Anarchists have long been aware of the importance of child rearing and education. As such, we are aware that child rearing should aim to develop “a well-rounded individuality” and not “a patient work slave, professional automaton, tax-paying citizen, or righteous moralist.” [Emma Goldman, Red Emma Speaks, p. 108] In this section of the FAQ we will discuss anarchist approaches to child rearing bearing in mind “that it is through the channel of the child that the development of the mature man must go, and that the present ideas of… educating or training… are such as to stifle the natural growth of the child.” [Ibid., p. 107]
If one accepts the thesis that the authoritarian family is the breeding ground for both individual psychological problems and political reaction, it follows that anarchists should try to develop ways of raising children that will not psychologically cripple them but instead enable them to accept freedom and responsibility while developing natural self-regulation. We will refer to children raised in such a way as “free children.”
Work in this field is still in its infancy (no pun intended). Wilhelm Reich is again the main pioneer in this field (an excellent, short introduction to his ideas can be found in Maurice Brinton’s The Irrational in Politics). In Children of the Future, Reich made numerous suggestions, based on his research and clinical experience, for parents, psychologists, and educators striving to develop libertarian methods of child rearing. (He did not use the term “libertarian,” but that is what his methods are.)
Hence, in this and the following sections we will summarise Reich’s main ideas as well as those of other libertarian psychologists and educators who have been influenced by him, such as A.S. Neill and Alexander Lowen. Section J.6.1 will examine the theoretical principles involved in raising free children, while subsequent sections will illustrate their practical application with concrete examples. Finally, in section J.6.8, we will examine the anarchist approach to the problems of adolescence.
Such an approach to child rearing is based upon the insight that children “do not constitute anyone’s property: they are neither the property of the parents nor even of society. They belong only to their own future freedom.” [Michael Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 327] As such, what happens to a child when it is growing up shapes the person they become and the society they live in. The key question for people interested in freedom is whether “the child [is] to be considered as an individuality, or as an object to be moulded according to the whims and fancies of those about it?” [Emma Goldman, Op. Cit., p. 107] Libertarian child rearing is the means by which the individuality of the child is respected and developed.
This is in stark contrast to standard capitalist (and individualist anarchist we should note) claim that children are the property of their parents. If we accept that children are the property of their parents then we are implicitly stating that a child’s formative years are spent in slavery, hardly a relationship which will promote the individuality and freedom of the child or the wider society. Little wonder that most anarchists reject such assertions. Instead they argue that the “rights of the parents shall be confined to loving their children and exercising over them … authority [that] does not run counter to their morality, their mental development, or their future freedom.” [Bakunin, Op. Cit., p. 327] Being someone’s property (i.e. slave) runs counter to all these and “it follows that society, the whole future of which depends upon adequate education and upbringing of children… , has not only the right but also the duty to watch over them…” [Ibid., p. 327]
Hence child rearing is part of society, a communal process by which children learn what it means to be an individual by being respected as one by others. In Bakunin’s words, “real freedom — that is, the full awareness and the realisation thereof in every individual, pre-eminently based upon a feeling of one’s dignity and upon the genuine respect for someone else’s freedom and dignity, i.e. upon justice — such freedom can develop in children only through the rational development of their minds, character and will.” [Op. Cit., p. 327]
We wish to point out at the beginning that a great deal of work remains to be done in this field. Therefore our comments should be regarded merely as tentative bases for further reflection and research by those involved with raising and educating children. There is, and cannot be, any “rule book” for raising free children, because to follow an inflexible rule book is to ignore the fact that each child and its environment is unique and therefore demands unique responses from its parents. Hence the “principles” of libertarian child rearing to which we will refer should not be thought of as rules, but rather, as experimental hypotheses to be tested by parents within their own situation by applying their intelligence and deriving their own individual conclusions.
Bringing up children must be like education, and based on similar principles, namely “upon the free growth and development of the innate forces and tendencies of the child. In this way alone can we hope for the free individual and eventually also for a free community, which shall make interference and coercion of human growth impossible.” [Goldman, Op. Cit., p. 115] Indeed, child rearing and education cannot be separated as life itself is an education and so must share the same principles and viewed as a process of “development and exploration, rather than as one of repressing a child’s instincts and inculcating obedience and discipline.” [Martha A. Ackelsberg, Free Women of Spain, p. 132]
Moreover, the role of parental example is very important to raising free children. Children often learn by mimicking their parents — children do what their parents do, not as they say. If their mother and father lie to each other, scream, fight and so on, then the child will probably do so as well. Children’s behaviour does not come out thin air, they are a product of the environment they are brought up in (partly by, initially at least, copying the parent). Children can only be encouraged by example, not by threats and commands. How parents act can be an obstacle to the development of a free child. Parents must, therefore, be aware that they must do more than just say the right things, but also act as anarchists in order to produce free children.
The sad fact is that most modern people have lost the ability to raise free children, and regaining this ability will be a long process of trial and error and parent education in which it is to be hoped that each succeeding generation will learn from the failures and successes of their predecessors, and so improve. In the best-case scenario, over the course of a few generations the number of progressive parents will continue to grow and raise ever freer children, who in turn will become even more progressive parents themselves, thus gradually changing mass psychology in a libertarian direction. Such changes can come about very fast, as can be seen from various communes all over the world and especially in the Israel-Palestine kibbutz where society is organised according to libertarian principles, and children are mainly growing in their collective homes. As Reich puts it:
“We have learned that instead of a jump into the realm of the Children of the Future, we can hope for no more than a steady advance, in which the healthy new overlaps the sick old structure, with the new slowly outgrowing the old.” [Children of the Future, pp. 38–39]
By means of freedom-based child rearing and education, along with other methods of consciousness raising, as well as encouraging resistance to the existing social order anarchists hope to prepare the psychological foundation for a social paradigm shift, from authoritarian to libertarian institutions and values. And indeed, a gradual cultural evolution toward increasing freedom does seem to exist. For example, as A.S. Neill writes in Summerhill, “There is a slow trend to freedom, sexual and otherwise. In my boyhood, a woman went bathing wearing stockings and a long dress. Today, women show legs and bodies. Children are getting more freedom with every generation. Today, only a few lunatics put cayenne pepper on a baby’s thumb to stop sucking. Today, only a few countries beat their children in school.” [p. 115]
Most anarchists believe that, just as charity begins at home, so does the anarchist revolution. As some anarchists raise their own children in capitalist society and/or are involved in the raising and education of the children of other parents, they can practice in part libertarian principles even before the revolution. Hence we think it is important to discuss libertarian child rearing in some detail.