Children and Personhood


Thanks to the debates sparked by the recent consideration and passage of various abortion restricting bills in Alabama, Georgia, and other states, some are reconsidering an age-old question: "Are kids people?"

This is not a question that deals with the real humanity of kids, as everyone knows children are, in fact, people, but a question regarding the implications of classifying kids as people. Their rights, their responsibilities, their condition legally and ethically. The alternative, it is argued, is to classify kids as property. This carries with it another set of implications, not the least of which is the very concept of owning a human being. The rejection of this idea is a cornerstone of abolitionism and, as I like to think of anarchism as "abolitionism plus," the idea of owning humans is, at the very least, detestable to me.

The argument, however, is that applying the logic of property to kids is the best explanation of their real condition re: their total lack of responsibility for themselves. Let's all be honest, this makes sense. This is neither a new question nor a settled one, and anything I have to say on the matter has likely been said before, but perhaps I can lay out the considerations that should be involved in any conversation on the topic. To be perfectly honest, I'm here to tie the conversation up in knots. The reason for this is that the conversation itself, in my opinion and as we are having it, is deeply flawed and far too presumptuous.

When John Locke was writing his Treatises, he needed a way to define governmental, or political, power. He started by drawing an outline around political power by defining another kind of power, one related to the state of nature: paternal, or parental, power. In that spirit, let's try to define what kids are by, first, discussing what they aren't.

Children are not people. They are not people in that they have neither the rights nor the responsibilities of people. This, of course, gets fuzzy in later childhood, when more and more of these rights and responsibilities are meted out to kids, but let's leave that alone for now. For the moment, we're dealing with young kids. If a child hurts someone, the child Is not personally liable for any harm done, especially civilly. The parents of the child are the ones who are held responsible, ultimately. Children are seen, in both a legal and social sense, as extensions of their parents. Further, the state will allow adults to live in untenable situations, whether on the street, in squalor, or in a state of abuse, but the state takes it upon itself to remove children from such situations. Children cannot do for themselves and, more importantly, no one expects them to.

We know, inherently, that children are not capable of carrying the responsibilities and rights of entities called "people." To deal with this, we attempt to draw a distinction between "child" and "adult," with "adults" carrying those rights and responsibilities, but this distinction is wholly arbitrary. At what point a "child" becomes an "adult" is utterly undefinable, largely because there is no such switch to flip in a human being. Growing into adulthood is a process, and defining any solid set of characteristics which constitute "adult" is just as impossible a task as defining an age at which those characteristics should be present. We have all known grown people who behave as children, and we have all known children with the nigh-supernatural ability to behave as adults. These are outliers, and should not be used to prop up an argument, but even as we approach the mean of humanity, these variations are vast.

Good arguments, arguments that I agree with, are made to keep the arbitrary age of adulthood somewhere above 16 as opposed to, say, 12 or 13. Ultimately, though, the age is still arbitrary. Hell, there are good arguments, many based in average human neurological development, that the age at which a person should be considered an "adult" should be as high as the mid-twenties. All of this is to say: kids are not "people" in the sense that people maintain a state of independent self-ownership. They are simply not capable of such a thing. Further, the point at which they would be capable of such a thing is near, if not totally, impossible to define for more than one kid at a time.

That state of self-ownership is, at bottom, the only real argument against slavery. All of this considered, I cannot judge too harshly the individual who believes that kids are tantamount to slaves. There is plenty of evidence to support that claim. It does not, however, stand up to closer scrutiny.

Children do, in fact, have some rights. We see this in the extreme case of child murder. Leaving aside the argument over whether or not abortion is, itself, child murder, reasonable people can agree that, when a person murders a child, even their own child, we consider their act to be identical, if not more egregious, than if they had murdered another adult. The same is true for those who invade the bodily autonomy of a child through abuse or molestation. This can not simply be based on the child's status as a dependent. Intense and nigh-universal emotional reactions do not follow the harm of a being because it has some legal status or another.

We detest such invasions precisely because children are people, to some extent. This is an ethical issue, and major cultural forces are at play in situations where such harms are regularly accepted, especially religious forces. If children were in a condition of slavery, or of being owned, such abuses would be accepted as they have been throughout humanity's long history of slave ownership. A person simply cannot do with a child as they will, especially ethically, and this precludes their inclusion in any category which can reasonably be called "property."

So, children are not self-owning individuals, and children are not property. You can neither hold them accountable for their actions as you would a self-owning individual, nor can you harm them with impunity, indicating that there is some amount of self-ownership present in them which demands that their bodily autonomy be respected. These circumstances extend to other arguments as well, including arguments regarding privacy, labor, property ownership, and, of course, abortion.

I said I was here, ultimately, to tie this argument in knots because it is flawed and presumptuous. It presumes that the difference between "child" and "adult" can be clearly defined. It cannot. It presumes that all, or even most, children should fall into a framework of development which follows a definite timeline. They do not. It presumes that "person" and "property" are the only options for describing the station of children. They are absolutely not. Children are neither wholly people, nor are they wholly property, but they share characteristics of the two. They develop into people from a state of superposition among "person" and "property," but never either.

We have words that describe a being in this superposition with relation to others. Words like "ward," which carry the explicit implication that this is a being which is to be, at the very least, cared for and protected by another, but these words do not explicitly describe the relationship that nominally exists between and among child and guardian, especially with regard to defining the child's position in that relationship. The answer is neither "person" nor "property." The answer must reasonably be "neither" or "both." For semantic reasons (namely that "both" can not apply to such mutually exclusive concepts as "person" and "property"), it is my contention that "neither" is the correct answer.

Thus, we can not reasonably expect that applying the logic that we apply to people and property would yield any results whatsoever in this conversation. It is obvious that we need a more honest and more applicable logic for dealing with children, and we must expand our understanding of the word "child" so that it implies and includes all of these complexities. "Child" must imply a being that is not to be confused with person, property, or both.

We should be capable of doing this. After all, we're all adults here.