American childhood has taken an authoritarian turn. An array of trends in American society are conspiring to produce unprecedented levels of supervision and control over children’s lives. Tracing the effects of childrearing on broad social outcomes is an exercise in speculation. But if social scientists are correct to posit a connection between childrearing and long-term political outcomes, today’s restrictive childhood norms may portend a broader regression in our country’s democratic consensus.This author (Pratik Chougule) notes the various signs we have seen of a waning attachment to democracy, especially among the young, and wonders if childrearing is to blame:
Since the early 1980s, American childhood has been marked by a turn toward stringent adult control. Support for “free range” childhood has given way to a “flight to safety” characterized by unprecedented dictates over children’s routines.
More so than any other generation, parents and educators have instill in millennials the idea that, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt put it, “life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm.”
Whether or not an authoritarian scenario unfolds in the United States could depend on childrearing trends. Indeed, social scientists have long argued that the origins of authoritarian societies can be discerned in childhood pathologies.I have long wondered about this. On the one hand it seems that big changes in childrearing ought to have big effects on everything else in society, but on the other this is hard to document. I can believe that there was a lot of rigid parenting in early 20th-century Germany, but was it really worse than a hundred years earlier? Or than in Britain at the same time? Does anybody know how parenting changed or didn't in 20th-century China? In general I have found it hard to draw clear lines from parenting styles to anything else.
Among the most far-reaching adherents of this view was the late psychologist Alice Miller, a student of authoritarian regimes. Through her study of Nazism and Soviet communism, Miller concluded that dictatorships emerge when an entire generation of children is raised under authoritarian conditions replete with excessive forms of control and discipline. In the case of Nazi Germany, Miller is convinced that Hitler would not have come to power but for turn-of-the-century German childrearing practices that emphasized “unthinking obedience” and discouraged creativity.
Plus I think this narrative exaggerates how much American parenting really changed. My children all spent a lot more time inside than I did, but that was in spite of my constantly nagging to go out rather than my trying to keep them in. I think cable television and video games have had more to do with increasing sedentism in children than rigid parenting.
And, I think the biggest threat to American democracy is angry partisanship, not risk aversion.
But as I said I have long pondered the broader impacts of changes in child-rearing, and I wonder what the political effects of anxious parenting will be.