At first glance, classical liberal thought and contemporary libertarian politics might appear guilty of neglecting the issue of children. In discussions of freedom, rights, responsibility, and the formation of civil society, questions about children have not been at the forefront. Instead, political debates about issues that affect children, such as education and health care, and discussions regarding the nature of rights and the good life have focused on adult decision makers, the rights of parents, and the freedom of families to raise children without state interference. A more careful look at the broader classical liberal tradition, however, might well provide a foundation for a more developed libertarian position on the moral and political status of children. In what follows, I highlight the issues involving children that should concern contemporary libertarians, but that do not get as much attention as they deserve. They include the limits on parental control and abuse, the role of freedom in child development, the possibility of children’s rights, and contemporary political issues such as the emancipation of minors and health care decision making.

Since Plato’s Republic, children and the family have been part of the discussion of ideal political orders and the role of the family within political life. It was not until the Enlightenment that a shift in thinking occurred and the spheres of family and state were separated. Prior to the Enlightenment, it was natural to view the family as intimately connected with the polis or city‐​state. Similarly, in Confucian thought, the family consisted of a natural hierarchy with the father at its head, and paternal authority, like state authority, was viewed essentially unchecked. Fathers were not unlike feudal lords, with wide‐​reaching but presumably benevolent powers. Indeed, it is a uniquely Enlightenment idea that subjects should be protected from their rulers. So too within the family, the idea that a child should be protected from a parent, or in any way independent of parental authority, was a notion foreign to Eastern, Greek, and early Roman conceptions of family and state.

Classical liberal thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, among them John Locke and John Stuart Mill, challenged the standard view, inherited from Roman law, that children were the rightful property of parents. This view also marked a major shift from the religious teachings of earlier Christianity regarding the proper functions of a family and the appropriate upbringing of children. Children, in Locke’s view, were not to be thought of as chattels—things to be owned—but rather as future persons who would develop toward full personhood and responsibility. Children in the Lockean sense are divine gifts, and as such they exact certain moral obligations from the parents. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty takes parental obligation a step further and argues for an important exception to the idea that the state is only justified in interfering with individuals to prevent harm to others. When Mill discusses the practical application of this principle, he considers the possibility that society may be justified in intervening in a family when there are concerns about child abuse or a failure to educate the child. Mill’s is a significant and rarely discussed exception to the classic defense of individual freedom, an exception that has widespread implications for child welfare laws and public education.

Notions of equality and pluralism discussed in the context of the family do not appear in these early liberal writings. Mill does not apply his idea of “experiments in living” or the marketplace of ideas to family life. Nor do we find the notion of a “contract” suggested when dealing with the family, otherwise a central idea used to justify political and social institutions in Locke and other classical liberal thinkers. There appear good reasons for this absence because the idea of a contract seems strained when applied to the rich and complicated relationships within a family, particularly the obligations between parents and children. Pediatrician and philosopher Lainie Ross has suggested that we view the complex interrelationships within a family as one of “balancing interests.” Among these are (a) parent‐​serving interests, (b) child‐​serving interests, and (c) family‐​serving interests. There is no need to rely on a conception of rights because each of these interests is of equal moral standing and must be balanced against one another. This model captures the idea that family members are tied to each other in ways that members of a business or political community are not. Human beings are relational beings, and, as such, their autonomy, especially within a family, has its limits. These relationships are not ones of equality. Instead, we find even in the classical liberal tradition the notions of stewardship, development, and protection.

It is generally assumed that parents are usually in the best position to judge what is in a child’s best interest. However, this idea obviously cannot be maintained when there is evidence that the child is being abused or neglected. If libertarians follow Mill’s argument, when a parent fails in his or her obligations, others, including people with political authority, may be morally obliged to intervene. The crucial question of course is what is involved in being an acceptable parent. Current evidence in developmental psychology also supports the view that different children within a family can have totally different needs. Any assessment of a “child’s best interests” would need to take this variability into account.

Children pose a problem to various justifications of basic human rights. The notion of natural self‐​ownership, central to Locke’s conception of individual rights, cannot provide a foundation for the rights of children. Natural rights presuppose certain capacities (such as rationality), and rights that are the outcome of convention presuppose the ability to participate to some degree in public deliberation. Thus, whether the starting point is rationality or agreement, the capacity for the full range of human rights in children is only potential inasmuch as they are only in the process of developing these capacities. On what basis, then, can we ground children’s rights because children are not full moral agents? The first formal statement regarding children’s rights was put forward by the United Nations in 1989 and was followed by heated international debate. The scope of the rights it granted to children was broad and included not only protection from abuse, but also guarantees of health and education. In the course of the heated public debate that surrounded this statement, little was said about the philosophical grounding of children’s rights.

It might be argued that children should be granted a series of positive rights while they are in the process of developing the capacities necessary for full moral agency. It would follow that parents or guardians have certain duties to attend to the needs of the child. On this account of rights, parental duties would not be contingent on the agency of the child, but rather on the needs and interests of the child. In the case of orphans, libertarians face a difficult policy question regarding the obligations of social institutions to meet the needs of vulnerable children who cannot rely on parents or guardians for support. Similarly, difficult questions remain in assessing social responsibility: When does a child or young adult become a full member of a moral community? If a teenager is violent, should we consider him a person without rational capacities, or a moral agent fully responsible for his actions and worthy of punishment, or some combination of these? Juvenile law typically looks to the child’s demonstrated capacity to behave responsibly in other contexts.

Another challenge for a rights‐​based account in the context of families is how to determine whether mature children and adolescents have any rights against their parents. What importance should we attach to an adolescent’s decision or preferences in making future plans? Imagine an adolescent child of Christian Science parents who wishes to become a doctor, against her parents’ wishes and religious beliefs. Should a libertarian regard the child’s personal decision regarding her future differently than if she had wished to drop out of school, hang out with her friends, and become a heroin addict? Both adolescents are presumably asserting a “right” to lead their own lives against parents’ wishes. Most American states in fact allow minors to leave home under certain conditions, such as choosing to marry or if they are financially independent. Significant freedom also is granted to adolescents in health care decision making. There is a strong movement in pediatrics and pediatric research to encourage greater involvement of older children and adolescents in health care treatment decisions and to allow refusals to participate in research. The American Academy of Pediatrics has argued that adolescents who demonstrate the capacity to make health care decisions should be empowered to give strict consent for treatment and should be allowed to refuse unwanted treatment. The most difficult question raised by the academy guidelines is how to deal with those children and adolescents who refuse needed treatment. If we allow minors to be involved in the decision‐​making process, must we honor their refusals even if it causes them harm? The standard libertarian position is to respect an adult’s choices even if those choices are self‐​destructive as long as others are not harmed in the process. For young adults, who still require guidance and development, it is not clear that libertarians should take a laissez‐​faire stance.

Whether we accept the arguments for or against children’s rights, an important set of questions remain about the role of freedom in a child’s education and development. One might not accept the notion of children’s rights, but might still think we are obliged to encourage the capacities that help them lead full, free, responsible lives as adults. There is an air of paradox to the idea that children must live unfree lives, lives controlled by parents and teachers, in order to better exercise their freedom as adults. Should freedom play an instrumental role in child development and education? If so, what kind of freedom? Is freedom an intrinsic good that children can be taught to appreciate and respect? How can such capacities be encouraged within families, in schools, and in government? All are questions worthy of further exploration by those interested in the role of liberty in children’s lives.

One of the most influential contemporary defenses for freedom in child development was offered by the philosopher of education, Maria Montessori. In her book, The Absorbent Mind, Montessori defended the view that freedom to choose among certain learning tasks and environments is central to the flourishing of a child’s creativity, imagination, and moral development. Contrary to popular perception, Montessori classrooms are not chaotic free‐​for‐​alls. Montessori believed that guidance and control from parents and teachers were necessary for children’s proper moral development and socialization.

Free play is a central feature of childhood and a crucial context for learning and development. It also is a crucial component of Montessori’s educational model. For Montessori, the goal of education is the autonomy and social development of the child, which includes the ability to make projects and plans, to make choices and carry them out, to embrace one’s projects as one’s own, and to engage in respectful social relationships with others. Central to this philosophy is the idea that the child is an individual with his or her own sense of imagination and curiosity. Although this view of education emphasizes the importance of reasoning, it also underscores the joys of childhood, including play and imagination.

Current work on child development shows that children differ in their learning styles and educational needs. Children with initiative and confidence may thrive on freedom in the classroom and will accomplish as much when given great latitude. Others need more structure and authority to perform well. For every child, there is an optimal amount of structure, which is not the same for all children. Recent data also show that siblings and peer groups may have an enormous effect on the formation of a child’s personality, which suggests that the role that peers play in shaping a child’s views may be more important than that of parents and teachers during adolescence. There also is conflicting evidence about the resiliency of children. To some degree, development is forgiving and plastic. Given these considerations, there would be much greater latitude for parents and educators to make mistakes because they are not quite so devastating. However, childhood trauma and deprivation have been shown to be of permanent effect. Experiments in orphanages indicate that, during a window from 4 to 10 months of age, a child must receive a substantial amount of direct human contact, especially touch, or he will develop serious behavioral disorders. So‐​called attachment disorders include the inability to form human bonds, to trust others, and to communicate honestly. A libertarian view that allows families and parents the freedom to raise children as they see fit, interfering only in cases of physical abuse, is less plausible if children are less resilient. If the success of a free society crucially depends on responsible citizens who respect the liberty of others, then it seems by this logic that libertarians should be more concerned with children who are irretrievably stunted by emotional and physical neglect as well as poor education. An even greater challenge arises in illiberal communities that do not hold freedom in high regard and believe that constraining a child in every way possible to accept certain values is the optimal way in which children should be raised. Given the concerns raised here, libertarians may need to carefully consider the appropriate limits for protecting “experiments in living,” especially if the very human capacities at stake are central to a libertarian vision of social and political life.

Further Readings

American Academy of Pediatrics. “Informed Consent, Parental Permission, and Assent in Pediatric Decision‐​Making.” Pediatrics 95 (February 1995): 314–317; 96 (November 1995): 981–982.

Blackstone, Sir William. “Of Parent and Child.” Commentaries on the Laws of England. Book I, chap. 16. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Brennan, Samantha, and Robert Noggle. “The Moral Status of Children: Children’s Rights, Parents’ Rights, and Family Justice.” Social Theory and Practice 23 no. 1 (1997): 1–26.

Grisso, Thomas, and Linda Vierling. “Minors Consent to Treatment: A Developmental Perspective.” Professional Psychology 9 (1978): 412–427.

Kipnis, Kenneth. “Parental Refusals of Medical Treatment on Religious Grounds: Pediatric Ethics and the Children of Christian Scientists.” Liberty, Equality, and Plurality. Larry May, Christine Sistare, and Jonathan Schonsheck, eds. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007. 268–280.

Locke, John. “Of Paternal Power.” Two Treatises of Government. Peter Laslett, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Lomasky, Loren. Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Montague, Phillip. “The Myth of Parental Rights.” Social Theory and Practice 26 no. 1 (Spring 2000): 47–68.

Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Claude A. Claremont, trans. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1967.

O’Neill, Onora. “Children’s Rights and Children’s Lives.” Ethics 98 no. 3 (April 1988): 445–463.

Ross, Lainie Friedman. Children, Families, and Health Care Decision‐​Making. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Scherer, David, and Dickon Reppucci. “Adolescents’ Capacities to Provide Voluntary Informed Consent: The Effects of Parental Influence and Medical Dilemmas.” Law and Human Behavior 12 (1988): 123–141.

Originally published