A child, about ten years old, ran away from home. When found by the police several months later, he was well fed, had money in his pocket, had a place to stay, and was known and liked by his neighbors. Since his own home was unsuitable, he was put in an orphanage. He faked a suicide attempt in order to get out and was sent to a mental hospital. The doctors found him completely sane but were reluctant to return him to the orphanage, both because he obviously disliked it and because he was a good influence on the other patients. As far as I know, he is still there.
What rights should parents or, in their default, other adults, have over children? Philosophically, this involves the difficult problem of when a baby becomes, in some sense, a human being. Practically, I think that there is a simple solution. Any child above some very low age (say, nine years old) who is willing to arrange for his own support should be free from the authority of his parents. For the first year of his freedom, the child would retain the option of returning to his family; during this period he might be required to visit the family and reaffirm his decision several times. After he had supported himself for a year, his parents would no longer be obligated to take him back.
A child might support himself by his own efforts or by being adopted by another set of parents. In the latter case, the new parents would assume the obligations of support previously held by the natural parents. Persons wishing to help children and to protect them against unsuitable parents or other dangers could arrange suitable adoptions or set up free orphanages whose inmates would come by choice, not force.
Children often run away from home, and ten-year-olds who can support themselves are rare, but the normal young runaway is unlikely to stay away more than a few days. A child of that age whose situation is sufficiently desperate to make him run away from home and stay away may be better off doing so.
Teenagers present a more serious problem. Many run away and stay away for considerable periods. The decision to run away is doubtless a mistake in many cases. But do our present laws, which in theory make it possible for the parents to have the police haul the runaway home, achieve any useful purpose? Short of physical incarceration, there is no way to keep a child from running away again. The main effect of these laws, I believe, is to force runaways into hiding and thus to force them to associate with people who are themselves hostile to the laws and values of the society.
Some readers will object that what children need is not more freedom but more authority. This is a false dichotomy. Children in our society frequently suffer from a lack of parental authority, but it is not a kind of authority that can be provided by law.
Another story comes to mind, concerning a family whose adopted daughter was subject to almost no discipline and was, perhaps in consequence, very badly behaved. On one occasion the girl’s aunt told her, at great length, what she thought of her behavior. Several days later the family had dinner at the aunt’s house. The girl behaved with uncharacteristic politeness. After dinner she went up to the (adopted) aunt and asked if she could live with her.
It must be terrible to be brought up in a moral vacuum. It is no wonder that the girl preferred to live with someone who showed, by her very willingness to criticize, that she believed in some values that made criticism possible. It is this sort of authority that our generation needs. For those who lack it, the policeman’s club is no substitute.
But reality has its own discipline. The alternative to parental authority is and should be freedom—in a world where those who do not work sometimes do not eat. That, too, is a sort of moral authority. Experiencing the real world directly—learning to survive in it—is not as pleasant a way of growing up as being taught about it by one’s parents. But if the parents are unwilling or unable to do the job, it may be the best substitute available.