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December 08, 2004

Exploration: Outline for a Youth History of Adult Power

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 16, 2005]

From W 09.29.04:

"The point of this essay is that it is not an essay; it is an "exploration". I don't have any outline going into this, and it's not meant to end up as something that other people will read. This is where I'll sort through my thoughts. It's like note-taking -- but in sentences and paragraphs, rather than in fragments. The idea is to just keep going forward, and not become recursive, trying to edit what I still haven't even thought through. I think I can trust that by writing "explorations" such as this one, outlines will naturally emerge -- if it turns out that I even have adequate material for an essay. [Discovering that I really don't have adequate material for an essay would be valuable in itself!]"

1. My Slant on the History of Adult Power

OK, so I'm reading this book called "From Father's Property to Children's Rights", a history of child custody. It's given me an idea about how to begin writing a history of adult power... Perhaps only a brief history.

Part of this project is inspired by beginning to find discrete moments in history with dates attached to them. It's occurred to me that I might begin assembling some historical time lines. These time lines might be used to *suggest* a history -- I may not be able to tell the full story, but by pointing to important events, I can suggest a story. In making my historical painting, I might be impressionistic, might do a sort of collage.

Another part of this project is inspired by books such as "The Invention of Heterosexuality" and the magazine "Race Traitor". These publications, rather than looking at the oppressed group, take the oppressor's identity to task. This has been a bias in my work all along. Rather than focusing overly on youth identity, or how adults perceive youth (i.e. via stereotypes and prejudice), I'm interested in how adults perceive themselves. I think that the modern notion of "adulthood" is probably a recent invention -- I think that it is possible to discuss "the invention of adulthood".

[In fact, that might make a good essay title. Whereas the essay title "Adulthood is Artificial" says some of what I want to convey, "The Invention of Adulthood" would historicize my idea, portray it as an event rather than an abstract.]

2. The Heart of the History: Parental Responsibilities

The thing that makes me think I might have the germ of an actual history project is that I think I've found a central theme that I could use to unify a larger narrative. The author of this book I'm reading itemizes the responsibilities of parents during the colonial era. I think that's my beginning point.

...Actually, though, rights and responsibilities always come as a pair. Furthermore, while the author has done a good job of identifying core rights and responsibilities, she hasn't necessarily listed them as succinctly as I would like. Some may be separated from the main list, and I'll have to collect them. Here's what I've ascertained so far:


  • to provide vocational education
  • to provide religious education
  • to teach the child literacy
  • to provide food and shelter
  • to control the child
  • [to not abuse / neglect the child (?)]

  • obedience from the child
  • to contractually "bond out" the child to another adult
  • [use of physical discipline (?)]
  • [marrying off girls (??)]

I want my main focus to be on history within the United States. I forget where, but I know that somewhere I've read a similar list of contemporary responsibilities that the law places upon parents. Perhaps in one of my books on teen legal rights? Perhaps in the Oregon Revised Statues, under "custody"? My thought is that the heart of this book / essay would be comparing the laws in Colonial America to the laws of today.

If I recall correctly, there are only four or five core responsibilities of parents listed in the contemporary discussion of legal custody. There are perhaps quite a few laws that devolve from those few, laws in support of the basic principles. I'm excited to think that there are fundamental principles of custody that are well documented in legal code. By comparing Colonial times and contemporary times, I should be able to show how similar these two periods are, how adult ownership of youth remains -- without having to discuss dozens of specific laws.

The focus on parental responsibilities is in keeping with my perspective that governmental laws are, in essence, the familial relationship projected onto society as a whole. I can see right now, looking at the list of responsibilities, that several are ostensibly responsibilities to the child -- but at least "to control the child" is a responsibility to society / the community. In this book I'm reading, I've found precursors of the conflict of interests between governmental ownership of its citizens, and parental property rights over their children. This will be interesting later on.

3. Expanding the Scope: England and Rome

After Colonial and contemporary custody issues, I expect that I'll want to go back a bit farther into history. At this point I know I'm going to want to visit at least two additional periods: 2nd millennium England, and ancient Rome.

Law in Colonial America derives largely from English Common Law: unwritten law whose binding force comes from "immemorial usage" (Webster, unabridged, 2nd ed., 1940). Fortunately for me, common law was written down and codified by someone named Blackstone. [That's an area I need to further research.]

Preliminary research in this Webster's [that I found in the PSU library] turned up some interesting facts that I hadn't known before. "Age of majority" -- the age at which all rights of adulthood are attained, was actually composed of three subsidiary issues: (1) the age of consent, (2) the age of discretion, and (3) military age. Each of these ages has a different number associated with it -- and some of them have different numbers depending on if you're a boy or a girl.

Whereas Common Law is based on unwritten tradition, apparently Civil Law derives from ancient Rome. ...It is interesting to note here that the introduction to my history of adulthood may actually need to be a brief overview of the history of written law itself! [Note: the third major category of law that I've encountered is Canon Law, which is the law of the church. I am uncertain how this relates to other laws.]

...The most interesting thing I've discovered so far is that in Roman society, the patriarch of the house was allowed to deal with his children however he chose -- even to the point of killing them. The author of "From Father's Property to Children's Rights" tries to paint the lives of children in Colonial times in a positive light, contrasting their situation with the absolute power of fathers in Rome. Personally, I'm offended. I concur that by Colonial times some progress was made toward restraining parental usage of power -- but even then, and even today, we are not many steps removed from absolute parental power.

...I will need to tell the story of progress -- but the march toward treating youth as people rather than property is far from over!

4. The History of Adult Power: Specific Areas

If I were to create an outline at this point, it might look something like this:

  1. The history of written law - a brief overview
  2. The legal responsibility of guardians in America - from colonial times to present
  3. The origins of youth as property - from Ancient Rome to England's industrial revolution
  4. The evolution child issues being distributed among institutions

...I'm not sure that 2 and 3 are necessarily separate topics. Both deal with the rights and responsibilities of guardians. I want to start by making the point that little has changed between Colonial and contemporary times. Then, I want to make the point that while progress has been made from the absolutist power of Rome, the journey toward personhood is still not complete -- which might require contrasting the distant past with an imaginary future. That might throw me off topic, since it would require describing things that don't exist -- I wouldn't be simply reporting anymore.

This fourth point in the outline is where this project could really explode into something book-length. See, I think that one could use the legal responsibilities of guardians as a leaping off point for discussing a variety of social institutions. If I'm right that governmental laws are outgrowths of intrafamilial dynamics, then societal institutions should have their analogs in the laws that structure the family.

Here's what I've come up with, in terms of making that analogy:


  • to provide vocational education = labor relations
  • to provide religious education =X
  • to teach the child literacy = public schools
  • to provide food and shelter = state intervention
  • to control the child
  • [to not abuse / neglect the child (?) = state intervention?]

  • obedience from the child = history of obedience
  • to contractually "bond out" the child to another adult = history of youth as property?
  • [use of physical discipline (?) = history of corporal punishment?]
  • [marrying off girls (??)]

Issues that don't fit within the analogy:
  • artificial age lines
  • juvenile delinquency

The historical time-lines that I want to provide for each of these topics may be pretty short -- just a subsection (with ten paragraphs or less) within a larger essay. In a following section, I'll have to record notes on what I know about each topic at this point.

5. A Thesis to Prove: Numerical age lines mimic lines between child / parent / grandparent

As I look at this list right now, what I see is that before talking about the rights of guardians at this level of detail, I will probably want to backtrack and discuss the dividing line between adults and minors. A brief history of artificial age lines would have to discuss the "age of majority" and its three components, which I've mentioned above.

...However, it would also have to deal perhaps with emancipation, or with premarital sex. What is the transition from being a youth to being a full-fledged adult? Is it marriage? Does a young man who's married ever get treated as a youth in Colonial America? Perhaps if he's under age? Or does marriage make one a full-fledged adult, regardless of age (back then)? A history of artificial age lines is not merely a recounting of numbers that have appeared in law -- my premise is that age lines mimic the lines between children, parents, and grandparents -- I have to look for how those practical distinctions inform the numbers.

6. A Thesis to Prove: Numerical adulthood is recent, overthrowing the power of the old, rule of the oldest

Another story that I need to be looking for is that contemporary adult supremacism is a recent invention. In earlier times, we had gerontocracy (rule by the oldest) -- but when senior citizens were overthrown, we arrived at the modern notion of adulthood and adultism. I am wondering if the existence of an "age of majority" in English Common Law will contradict this thesis.

If I go all the way back to Roman law and discover numerical age lines that separate children and adults there, then it starts to seem like the adult-ruling-class has always existed. I won't be able to say that modern adulthood is a "recent" invention. However, it may be that Roman law, with its focus on patriarchs, didn't use birthdays to any great extent -- in which case I'll have a better case for pure gerontocracy.

My case for the overthrow of the old may be stronger. I know that "senior citizens were removed from the work pool by the New Deal. The contradictory evidence that I'll have to be searching for as I read is any evidence of seniors being removed from power, based strictly on their birthday, not loss of ability.

7. A Summary of "Theses to Prove" - Concerning Age Lines

I've just gone back and added the heading "A Thesis to Prove" to the preceding two sections. ...I'm not sure whether I'm dealing with one or two theses in "Numerical adulthood is recent, overthrowing the power of the old, rule of the oldest. There are two interpretations.

Option 1: I might be saying that from a pure continuum of age, where older is more powerful, the modern numerical adulthood arose, overthrowing youth and the elderly simultaneously.

Option 2: Two separate theses... First, that the power of the elderly has been toppled, resulting in modern adultism -- as opposed to gerontocracy. Second, that at some previous time, birthdays were not taken into account in separating the adults from the children -- only practical distinctions such as procreating, ability to labor, etc.

...Suppose that a legal distinction between children and adults has existed longer than a legal distinction between adults and the elderly. What would that say? Is the advent of modern adultism marked by the fall of the old, rather than the birth of numerically measured adulthood?

Can I still say that there is a period of pure gerontocracy if there is a dividing line between youth and adults? Among the 21 - death population, was "older is better" actually in effect? It seems I have another thesis to prove: that an "older is better" principle was ever in effect.

Thus, to summarize, it now looks like I've come up with four theses that I'll have to prove using the historical record:

  1. Previously birthdays were not taken into account in separating adults from children -- only practical distinctions.
  2. Numerical legal age lines mimic lines between child / parent / grandparent.
  3. Gerontocracy, "rule of the old" and "older is better", existed previously.
  4. The power of the elderly was toppled, resulting in modern adultism -- rule by adults, not just the oldest.

8. The Government's Role in Regulating Ownership of Children Has Expanded

I'm reviewing this section from above:


  • to provide vocational education = labor relations
  • to provide religious education = X
  • to teach the child literacy = public schools
  • to provide food and shelter = state intervention
  • to control the child
  • [to not abuse / neglect the child (?) = state intervention?]

...I'm considering positing a thesis thus: "former parental responsibilities are now filled by government-run institutions." What I want to get at is that "the role of the government in managing the lives of youth has expanded." Or, perhaps what I'm trying to get at is that "the Government's role in regulating ownership of children has expanded."

[I'm very excited about this phrase, "regulating ownership of children" -- it seems accurate, and it harkens back to that Catherine MacKinnon line I've been adapting for some time "from women's point of view, rape is not prohibited -- it is regulated." --Or was it from "Rape - a first sourcebook for women" (title?)? Anyway -- I like how this phrase ties into the thread about treating youth as property, and sets the government up to have conflicts with parental rights -- but not necessarily because there is authentic concern for youth as people. I'm not willing to attribute "in their best interest" as the government's simple motive!]

...The more I look at this "responsibilities" section, the more I'm feeling that the correlation between my topics and the responsibilities is too forced. The topics are good, and I can link back to the custodial responsibilities list -- but I can't do something like having a chapter associated with each responsibility.

There are several areas in which the government's involvement has expanded. The most notable is (1) schooling. Whether or not public schools actually teach "vocational" information or not is debatable -- but much responsibility for literacy has devolved to them. At this point, I don't know very much about why public schools were instituted in the U.S. -- but that's a topic that shouldn't be too difficult to research.

The responsibility "to control the child" is also an area that the State has gotten more involved in -- this maps on to the topic of (2) juvenile delinquency. Again, I know little about the topic at this point -- but I have at least one book on the subject in my possession. [I do know, I should say, a little about how it used to be the parent's responsibility to punish -- and by "coverture", they were punishable for their ward's actions.]

The last area I want to mention, in which the government has taken on greater responsibility, is (3) intervention. On this topic, I'm discovering very interesting things in the book I'm reading. Apparently even before there was a federal government, town fathers were given power by their village charters to intervene on behalf of abused children. Now, what the standard for abuse was, that's another topic entirely. But I find it very interesting to see the prototype of state intervention preceding child welfare as we now understand it.

So, it seems that I've got three areas of history that fall under the heading of "expanding government responsibility":

  1. Intervention in cases of abuse
  2. Punishment for juvenile delinquency
  3. Public schooling

I suppose in each of these cases, the story will be a bit more complex than simply the "government responsibility increasing while parental responsibility decreases". Intervention is a state power that has increased, while parental power has decreased. By punishing youth for their crimes, rather than parents, it seems that parental responsibility has diminished -- which is a benefit to the parent. Public schooling could be seen as a benefit -- but at the same time, it was seen when instituted as a theft of parental property (the youth labor force)... In that sense, schooling is an increase of governmental power, and simultaneous decrease in parental responsibility -- both a loss and a benefit to the parents.

...Throughout this discussion, I've been holding "labor relations" aside. Prohibiting child labor, rather than being about an interference of the state in parenting, is about protecting the adult workforce from the threat of cheap youth labor. As I understand it, the abolition of child labor in the U.S. was part of the New Deal -- it was all about protecting adult jobs, not protecting youth. In a sense then, youth are almost incidental to this particular governmental action.

Maybe the heading I'm looking for is "ways in which the evolution of adult government has modified parenting".

9. Powers Granted to Parents

If my starting point is "the history of written law", I'm beginning to see three distinct areas of inquiry:

A. The history of artificial age lines
B. The history of governmental involvement in parenting
C. The history of parental power

[I wonder if "power" divides both into "rights" and "responsibilities" -- otherwise worded as "entitlements" and "obligations". One seldom thinks about the responsibilities attendant upon power -- but I suppose that authority is founded upon the notion that a person is fulfilling a role of some sort.]

The history of parental power is perhaps the most important thread for me to follow here -- and remember, I'm trying to tie it to a history of written law. The relevant parental rights and responsibilities from my previous discussion are:

  • to control the child
  • obedience from the child
  • to contractually "bond out" the child to another adult
  • use of physical discipline

"Obedience" has it's own history. We can trace it back to the bible. Following a religious track, we can trace belief that children should obey their parents down to the present in contemporary religious tracts such as those put out by "Focus on the Family". "Obedience" might be a fundamentally religious topic -- although I would hasten to say that the desire to control is rooted in selfish convenience, not in an intellectual belief. Religion and science are both just means of rationalizing desires in this context. I could point to "conduct disorder" in the DSM-IV as a relevant scientific admonition to obey.

"To control the child" is really an admonition from society to the parent. It is a contract between the government and the parent, regarding who will deal with discipline. Things have shifted somewhat in the favor of the parent -- for the most part coverture has been abolished, and parents are not punished for their children's crimes. Yet, "control the child" remains in place (if I'm not mistaken) as one of the primary three or four responsibilities placed upon guardians. ...This is where I can appeal back to Rome, talking about absolutist power and the right to kill. [If my focus is on adult identity rather than on youth, then this is a better place to begin than obedience: "I made it, I can destroy it".]

In terms of topic order, this is perhaps more appropriate:

  1. the right and responsibility to control one's offspring
  2. expectation that the child will be obedient
  3. the right to use discipline to obtain obedience
  4. the right to sell children as slaves, or "bond" them out

Do each of these topics have enough detail to merit an independent time line? I see that #1 begins with Roman absolute power, power to damage and destroy -- but rather than ending with youths' personhood, stops at control with some limits. #2 is the story of rationalizing ownership via religion and science. #3 is the history of what means have been used to obtain compliance. #4 is about the transition from youth being sellable property to non-transferable property. ...#2 is going to take me into the realm of Canon Law, and then into regulations within a profession (American Psychological Association). #2 and #3 both might touch on laws regarding runaway youth.

It may be that I simply need to accumulate more historical data before I can really begin dividing my discussion into sections. ...The test of whether or not these sections are independent will be whether or not I can assemble actual time-lines with dates. The need for a traditional research project, where I write down my discrete facts on note cards, is becoming apparent.

Maybe #4 should come second in the sequence, because it talks about what you can do with your property -- and how the "lessened slave" state came into existence. As the author I'm reading aptly points out, youth are not slaves -- but the fact that several varieties of subjection have been created still bears discussion.

10. Conclusion

Maybe one of the key ideas that I'm trying to cover is that of the "rights and responsibilities" that exist in law today, the responsibilities are relatively recent -- and by no means outweigh the rights. The germ of adult power is absolute power (Rome); the core metaphor is youth as property -- actual slavery, that over time was subdivided into a hierarchy of different forms of subjection.

The government was in some ways invented to govern who gets to be an owner of people -- and regulates how property owners treat their possessions. It was erected by the property owners themselves, but as it has grown more complex, it has modified parenting practices by establishing institutions that lessen the burden on adults: protecting their jobs, punishing youth separately from parents, relieving the burden of instructing youth. However, there has been a tension -- not between the rights of children and of parents -- rather, between the selfish motives of parents, and the nosiness of other parents who want to regulate parents in general.

Because youth (in a numerically-governed system) are still in a property-like status, because one of parent's core legal rights/responsibilities is "to control", and because the government's function is essentially the regulation of property ownership -- youth cannot depend upon adults to elevate them to personhood. Youth should be grateful to the adults who go out of their way to work for youth welfare -- but legitimate children's rights must be initiated by youth themselves. The opposite of being property is having actual power; it is in the exercise of power to improve their own welfare that youth most embody what children's rights are actually for: self-defense and self-determination.

Posted by Sven at December 8, 2004 12:00 PM