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A lot of youth rights supporters think we should move power from adults to children. I am very sympathetic to this goal.

In some cases, it’s possible to give power directly to children. For instance, making it significantly easier for a minor to become an emancipated minor, allowing minors to change guardians, giving teenagers the right to vote (particularly in school board elections), and improving medical confidentiality laws for minors are all policies that give more power to children.

However, these policies mostly apply to preteens and teenagers. Three-year-olds would probably not be able to meaningfully exercise the ability to vote, nor are they particularly good at making their own medical decisions, nor are they able to support themselves as emancipated minors.

I agree with a lot of youth rights advocates that three-year-olds should have more ability to, say, decide for themselves what they want to have for dinner. But three-year-olds are really freaking incompetent. Sixteen-year-olds can generally be trusted to make medical decisions as reasonable as the average adult’s. Three-year-olds cannot. Given the general incompetence of three-year-olds, someone has to be in charge of deciding what things three-year-olds get to make choices about and what things they don’t, which means that someone has to have a considerable amount of coercive power over three-year-olds.

Basically, there are three groups of people that can make decisions about three-year-olds: the government, parents, and broad societal consensus. The government could decide that it is a law that everyone has to get their vaccines, and if you don’t then you don’t get to take advantage of certain government services (public school), you get your children taken away, or you go to prison. Parents could individually consider the costs and benefits of vaccines and decide whether it is the right decision for their child to vaccinate. Or broad societal consensus could shame, criticize, and pressure parents who don’t vaccinate their children, and possibly encourage e.g. babysitters and relatives to secretly get the children vaccinated without telling the parents.

(This is a little bit oversimplified, because in practice a lot of decisions get influenced by all three groups, but I hope you see what I’m getting at.)

A lot of statements that we need to “expand children’s rights” cache out as “we should move this decision about parenting from being decided by one group of people to being decided by a different group of people.”

For instance, free-range parenting is often written about as “children have a right to play outside”, but it actually caches out as “parents should individually make the decision of whether or not their children should play outside, and the government and broad societal consensus should not have opinions.” In my experience, free-range parents rarely seem to suggest that parents who don’t allow their children to wander should be shamed.

Similarly, I have seen discussion of the appropriate response of a parent whose daughter is friends with the daughter of a deeply religious Christian who forbids her to wear makeup: should the parent allow the girl to wear makeup at the parent’s house? This is framed as the child’s right to choose to wear makeup, but it actually caches out as saying that social consensus should be allowed to override parents’ wishes. I expect most liberal parents would be a lot more reluctant to allow the daughter of deeply feminist parents to wear makeup than to allow the daughter of deeply Christian parents to wear makeup, and that the issue wouldn’t come up for a teenage boy forbidden to wear makeup (as most teenage boys are, at least implicitly).

To be clear, I don’t mean to imply that any of the three groups that makes decisions about children’s welfare is somehow “bad”. I think each of them is suited to making certain decisions. I think the government should protect children from physical abuse, and do not think it is appropriate for the government to set bedtimes. I believe in parental discretion about breastfeeding, but not about Vitamin K injections.

The big difference between parent-made decisions and societal-consensus-made or government-made decisions is that parent-made decisions are more diverse. One parent can breastfeed while another does not, but societal consensus either has to approve or disapprove of breastfeeding, and has only a limited ability to take under consideration parents’ individual circumstances. On the bright side, that means that parent-made decisions may be better at taking into account the uniqueness of each individual parent and child: for instance, a parent’s decision about whether to continue breastfeeding can incorporate how much they value breastfeeding, how bothersome it is for them to pump at work, whether their child is prone to diarrhea, the level of support the breastfeeding parent experiences, how important breastfeeding is to their parent/child relationship, etc. And parent-made decisions have a lot of potential to be better than average. If you support children’s rights, you should be glad that parents get a lot of discretion to make decisions: the whole reason that any children get to set their own bedtimes, eat dessert first, and play outside without supervision is that parents are allowed to go against what other people think is good parenting.

On the negative side, all that diversity can lead to bad outcomes as well. The freedom of parents to go against societal consensus also allows them to teach their children that God created the universe in seven days six thousand years ago, to punish children who masturbate, and to forbid their children from having friends.

With regards to what side one should err on about which group should make a particular decision, I have several things to consider:

  1. How confident are you that the current consensus is correct? To the extent that you think the current parenting consensus on a particular decision is misguided (for instance, if you think time-outs are harmful), you should support parent-made decisions, in the hopes that if parents try a bunch of different strategies eventually we will be able to discover better strategies. To the extent that you think the current parenting consensus is correct (for instance, if you think time-outs are the best possible discipline strategy), you should enforce it.
  2. How confident are you that you know the right sort of parenting to do? If you are very certain that you have the right answer about how to make a particular decision, then you should encourage government or societal consensus to enforce it, whereas if you’re more uncertain it’s probably best to leave it up to the individual parent.
  3. Do you think there is one right answer? To the extent that you think that there is one right decision for everyone (for instance, all babies should get their shots), you should prefer societal or governmental decision-making. To the extent that you think that there are multiple right decisions that depend on particular circumstances (for instance, you think that breastfeeding versus formula feeding depends on what the parent finds most convenient and rewarding), you should prefer parental decision-making
  4. How important do you think this decision is? If you think this decision has a relatively small effect on outcomes of interest (e.g. children’s health, children’s happiness, adult income), then it’s probably not worth punishing people in order to get them to make the decision you want.