I always enjoy it when my friend Sylvain drops in to read a post on my blog. Sometimes, he leaves a comment, and I am always interested in what he has to say. Sylvain and I agree on a lot of things but, as would be the case with any two random individuals, we also disagree about some things. That is what makes life interesting.
I'm not sure to what extent we actually disagree in the situation I am about to write about here. I'll let you, dear reader, figure that out.
Sylvain left a comment on my last blog post about the Amish. To save you the trouble of going there to see what he had to say, I will display part of his comment here:
"However, I think your comparison between the Amish and Libertarians is flawed. They may, as a group, do pretty much what they want, but individual Amish persons see their liberties and choices SEVERELY curtailed by their own group's authority. It is a form of deeply repressive local government.
Also, while they may not be unhappy, Amish kids are not given the same choices and opportunities as others. And if they ever want to get out into the real world, they will probably be very disfunctional and ill-equipped for modern life.
I'm personally opposed to early indoctrination of children into their parents religion. Kids believe everything their parents say, so by the time they are old enough to choose whether or not they want to be religious, or which religion to join, they have already been brainwashed into believing their parent's religion is the ultimate truth. Most people never get over that early programming."
OK. Where do I start? First of all, I was not suggesting that the Amish are libertarian in any comprehensive way. They want to be left alone and don't typically interfere in the rights of others to do what they wish, so that is certainly a laissez-faire or libertarian outlook, at least as far as others, outside of the Amish community, are concerned. But Sylvain zeroes in, correctly, on the Amish society itself, and points out that their system is "repressive" and that there is an "early indoctrination into their parents' religion." Let's dwell on those statements.
As an individual who has always hated being told what to do, I have, as far back as I can remember, considered the issue of the rights of children. I was a precocious kid, preoccupied as early as age eleven with matters like the whys and hows of life and our place in the universe. I can remember my mother blanching as I corrected a visiting pastor about something that I thought he should have known, his age being several multiples of mine at the time. I thought that by the age of fourteen, even the most dense among my peers would certainly be able to manage their own affairs, to vote in elections, have sexual relationships, etc. I believe that I would have managed quite well on my own, perhaps stubbing my toes frequently on the path to self-sufficiency, but arriving at that goal eventually in relatively good shape.
I'm glad, though, that I didn't have to take that path. As it was, I was on my own, off and on, from age seventeen on, but that was not age fourteen. And at age seventeen and older, I still made mistakes, lots of them. And I had the benefit of plenty of guidance from parents who understood the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, responsible and irresponsible and prudent and imprudent. And that, my friends is what really matters.
In the mid-1970's, I met a documentary film maker who was very passionate about children's rights. He was a very bright individual and I enjoyed listening to him. Over lunch one day, we discussed the issue, and as I listened to him, I realized that the more I heard him expound on children's rights, the less I agreed with him. I was already heavily involved with the Canadian libertarian movement (in fact, I may have been the leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada at that time) and I found my disagreement with him a bit troubling. After all, the libertarian position is that human beings are born with natural rights, and that interaction between human beings, even with children, should be respectful and even-handed. That might preclude things like corporal punishment, and even some more benign forms of punishment like deprivation of toys, the company of friends, etc., don't you think? How then, would a parent keep control over his or her children?
Hmmm... control... that is not a very libertarian concept, is it? Should there be no exercise of control over children at all then, and no attempt made to teach them anything unless at the child's own behest, and with his or her complete co-operation?
Sorry, folks, I don't buy that.
I think the real test of how well we will fare in the world, once we leave our parental home, is how well our parents parented us. Children need to be taught how to behave, how to cope, and how to recognize that while they have rights in life, everyone else has those same rights. So, if values need to be taught to children, does it matter what the context of the teachings might be? Does an ethical person who happens to be an atheist do a better job of teaching his children than, say, an Amish person? Will someone who never spanks his child, regardless of circumstance or provocation, be a better parent than a born-again Christian who will give his child a swat on the behind when deemed necessary?
I believe in children's rights. But I believe in parent's rights to guide their children as well. I also believe in the rights of strangers not to be subjected to the swagger of foul-mouthed little miscreants, whose parents might not have taken their responsibilities towards their offspring very seriously.
I got more than a few spankings when I was a child. Did I deserve every one? Maybe not. Did I ever do things which, had they been discovered, might have upped the count? Many times. Did it cause me any lasting harm? No.
And you, dear reader, did the spankings you got as a child (you did get spanked, didn't you?) cause you permanent harm? Do you hate your parents as a result, or do you recognize that sometimes parents simply do the best they can, and sometimes (gasp!) even make a mistake or two. I know that some of you, as do I, come from very religious, Christian fundamentalist families. Are you scarred for life because of it? Are you as good a parent as your own parents were to you?
I think that overall my parents did a mighty fine job. I am not at all sure that my more modern approach to child-rearing is better, or even as effective, as the way my parents raised me.
So, full-circle back to the Amish: Yes, the way they raise their children might be repressive in some ways. But I would trust an Amish child. I wouldn't find it necessary to hide the silver if one came visiting. I would expect, and get, good manners and a helpful and respectful attitude. I would be far less likely to get these things from most children I encounter on the streets and in the malls of Canada.
Life is a complicated affair. The more we meddle with how people do things, including raising their children, the more things get messed up. I think that parents who abuse their children should get jumped on with lead boots and, if they survive, get locked up for a long time. But spanking is not abuse. I think that parents who make their children do disgusting and unnatural things in the name of religion or of some weird cult should be punished severely. But raising children in a loving, supportive, religious home, doesn't fit that particular rubric, does it?
I think that we all need to do the best we can and to recognize that there are differences between us. Different is not synonymous with bad.
So... do Sylvain and I agree or disagree on this point? He and I will have to share a bottle of wine someday, and make an attempt to sort it all out.