan jones
alan jones
14 days ago
Reply to  Sylvia Volk

My Labrador’s also.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
13 days ago

So that’s where the Palestinians got this idea from!

R Wright
R Wright
14 days ago

Dr Finlayson should, as the article suggests, rightfully be seen as a useful idiot for the interests of so-called ‘minor attracted persons’. Just another front on the slippery slope.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
13 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

This isn’t about Minor Attracted Persons, but about Adult Attracted Minors (https://www.newgon.net/wiki/Adult_Attracted_Minor). Please keep up /s. This is about children’s rights and the state’s mandate to enforce them.

Simon James
Simon James
14 days ago

For children to be liberated in this way you don’t need to grant them anything they don’t already have, you just need to undermine the authority of those adults who say ‘no’ to them. That’s a work in progress.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 days ago
Reply to  Simon James

This is clearly going to be the next phase in the war between the state and the family.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
14 days ago

I’ve got an idea for a nickname that could be applied to Dr Finlayson:

“Lady of the Flies”

[courtesy of William Golding]

John Tyler
John Tyler
13 days ago

Sam will be the first one in front of the firing squad when children are finally liberated. Oh!and of course there will be world peace.

Douglas H
Douglas H
13 days ago

Just go and read Lord of The Flies.

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
13 days ago
Reply to  Douglas H

The Lord of the Flies is fiction, but The Tongan Castaways are real: a true story. 6 boys who irresponsibility stole a fishing skiff to have an adventure but ran into a storm and were cast adrift on the deserted island of Ata without food, water or other provisions. They were considered dead by their families for the 15 months they survived on the rocky atoll. During that time the Tongalese boys cooperated and helped each other, built a garden, a gym, fished and shared all their fare. They were also school boys ages 13 to 16 like the Lord of the flies boys, but their attitude was one of cooperation and support while the English boys conduct was competition and aggression. Two different cultures, two different ways of treating each other.
The Tongan Castaways childishly did little planning for their trip and were lucky that they didn’t drown the first day, but their support for each other kept then alive and healthy for over a year until they were finally rescued. So let’s not be too hasty in our opinion of the little savages – some are obviously more savage than the others.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
13 days ago

Has she never read lord of the flies?
Liberating undeveloped human progeny from being reared, may create more problems than it solves.
Even animals have a period of raising young to maturity so they stand the best chance of survival.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
13 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Rearing them to maturity is where a lot of parents are struggling today. Coddled with more apron strings than necessary and parents who can’t trust their offspring enough to cut the apron strings. If you can’t trust your children then you don’t trust yourself with the job of raising them. Probably shouldn’t have had any in the first place.

Robert Paul
Robert Paul
13 days ago

This is really, really funny and makes a really, really serious point. Thanks.

Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper
13 days ago

Reading through Ms. Finlayson’s CV, I think it’s safe to say she writes about children using a theoretical lens.
In typical Marxist fashion, everything looks like a nail so her preferred tool is a hammer.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
13 days ago

This is not all that new. I suggest you Google Miriam Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund, one of Hillary Clinton’s hobby horses back in the 1990s and whose influence goes back much further. As with so much, what started as a reasonable idea eventually went off the rails. Though, this new book seems likely to plumb new depths.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
13 days ago

My near 7 year old has brought up this lack of liberation before… I’m proud this year that he’s taken a great interest in local elections after we’ve talked many times about those who are free and have ‘votes’ vs those that don’t (Russia/Ukraine and Vladimir Putin feature heavily in these conversations, along with WW2).

Cleverly he’s cottoned on to the fact that he doesn’t have full rights yet and that his mother and I tell him what to do. The answer is always the same: “we tell you what to do in order to teach you to be a good person when you are older, and you will get more rights the older you get until 18. But for now…it’s a dictatorship not a democracy!”

Great article, some people pursue ideas cause they think it makes them look clever and don’t stop to think if the idea is actually clever

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
13 days ago

Ivan Fyodorovich said (he was speaking to the Devil, mind you) that children, up to the age of seven maybe, are entirely different kinds of beings, unlike adults in the decisive respect, for they did not eat the apple and thus are not guilty of anything. Shakespeare put his finger on it too, in the Winter’s Tale, when he had Polixenes say of himself and his friend, when they were lads, “we knew not the doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed that any did. Had we not been reared with hotter blood, we should declare ourselves not guilty, hereditary ours, imposition cleared.” (Sorry if the citation is not exactly correct). The “imposition” of course is original sin.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
13 days ago

Children’s liberation and polyamory on the same day. Kultura day at Unherd.

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
13 days ago

Given the gender wars, there’s a strong possibility that the “age of consent” is being pushed downwards. That university age kids are demanding safe spaces and nurturing at the same time, should give us all pause. These are all intellectual exercises by the academic elites. What’s up with that? Again, my guess is there are bad ideas aplenty, and suspicion is definitely warranted. Man v Nature battles that fly in the face of common sense and long term tradition, are usually agenda based. Any thoughts? Have we not seen enough child manipulation and tragedy in the last decade?

A J
A J
13 days ago

I guess she’s never read Lord of the Flies.

In the absence of adults, children oppress one another. Witness: any school playground.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
13 days ago

‘Were we to take seriously the notion that children should be put in charge of their own destinies, I feel confident we could reverse the goods of western civilisation, patiently accumulated over millennia, in a generation or two’

Exactly. Anyone who thinks child lib is a wonderful idea needs to read Lord of the Flies.
Having worked with young people in the care system, I saw the damage inflicted on those children who grew up without rules or boundaries because their parents were engaged in a long term love affair with alcohol, drugs or just sheer laziness – and the damage that the children grew up to inflict on others. .

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
13 days ago

Lol. These are people with literally one idea in their heads — increasing the purview of human “freedom”, to the detriment of any existing standards, norms, or anything that could roughly be described as ‘tradition’ — which they are willing to take well past the limits of absurdity.
Maybe the book is intentionally meant as a reductio ad absurdum satire of current progressivism tho.

Robert White
Robert White
13 days ago

The great Kurt Vonnegut foresaw everything, apart from the Lotus Biscoff spread problem, in 1961, in his short story Harrison Bergeron.

Phillip De Vous
Phillip De Vous
13 days ago

We have more than enough experience with these kinds of books and these kinds of thinkers that it is the darkest things we could imagine coming from the ideas presented that are the author’s real intent. The thing is never about the thing it’s always about the other thing…. The other thing is what they’re really on about, but don’t have the courage to argue for it explicitly, yet.

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
13 days ago

I am left wondering if Dr. Finlayson has any children. And if she has, I would enjoy their thoughts on their mum and what other adults think about them. Child/Adult is an extremely complicated and delicate balance between rights and responsibility and deserves serious thought and analysis, as it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. However, this is pure pretentious BS that is just meant for clickbait. Just another greedy hack and publisher. Look at the bright side, it can always be used to line the bottom of the birdcage.

Howard Clegg
Howard Clegg
13 days ago

Perhaps the book is an elaborate joke. Or just post-modern playfulness. How sweet!

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
13 days ago

Can we at least concede that it’s pretty nonsensical that you have to be twenty-five to rent a car? I don’t know where that came from but I’m pretty sure no government came up with it. If one is looking for oppression, I submit that one could find a great deal more exploitative and oppressive ideas and attitudes towards children and every other conceivable group in the policies and day to day operations of international corporations than in parents and schoolmarms. Makes sense that corporations love child liberation. They already go to great lengths to build their factories in places where labor is cheapest and child labor often acceptable. Why not ‘liberate’ native children to join the workforce as well. Would give CEO’s more options in a multipolar world. Sometimes I wonder how much of the nonsense about oppression social justice is just performative distraction so we won’t notice big business making serfs of us all.

D M
D M
13 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

The difficulty in renting a car under the age of 25 is purely down to the actuary tables and statistics of accidents in younger drivers, no mystery/nonsense required.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
12 days ago
Reply to  D M

17 year olds make terrible drivers, who knew?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
13 days ago

Ha! Thank you for this funny takedown of Children’s Liberation.

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
13 days ago

Quote “Dr Finlayson complains that nobody takes the idea of child lib seriously.” Yes, the only people I’ve heard of pushing ‘child Liberation’ are pedophiles and their sympathizers under the guise of “lowering the age of consent.” People like Peter Tatchell, Edmund White, NAMBLE, and the U.N.s former ILGBT group which included pedophiles as an oppressed minority. But far from liberating children their goal is to legally subject children to the sexual urges of adults. Would she abolish child labor laws as well to free up the kiddies to get their own spending money? Then they could eat gummie bears for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

D M
D M
13 days ago

Not to criticise any other Unherd contributors, this is the first article this year that has not only made a number of serious points but had managed to make me laugh out loud numerous times. More like this please….

John Riordan
John Riordan
11 days ago

“And to state what will perhaps be obvious: no matter how high-minded the philosophical case for Child Liberation, we should be uneasy that there are people who will cheer such a case to the echo for non-philosophical reasons — specifically, those who will find distinctly appealing the idea that a liberated child will be capable of consenting to sex with adults.”

That’s actually not the largest class of people who would welcome such a development – though it is easily the most repugnant, of course.

The largest class of people will be the ideologues who seek to supplant parental power within families, replacing it with state authority. This agenda has existed now for many years, with one-way transfer of power from the institution that is the nuclear family to the state in many forms: social services, family law and the divorce courts, the increasing list of things that doctors and teachers are permitted to conceal about children from parents etc.

I don’t suggest that all these things are necessarily bad of course: there are some families in which children are unsafe and it is right that the state has powers to intervene in such cases, and there are times when a particular child’s nuclear family may simply be economically insufficient for the child’s needs.

However it is also clear that there is an ideological dimension to the relationship between state and family that sees the transfer of power from parents to the government as inherently virtuous. This, needless to say, is insane and indefensible.

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
11 days ago

I remember the 70s and 80s feminists wanted sex with minors using this type of argument.

Stuart Bennett
Stuart Bennett
13 days ago

Sounds like another progressive spoke in the wheel of the argument for adults to be allowed to f*** children. Sorry, I meant to say, a plea for kindness and understanding to facilitate the lifting of the oppression suffered by Minor Attracted Persons.

Gayle Buhler
Gayle Buhler
13 days ago
Reply to  Stuart Bennett

Exactly.

Kate Boswell
Kate Boswell
4 days ago

Reading this article, I variously scoffed, visualized removing my 6-year-old son (also feral) to a cabin in the deep wood, considered that this is a frog-in-the-frying-pan ruse to normalize paeodophilia as mentioned, and then thought about Jonathan Swift.
That a child might have the right to consent to sexual activity (and, of course, to make morally neutral decisions like where they want to live) is a phrase that has no truth value, so one hardly knows where to begin. One of the most valuable books I think I’ve ever read was called Animal Rights and Moral Philosophy by Julian Franklin; it was my first encounter with the terms ‘moral agent’ and ‘moral patient’. Leaving animal rights aside for the moment, the ‘moral patient’ idea is spot-on and very handy when arguing the case for loving common sense where it concerns children, profoundly disabled people, and–and this is important–adults in temporary states of unaccountable behavior, like manic psychosis. When a moral patient is granted moral agency, we get things like the Anna Stubblefield case, and I don’t have the emotional fortitude to extrapolate from there.