Kathy Perlo argues that young people must be genuinely valued by society, and should neither be used as scapegoats, nor defined as non-citizens.

To accustom children (those below puberty) to subordination beyond the natural needs of care and protection, they must be defined as non-citizens; to prepare young people (those above puberty but still requiring long years of education) for exploitation, they must be defined as children; and to ensure that the family does not undermine capitalist aims, it must be defined as an agent of the state. The upbringing and education of young people has of course always served the social structure in various ways; this is how it is currently working in our society.


Education was made compulsory originally to prevent children of poor families from having to go out to work. But while education is good in itself, its purposes under capitalism, besides giving the skills required by an industrial economy, are to select children for the ‘meritocratic’ stratification of work (with the corresponding message that low pay and poverty are deserved, indeed inscribed by genetic differences in intelligence), and to acclimatize children to authoritarian structures. Individual teachers may be well-meaning, but the very figure of the teacher with her combined qualifications and authority is a symbol of class inequality, reinforcing the low expectations of working-class pupils. And many teachers are patronizing and snobbish towards parents.

Yet however miserable a child is at school, parents are criminalized for not forcing him or her to attend. The school is never at fault: children and parents must conform. Jailed mother Patricia Amos and her children were dragged through the media, announcing that they had learned their lesson, like the defendants in a Stalinist show trial. On the other hand, many children are excluded for disruptive or antisocial behaviour – and then what awaits them is more state-run machinery for handling deviants. The policies of Gaoler Morris have nothing to do with education.

At present the only way out for disaffected children and their parents is through home education, but this right is being curtailed:

Parents are not obliged by law to tell a local authority at the start of a child’s schooling that they have decided on home education. Children in private schooling can also be withdrawn at any time to be taught at home without the authorities being informed. The row in Scotland is about children who have started their education in the state system. Parents say local authorities make it difficult to withdraw them from school to be taught at home.

The draft consultation document, published in March, appears to have made matters worse.

Alison Preuss, secretary of Schoolhouse, a Dundee-based home-education support group, said: In many cases, local authorities are withholding consent …. They are putting parents with distressed children in a position where they have to jump through 20,000 hoops before they get thatconsent and then referring them to the Children’s Panel for nonattendance at school. Daily Mail, Tuesday, June 25, 2002. In any case, home education is only possible for households where one parent is free from long hours of work. With many couples having to double-work to make ends meet, and with single parents being increasingly pressured or forced into work, home education becomes a luxury.

Young people and work

Older children constitute a handy class of people who are old enough to work but too young to have any legal status as citizens: in other words young enough to be ‘treated like children’. In 1998, it was reported that:

One in four children under the age of 16 are working in low-wage jobs paying as little as 33 pence an hour …, according to two recent surveys. ….

Child labour has become a vital part of the low-wage economy in Britain. … a survey commissioned by the Trades Union Congress … found that nearly one-quarter of all 11 and 12 year olds were working illegally.

More than a quarter of the children who work during the school year said they were often too tired to do homework. Teachers report many children falling asleep in class.

Vicky Short, World Socialist Web Site/Child labour in Britain

Among older young people, as Eddie Truman points out (Give the kids a break,
Scottish Socialist Voice, 10 May 2002, p. 11, 16 and 17 year olds pay tax if they work but cannot vote; they pay national insurance if they work but receive no benefits if they are unemployed.

However, the question of young people working is complicated. Not all child labour is the result of poverty. Young people want economic independence, or at least some money they can call their own. When I was 13, I bitterly resented America’s child labour laws which prevented me from getting a summer job. When my son at a similar age wanted to do a paper round, we tried unsuccessfully to dissuade him; fortunately he found it burdensome and soon gave it up. We were not on the breadline, but young people under peer pressure in a consumer society never have enough money; your son or daughter is always the poorest one in the class. This is especially the case when they lack the dignity that comes with self support, and can only gain status from possessions.

Marx, who devoted a large part of Capital to passionate denunciations of the oppression of children, still recognized the liberatory potential of work for young people and for women, under suitable conditions:

However terrible and disgusting the dissolution, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless, modern industry, by assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relations between the sexes. … the fact of the collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages must necessarily, under suitable conditions, become a source of humane development; although in its … brutal, capitalistic form, … that fact is a pestiferous source of corruption and slavery

Capital, vol. 1, pp. 489-90 (trs Moore & Aveling, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1970

It is true that Marx was here comparing factory work with domestic cottage industries, and the passage is coloured by his admiration for industrialism; but it also expresses recognition of the need for women and children to be free from dependency and domination. He also suggested that work should be combined with education:

Though the Factory Act … is limited to combining elementary education with work in the factory, … when the working class comes into power …, technical instruction, both theoretical and practical, will take its proper place in the working class schools

ibid., p. 488;

and in a footnote cites with approval the views of John Bellers who

saw … at the end of the 17th century, the necessity for abolishing the present system of education and division of labour, which beget hypertrophy and atrophy at the two opposite extremities of society. … Labour adds oil to the lamp of life, when thinking inflames it.


But this does not mean he wanted children to do a paper round at 7 in the morning and then fall asleep in class, eventually failing in school and spending their lives doing crap jobs. Nor would he have approved Labour’s idea of releasing some young people from school at 14 into vocational programmes, and other forms of educational/vocational streaming which rigidify the existing class system. No, in a developed economy prolonged education is necessary, but because it is necessary the young people undertaking it should be recognized as contributors and paid a living wage for their efforts, as university students formerly received maintenance grants. The compulsory and unpaid education of young people is an indirect way of extracting surplus value, since through it they are being prepared for direct exploitation later on. Moreover, any part-time work done by young people should be paid at the going adult rates, on the principle that if they are old enough to work, they are old enough to be paid.

Young people and reproduction

The economic submergence of young people, combined with ancient prejudices against out-of-wedlock births, has led to a fearsome demonization of teenage mothers. A policy which has rightly led to

accusations that the government is seeking a return to 19th century houses for ‘fallen women’

BBC Online Network, 31 January, 1999

is to be implemented in 2003, as part of a war on teenage pregnancy. The government will provide

[s]emi-supervised accommodation for the small number of teenage mothers who choose not to live with their families. This will begin with pilot schemes and will be national policy by 2003 with teen mothers no longer qualifying for a council house. It will include help and advice to encourage mothers to stay on in education and get a job

BBC Online Network, June 14, 1999.

Trying to give a feminist slant to these vicious policies, Blair aimed his remarks at teenage fathers, who he said should be forced to pay maintenance (out of their preschool paper rounds?).

The harm done by classifying teenagers as children is shown by Blair’s remark: Put simply, you are still a child when you are 14 and, in a civilised society, children should not be having children ibid.. It is asserted as dogma that Teenage pregnancy is not right Blair, ibid.. But a person who can produce children is a biological adult, not a child. Mrs Grundy will say But they’re not mature enough to have children! What does mature mean? It is merely a term of approval.

These measures, and these denunciations, are accompanied by hypocritical talk about helping teenage mothers. The programme openly stigmatizes them and is openly aimed at eradicating teenage motherhood, and yet Tessa Jowell, the minister introducing the programme, added that teenage parents should not be punished, but supported so that they did not become marginalised ibid.. The semi-supervised prisons for young mothers and their childrens are, according to the Independent on Sunday, being looked at as a way to reduce teenage mothers’ feelings of isolation and encourage them to move from the benefit system back to work at a faster rate BBC Online Network, January 31, 1999.

Motherhood is hard work, and the young women doing it are to be treated like criminals, told that the child whom they love has no right to exist, that their love itself is worthless, and that however good a job they do, it can be seen at best as compensation for the offence of having the child in the first place. This is mental cruelty of a high order, and typical of the Blair government’s endorsement of toughness as the primary political value. But when has capitalism ever cared about love?

The juvenilization of young people as workers intersects with their juvenilization as parents. Because they are children, teenagers are not entitled to economic independence (either as students or as workers). And because, as children, they do not earn enough to support children of their own, they are not entitled to reproduce; the latter argument, of course, being reinforced by the patriarchal hatred of all single parenthood.

Young people and behaviour

Young people need personal as well as economic independence. Until recently they have had a certain amount of the former, but with curfews being introduced and parents being held criminally responsible for their sons’ and daughters’ offences, reinforced by a moral panic about ‘youth crime’, it is fast disappearing

Young people’s independence is not, despite well-meaning suggestions to that effect, going to be achieved through more adult-supervised activities. On the contrary, their independence is identical with the absence of adults. But under New Labour we are moving towards a world without Huck Finn, Christopher Robin (playing in the woods with his toys, on his own! a paedophile might get him!), Dennis the Menace or Beryl the Peril: a world where children never have adventures or do what they have been told not to. At last, under New Labour, we are seeing the restoration of that golden age whose passing has been lamented since the beginning of written records – when ‘children obeyed their parents’. Is the world really so much more dangerous than it was? Where are the facts? No, the purpose of curfews and the like is not the protection of children or of their prospective victims, but the institutionalization of all life.

Young people and softeningup

The measures so far discussed are aimed at young people, but are useful in softening-up the rest of society for the disappearance of workers’ rights, liberty, tolerance and compassion. Low wages for young workers lead to low expectations in older workers; incarceration of teenage mothers could be a precursor for similar treatment of all single parents; curfews could be extended to any disapproved-of group.

The family: parents or police agents?

The government’s criminalization of parents for their children’s truancy and other offences is designed to destroy the only refugeand source of support that working-class people have under capitalism. If benefits (including housing benefit) are to be cut or parents jailed, children will constitute a threat to their parents and parents will be encouraged to become harsh and unforgiving; while siblings of a problem child will be encouraged to resent and reject him or her. Love has no place in the capitalist view of the family, and is likely to be denounced as overindulgence.

Note that while it is thought appropriate for the state to force parents to act as police, whenever anyone suggests that they be barred from hitting their children, the right wing screams about the ‘nanny state’ and interference with privacy. In my view, hitting children is a violation of human rights and should be banned – not only for the good of the children, but for the good of many parents who, in an authoritarian climate, are actually placed under pressure to hit their children and would be relieved at having that pressure removed.

At the same time as parents are appointed agents of the state who are assumed to have infallible control of children, they are not considered to have a right to custody of them for their own reasons of love and attachment. Such a right has been denied under the slogan of the welfare of the child. Expressing the hope that the situation may change under the Human Rights Act 1989, Bainham writes:

Since 1970 … all family lawyers have been used to the notion in children disputes that the welfare of the individual child is paramount, meaning that it is the court’s sole consideration … the independent claims of parents and others are deemed relevant only in so far as they are fed into the process of determining what are the best interests of the child. This view of the subordination of adult claims was given a further boost with the reconceptualisation of the parental position as one of responsibility rather than rights in the Children Act 1989. … we have spent the last decade or so denying the very existence of parental rights as such. This approach will no longer be acceptable

p. 125,Children law at the millennium, pp. 113-26 in Family Law: Essays for the new Millennium, ed. S. Cretney (Bristol: Family Law, 2000; author’s emphasis).

The welfare of children has been constructed in opposition to the parent’s love for them. All that counts is the objective judgement of various professionals. When my friend Adele (not her real name, at her request), whose children were taken from her by Glasgow Social Services for the crime of being depressed and allegedly neglecting the children, admitted in a hearing that she wanted them back, she was told she was being selfish. She and her husband are only allowed to visit them once a week on social work premises with a social worker present. The children have repeatedly asked to go home and do not understand why they cannot. When the parents told them that the social workers would not allow them home, the social worker got angry and insisted that the required reply was, You cannot come home because we[the parents] are ill. When one of the children clung to his father at the end of the visit and the father expressed anger towards the social worker, the latter denounced him for upsetting the children.

For a while the children were allowed home, after the parents made strenuous efforts to redecorate the house, gain weight (in Adele’s case), and meet other requirements; but the family were not left in peace. The social worker called once a week, finding fault with the housekeeping, prescribing the details of the household’s daily routine, and making it clear that they would never be a family again but would always be prisoners of the social work department, under the constant threat of renewed separation. Not surprisingly, Adele became depressed again and the children were back in foster care the last time I managed to reach her.

This behaviour has nothing to do with the welfare of children: it is the war of the capitalist state, with professionals as its agents, against the poor. Social workers hate to take children into care, someone at Barnardo’s told me when I asked for advice about my friend’s situation. As professionals, they can do no wrong. What hope has a chronically unemployed person, living on an estate, of ever winning out against them?

There is much pseudo-radical thinking invoked to support such actions – smash the nuclear family, children are not your property, etc. Indeed, Marx, in the course of the passage earlier quoted, wrote It is … as absurd to hold the Teutonic-Christian form of the family to be absolute and final as it would be to apply that character to the ancient Roman, the ancient Greek, or the Eastern forms
Capital, vol. 1, p. 490. But libertarian critics of the family did not mean that children and parents should become the property of the state. The present government is destroying everything good about families – love, trust, privacy, mutual support – while promoting the very things that libertarians oppose: authoritarianism, repression, and (through its attacks on single parents) enforced marriage.

And while it is true that parental love is partly possessive and egoistic, it is a great improvement on no love at all. If you doubt it, ask an unloved child.

Policies we should support

  • Parents allowed to make alternate education arrangements, without state interference, for children disaffected with school.
  • Maintenance grants, at minimum wage levels or above, for all secondary school and university students.
  • Minimum wage or above to be paid to all workers regardless of age.
  • Creche facilities for mothers who are still in school.
  • No discrimination against parents on grounds of age or marital status, as regards housing, benefits, jobs, or anything else.
  • No curfews to be imposed on any group.
  • Parents to have a recognized prima facie right of custody of their children. Parents who are threatened with child removal to have full rights of due process of law, including legal aid.
  • And as a bare minimum – votes at 16. It’s little enough, compared to all that is needed!

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