I’ve often heard that children are manipulative, but it just occurred to me that being without any real power can’t help but make people turn to manipulation. After all, what other options are there? Think about it: If a preschooler wants to stop by the ice cream store, the only way she can meet that desire is to convince her parent to take her there and buy her ice cream. And the parent, in this situation, has absolute power. The parent can simply say no and that’s the end of it. And it’s not like the kid isn’t aware of that. In fact, I would wager a guess that the kid is more aware of that than the parent is. And so, the kid looks at the options she has. She can coax her parent with a fetching smile, she can wager by promising to be good for the rest of the outing if she gets ice cream, or she can threaten a tantrum and thus make it more costly for her parent to say “no.” She resorts to these tools not in small part because she has no actual power in the situation.
There’s an interesting analogy to be drawn here. I grew up in a community that believed in male headship, and in female submission, and the women I grew up around learned to be experts at manipulation. It was the only way they had to control or influence their surroundings and the direction of their lives. Just like a child, a wife in a patriarchal relationship can coax her husband and can make saying “no” harder by responding to a decision she doesn’t like by sulking. And she can promise things too, though what she promises is generally different. When we say that patriarchy makes the relation between a husband and wife into a relationship between parent and child, well, it’s true. But I think it also ignores a simple question. If it’s not okay for a husband-wife relationship to be one in which the husband has all the power and control and the wife has no option but to follow his decisions, should we be okay with the parent-child relationship being set up that way?
I don’t actually have an answer to this question. Obviously, children don’t have the same competence and abilities that adults have—when they’re very young they don’t even know enough to know to stay off of roads or keep out of danger. And of course, unlike women under the laws of coverture or African Americans in antebellum slavery, children do eventually grow up and have adult rights and privileges. And finally, there are some limits on parents’ power—there are child abuse and neglect laws, after all. But it’s nevertheless true that when an adult wants to go get ice cream, she can (provided she has the money), but when a child wants to go get ice cream, she’s completely dependent on the will of her parents.
One thing that made me think about all this was an exchange with Sally. We were on the campus of the local university, and she was playing in a fountain. It was almost 9:00 p.m., and I told her we needed to head home. Our conversation went like this:“Sally, two more minutes and then we need to go home.”
“No! I’m not done playing!”
“But it’s your brother’s bedtime.”
“Well, he can sleep in his stroller. That will be fine.”
“But it’s starting to get dark.”
“Well, that’s okay, we can walk home in the dark!”
And then I realized—the reason I told her it was time to go had very little to do with Bobby’s bedtime or the dissipating light. It was time to go home because I wanted to go home. We’d been out for over three hours, and I was ready to get home. But Sally wasn’t. And in this situation, I held all the power. If I wanted to, I could pick Sally up and haul her home with me and there was literally nothing she could do about that. All she could do was try to convince me to let her stay longer, and because I have a track record of listening to her, she was doing this using logic. Another child might simply have pitched a fit—which actually what she ultimately did, because in the end, all that mattered in terms of whether we stayed or left was the decision I made. And I’ve been thinking of that evening off and on ever since.
I try to listen to Sally and take her needs into account, and I help her learn to recognize that others (including myself) have needs too. But there’s nothing obligating or requiring a parent to do that. Solving this issue by saying that parents should listen to their kids and take their kids’ needs and desires into account when making decisions isn’t unlike those who support Christian patriarchy saying that husbands are entitled to the final say in everything but should of course take their wives’ needs into account when making those decisions. First, this doesn’t actually solve the colossal imbalance of power, and second, those with power aren’t obligated to listen to the needs of those without, and they won’t always do so.
I haven’t completely formulated my thoughts here and I’m still thinking about it, but it’s bothering me. We declared slavery wrong and laws of coverture wrong, but we still uphold parental power over children as natural and good. There are obvious differences between adults and children, but do we really have justification to argue that people should have rights and freedom regardless of race or gender and yet draw the line at age? Because that is what we do. And why is it that this is something people never even think to ask?