Kids are great. They’re miniature versions of us, with smaller bodies, less-developed minds, and a whole lot less emotional baggage than we grown-ups have. But we decided a long time ago that kids don’t have all the fully autonomous rights that adults do until they reach a certain age.
So what are children before they are adults? Are they people? Are they the property of their parents? Are they something in between, that we don’t have a clear legal category for? While the idea of children as the property of their parents stretches back to the beginning of human history, it’s causing some very modern problems with children being sold into slavery.
The idea of children as property of the family is an old one, and not necessarily nefarious. In agricultural communities, children are an asset to the family farm, able to work it when the family can’t afford hired labor. In large families, older children will take care of the younger ones. And parents have controlled their children’s movements, speech, and general outlook on life for centuries. In fact, one of the major criticisms of modern parenting is that parents don’t treat their children enough like property; when everything is the child’s choice, that can lead to spoiled, self-centered grownups. So how can the idea of children as property be harmful?
As technology and globalization shrink the world, people are increasingly pushing the idea of children as property outside of the family and into the world. Children are being forced into marriage by their families, a concept which only exists if you first think of the child as the property of the parents, able to be controlled and compelled by them. Children are also sold by their families into forced labor, forced prostitution, and domestic servitude. How can you sell what you don’t already own? And the idea of children as property extends beyond families who treat them that way. The trafficker who buys a child from his mother now treats that child as property. And the man who buys sex from a child in a brothel or on the street treats her as an object of his pleasure, not as a human being.
Even in the U.S., while we proclaim children as individuals, we treat them as property. We claim children on our taxes, and accept the discount child “ownership” gives us. We have custody of children, and can fight for custody of children, a term which is a synonym for “possession.” We live by the children-as-property model, whether we like to admit it or not. And since our society and our legal system is set up around that assumption, should it surprise us that people take that assumption to a level we never intended? If we treat kids like property, should it surprise us that human traffickers do too?
It’s important for parents to be able to raise children, to make choices for them until they are old enough to make choices for themselves. But it’s also important for us to realize the implications of what thinking about children as property means for them, and for us.
Photo credit: davidseth