The Power of Adults Over Children: Oppressive or Liberative?

At the recommendation of the wonderful Christy Sims, I recently read Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s seminal book, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. I have previously written a synopsis of Isasi-Diaz’s mujerista theology as well as a comparative analysis between her approach to biblical hermeneutics and the hermeneutics of my alma mater, Gutenberg College.

One particular section stood out to me due to the parallels it immediately conjured up between oppressor/oppressed dynamics and adult/child dynamics. I want to be clear up front that I am not ready to draw an equal parallel between these two sets of dynamics. That is, I am not making the claim that the inherent relationship between a child and an adult is the relationship between an oppressed person and an oppressive person. Honestly, I am still developing my thoughts on that subject.

Certainly, some people do believe that adultism — the systematic discrimination and marginalization of children by adults — is comparable to other systems of discrimination and marginalization such as racism. And just as James H. Cone has said about racism that “all white men are responsible for white oppression” (Black Theology and Black Power, p. 24), so too some child advocates believe that all adults as adults are responsible for child oppression. Other child advocates would disagree with this.

My point here is simply that I am still working through my own thoughts on this matter. So the following thought experiment — in which I draw out potential implications of children being inherently oppressed and adults being inherently oppressive — is just that: a thought experiment. I think it is immensely fruitful, though, regardless of whether one agrees or not with the underlying assumption.

This thought experiment is inspired by the following section from Isasi-Diaz’s Mujerista Theology. The section is from pages 119-20 of that book:

Power…has to be understood both as a personal and as a structural process that can be used for oppression or liberation. Oppressive power uses force, coercion, and/or influence to control, to limit, the self-determination and decision-making of individual persons or groups of persons. Liberative power is used to transform oppressive situations, situations of domination. In a liberative use of power a dominant agent exercises power over a subordinate agent for the latter’s benefit. However, the dominant agent’s aim is not simply to act for the benefit of the subordinate agent; rather the dominant agent attempts to exercise his power in such a way that the subordinate agent learns certain skills that undercut the power differential between her and the dominant agent. The liberative use of power is a use of power that seeks to bring about its own obsolescence by means of the empowerment of the subordinate.

Two points need to be clarified here. First, in a liberative use of power, the learning of skills by the subordinate agent is a matter of taking power, of becoming self-defining and self-actualizing. It is precisely because of this that the power of the dominant agent becomes obsolescent, non-operative. Second, the word “empowerment” can indeed be read to mean that power is given, not taken. My contention here is that liberative power is exercised within the context of a relationship, of a give-and-take between dominant and subordinate agent in which not all the giving is done by the dominant and not all the taking by the subordinate but in which both agents give and take. It is my contention that the kind of relationship needed for the development of a relationship — for the presence of liberative power — has to be one of solidarity between those who have power and those who are powerless.

The process of solidarity, like the process of power and of justice, starts with the cry of the oppressed, with the oppressor listening intently to what the oppressed have to say. This listening requires and at the same time results in vulnerability on the part of the powerful, an attitude that will lead them to understand how they benefit from oppressive structures and how they contribute to the oppression of those whose cries are awakening them to their own injustice. This is all part of a process of conversion that results in the oppressor being in solidarity with the oppressed, in using his/her privileges to undo oppressive structures. The oppressor has now become “friend” and has to establish a dialogic relationship — a relationship of mutuality — with the oppressed. It is within this relationship of mutuality that both the dominant and the subordinate agents empower each other, that liberative power is exercised.

For my thought experiment, I will now substitute the words “oppressor” and “dominant agent” with “parent,” the words “oppressed” and “subordinate agent” with child, and occasionally the word “oppressive” with “adultist,” with the purpose of exploring the ramifications thereof:

Power…has to be understood both as a personal and as a structural process that can be used for oppression or liberation. Oppressive power uses force, coercion, and/or influence to control, to limit, the self-determination and decision-making of children. Liberative power is used to transform adultist situations, situations of domination. In a liberative use of power an adult exercises power over a child for the latter’s benefit. However, the adult’s aim is not simply to act for the benefit of the child; rather the adult attempts to exercise his power in such a way that the child learns certain skills that undercut the power differential between her and the adult. The liberative use of power is a use of power that seeks to bring about its own obsolescence by means of the empowerment of the child.

Two points need to be clarified here. First, in a liberative use of power, the learning of skills by the child is a matter of taking power, of becoming self-defining and self-actualizing. It is precisely because of this that the power of the adult becomes obsolescent, non-operative. Second, the word “empowerment” can indeed be read to mean that power is given, not taken. My contention here is that liberative power is exercised within the context of a relationship, of a give-and-take between adult and child in which not all the giving is done by the adult and not all the taking by the child but in which both adult and child give and take. It is my contention that the kind of relationship needed for the development of a relationship — for the presence of liberative power — has to be one of solidarity between adults and children.

The process of solidarity, like the process of power and of justice, starts with the cry of the child, with the adult listening intently to what the child has to say. This listening requires and at the same time results in vulnerability on the part of the adult, an attitude that will lead them to understand how they benefit from adultist structures and how they contribute to the oppression of those children whose cries are awakening them to their own injustice. This is all part of a process of conversion that results in the adult being in solidarity with the child, in using his/her privileges to undo adultist structures. The adult has now become “friend” and has to establish a dialogic relationship — a relationship of mutuality — with the child. It is within this relationship of mutuality that both the adult and the child empower each other, that liberative power is exercised.

I think this passage is teeming with implications when one thinks about the adult/child relationship in terms of oppressor/oppressed and dominant/subordinate. It highlights some crucial power differentials and healthy (versus unhealthy) ways for adults and children to respond to those power differentials. A few initial thoughts are:

First, adults can use their power over children in either oppressive or liberative ways.

That means adults actually need to think about how they are using their power over children. They actually need to think about if the way they’re using power is causing children to flourish or to shrivel up inside. Unlike certain discipline-focused theologies of childhood (I have in mind those theologies of Reb Bradley, Michael Pearl, and Voddie Buacham), the power that an adult has is not inherently good. As power, it is not necessarily the authority of a parent that God speaks to in the Bible. God speaks to an authority that is liberative power over children, not oppressive power. When an adult exercises oppressive power over a child, one could make the argument that the adult ceases to have authority over the child.

Second, adults interested in child liberation should use power in a way that undercuts the power differential between them and children.

Adults should use their power in such a way that the power over children is eliminated. As children become empowered, they can become equalized with adults, such that there is no longer a power over anyone. The goal of parental authority should not be to crush the child’s will and force the child into alignment with the parent’s will. Rather, the goal should be to develop and lift up the child’s will with the child’s well-being in mind.

Third, children taking power from adults has an aim: for children to self-actualize and self-define.

This has implications for ideologies about child raising and discipline.   The liberative empowerment of children means that adults must be willing to — and continually — give up their own ideas and definitions about who and what they want children to be. Adults must give up that power as children take that power. Children, not the adults in their lives, have the right to define themselves.

Fourth, the goal of child liberation is not children reigning tyrannically over adults (in the same way that it fights against adults reigning tyrannically over children). The goal is solidarity.

A common argument made by conservative Christians against more liberal methods of child rearing is that it leads to child tyrants — uncontrollable children who throw tantrums and manipulate their parents into doing whatever they desire. If this is the result of one’s child rearing, it is not properly empowering children. The goal of empowering children should be to enable children to become equals with adults as they too become adults. Children should not be made to feel superior to adults, for that will only lead to adults who feel superior to other adults and thus further other oppressive systems in the world. The goal of child liberation is solidarity — the eventual equalization of power and proper respect of power — between child and adult.

Fifth, solidarity between adult and child means adults must listen to and pass the microphone to children.

Adults must see children as developing up into mutual friends or peers rather than reducing them down to projects, mini-me’s, or vipers in diapers. They need to respect children’s thoughts and feelings as fully human and valid, regardless of where children are in their emotional and psychological development. Children’s thoughts and feelings should be respected in the same way that adults’ thoughts and feelings are respected. This means adults need to take the time to be silent and allow children to — in fact, encourage children to — share their needs, wants, feelings, and thoughts.

*****

What do you think? What stands out to you from this thought experiment? Can you think of other implications if adult/child dynamics are compared with oppressor/oppressed dynamics? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Featured image: Flickr, drinks machine.

"There Will Be At Least One Riot — In My Soul."

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