There seems to be a pretty common response when people criticize the behavior of a parent, and that’s “you can’t tell me how to raise my child!” Although I try not to talk to breeders because they generally disgust me (although there are some exceptions), I have been treated to this line more than once. But besides the fact that it’s a stupid thing to say, I find it rather interesting to think about.
For one thing, it seems to imply that the way parents treat their children is not a fit topic of conversation. But I find that there are few things people love to talk about more than the way people treat each other, whether it’s good or bad, and the motives of the people involved. People are fascinated with stories about celebrities’ lives, reality shows, and all sorts of fictional narratives, because they want to talk about the way people treat each other.
So I find it rather disingenuous when someone says “you can’t tell me how to raise my child.” Actually, we talk about how people raise their children all the time. Who hasn’t complained about a child’s behavior and said something like “their parents must be terrible” or “they must be spoiled”? We operate under the (generally false) assumption that the way a person turns out is mostly due to their parents’ specific pedagogy or character. It seems to me that this implies pretty strongly that people believe they can “tell people how to raise their children.” In fact, from what I’ve heard from breeders, it seems that once you have a child everyone has an opinion about how you should raise it. And yet, even though they are probably annoyed about it, you don’t hear that they told family members or friends that they can’t tell them how to raise their children.
So, if I am correct in saying that, the “you can’t tell me how to raise my child” is not an honest response, but a tactic. It seems to me that they are trying to shut down discussion they find unpleasant. In one case, I was arguing with an atheist mother that she should not have let her own mother take her child to church. Her reply was a fury of indignation spearheaded by “you can’t tell me how to raise my child!” Yet there is nothing particularly strange about discussing people’s religion. We do that all the time, too, from coworkers to celebrities. The religious education of children is always a hot topic within families. Surely this mother has debated the issue many times before. So it seems rather disingenuous for her to tell me that.
I am not trying to tell people how to raise “their children.” What does concern me, however, is ethical principles: how human beings should treat each other, and where those conclusions come from. And since I consider children to be full human beings (a crackpot position for sure, but one that I hold nevertheless), I therefore think that the way some human beings (such as parents) treat other human beings (such as “their children”) is very much something we should argue about. I am not interested in discussing the property claim that parents make on “their children.” I think it is absolute nonsense and that no human being can be owned by definition. Human beings cannot logically be owned any more than any other product of nature. But I am not about to start arguing with the repugnant breeders who screech because we ever so slightly show disrespect towards their property claim. There are few things harder than to convince anyone that they have privilege, let alone to give it up! You might as well howl to the Moon.
I am interested in the principles regulating human relations in hierarchies, and the parent-child hierarchy is the most extreme of all. I do think we should all have a say in how hierarchies demean, mistreat and control human beings. I think that’s a vital topic of discussion. If we just let all parents say “you can’t tell me how to raise my child” and just outright deny dialogue, then there is no place left for that discussion to happen. We need to force that discussion. It is because that discussion was imposed on parents that laws against corporal punishment were passed, it is because that discussion was imposed on parents that the sexual abuse of children is no longer considered acceptable, and it is because that discussion was imposed on parents that we consider that a child being educated is an important thing (unfortunately, the education system itself is still shit). The progress done in the treatment of children in the past centuries would have never happened if we had just let parents continue to cloak themselves under “you can’t tell me how to raise my child.”
It is just as weird that this excuse does not seem to apply to other hierarchies, even though they are not nearly as strict. We would not think it is acceptable for a politician to say “you can’t tell me what laws to pass!” or for a CEO to answer accusations of breaking labor laws or providing dangerous products by saying “you can’t tell me how to run my business!” And people do talk endlessly about what laws are passed and not passed, and what businesses do. It is natural for us to do so. Because it involves a strict hierarchy used against the most powerless human beings in our society, parenting cannot be exempt from scrutiny. To say otherwise is just thought-stopping.