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Is American Childhood Creating an Authoritarian Society?

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. 

Since the early 1980s, American childhood has been marked by a turn toward stringent adult control. Support for “free range” childhood [1] has given way to a “flight to safety” [2] characterized by unprecedented dictates over children’s routines.

More so than any other generation, parents and educators have instilled in millennials the idea that, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt [2] put it, “life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm.” Indeed, strong social pressures have so hardened against parents who believe in the value of a free, unsupervised childhood that psychologist Peter Gray likens [3] them to past Chinese norms on foot binding [4].

Hard numbers illustrate these trends:

So too, do more qualitative indicators. Recent studies supported by the Alliance for Childhood [8] found that kindergartens have “changed radically in the last two decades.” Exploration, exercise, and imagination are being deemphasized and play has “dwindled to the vanishing point.” Instead, kindergartens are introducing “lengthy lessons” and “highly prescriptive curricula geared to new state standards and linked to standardized tests”—curricula often taught by teachers who “must follow scripts from which they may not deviate.”

Even the toys parents are choosing to buy for their kids betray a skepticism of childhood independence. As the National PTA observes, parents since the mid-1980s have purchased [9] fewer multi-purpose, unstructured toys like clay and blocks that “encourage play that children can control and shape to meet their individual needs over time.” Today’s bestselling toys like action figures and video games “promote highly-structured play.”

The irony is that regulatory and disciplinary overkill itself poses a more serious threat to children than such perennial fears as crime [10]“stranger danger,” [11] and playground safety [12].

Consider that practically every declining health outcome in children can be traced to the sedentary, indoor, micromanaged lives that now define American childhood. In a 2005 Pediatrics study [13], researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that children with mothers fearful of neighborhood safety are more likely to watch over two hours of TV per day, instead of playing outside. When American students are moving for only 18 minutes per day at school, it’s hardly a surprise that we’ve seen since the 1970s a more than threefold increase [14] in the number of overweight 6 to 11 year olds.

Experts meanwhile are linking [8] increasing rates of anger, aggression, and severe behavior problems to a lack of free play. These outcomes are consistent with evolutionary psychology theories [15] that consider play to be a critical part of child development, teaching children to cope with, and ultimately master, fears and phobias.

Myriad explanations—psychological, ideological, and economic—have been proffered to explain this paradigm shift in American childhood. Among them:

The impact on children is concerning in itself, but the stakes for society are particularly high at a moment when American democracy appears vulnerable. In a recent paper [23] in the UCLA Law Review, University of Chicago law professors Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg ask whether the United States is at risk of democratic backsliding. Huq and Ginsburg found that the risk of incremental but ultimately substantial decay in democratic norms has “spiked” and now presents a “clear and present” danger. The authors argue that a “larger shift toward an illiberal democracy” is well within the cards.

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. 

Among the most far-reaching adherents of this view was the late psychologist Alice Miller [24], a student of authoritarian regimes. Through her study of Nazism and Soviet communism, Miller concluded [25] 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 [26] that Hitler would not have come to power but for turn-of-the-century German childrearing practices that emphasized “unthinking obedience” and discouraged creativity. The millions of Germans who ultimately supported Nazism, in Miller’s views, were coping with the legacy of a “hidden concentration camp of childhood”—one enforced by the “clean, orderly citizens, God-fearing, respectable churchgoers” who comprised the ranks of Germany’s authority figures.

The antidote to authoritarianism, Miller argued, is childhood autonomy. The reason, in Miller’s telling, that young people were able to bring down Soviet communism in the nonviolent revolutions of 1989—and do so without succumbing to the “blind, uncontrolled destructiveness” of 1960s radicals—was that this generation, as children, “were allowed more freedom than the older generation,” which provided them with “a concept of what freedom and respect for life are.” 

Miller’s assessment may be reductionist, but her basic argument is supported by the remarkable correlation that more recent scholarship has discovered between attitudes on childrearing and political preferences.

Why, for instance, did Republican primary voters flock to Donald Trump—an event that came as a surprise to the pundit class? More so than any other factor—identity, religiosity, income etc.—it was voters’ attitudes on childrearing that predicted [27] their support for Trump. Those who believe that is more important for children to be respectful rather than independent; obedient over self-reliant; well-behaved more than considerate; and well-mannered versus curious, were more than two and a half times as likely to support Trump than those with the opposite preferences.

The reason is that these preferences are indicative more generally of an authoritarian mindset that finds resonance in a candidate with a penchant for “fascist themes and fascist styles.” [28]

Even before this research on Trump voters came to the fore, the literature on authoritarian personality has been used as a partisan bludgeon by leftists to criticize conservatives and their inclination toward traditionalism and law and order. It was John Dean, through his unflattering portraits [29] of Nixon and George W. Bush administration figures, who popularized the work of Bob Altemeyer [30], the foremost authority on authoritarian personality.

Altermeyer himself, however, is careful to note that the authoritarian personality does not necessarily gravitate [30] to right or left wing political causes per se.

This shouldn’t be surprising considering that few institutions in American society have embraced authoritarianism as decisively in recent years as academia—the arena where helicoptered millennials [31] increasingly get their first taste of independence. Since 2000, at least 240 campaigns have been launched [2] at universities to prevent appearances by public figures, most of which have occurred since 2009. Behind these authoritarian efforts are an army of “chief diversity officers”—75 of whom have been hired [32] between 2015 and 2016 at colleges and universities. Their mandate: train students against “subtle insults,” “environmental microaggressions,” and “microinvalidations.” In this resurgence of political correctness, New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait sees [33] not simply a “rigorous commitment to social equality” but rather an “undemocratic creed” and a “system of left-wing ideological repression.”

I am not advancing here a simplistic, causal claim that schools are cutting recess and therefore dictatorship is coming to America. But there does seem to be at least anecdotal evidence of an authoritarian paradigm shift in the childhood realm—one that forebodes a broader challenge to the country’s liberal, democratic norms.

Current indicators call for hard thinking on why American adults are finding such resonance in authoritarian childrearing practices, and whether we, as a society, are preparing young people to thrive in a free country.

Pratik Chougule is an executive editor at The American Conservative. Follow him on twitter @pjchougule. He can be reached via email at [email protected] Sign up for his email list here [34].

62 Comments (Open | Close)

62 Comments To "Is American Childhood Creating an Authoritarian Society?"

#1 Comment By Steve Naidamast On June 23, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

I found myself agreeing with the author of this essay to the degree that current parenting techniques are fairly abhorrent considering what my wife and I experienced in terms of independence in the 1950s and 1960s.

At that time once a child was old enough to be on his or her own to some degree they were out of the house with their friends running around on the streets or in school.

Starting in 4th grade I walked a mile each way to and from elementary school and eventually met up with some friends on the way. No one ever drove us anywhere.

In Junior High and High School we took a bus due to the distances. If we missed any of the available buses to or from school we walked the two or more miles either way or took our bikes in the warm months.

No one planned our activities for us. We found our own either at school or various clubs and organizations outside of it (ie: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts).

That is just the way it was…

Where I disagree with the author in the eventual results of such current parenting techniques is where the author envisions authoritarian personalities resulting from such close-quartered parenting I instead see a far different result. Instead, what I see emerging are neurotic personalities that are fearful of the outside world and have little interest in it.

However, this cannot be accepted as a blanket statement of expectation as many Millennials are making the attempt to work with the realities provided them. Of course there are just as many who don’t.

Where I see the author going off the rails in his analysis is the corroboration of his own research with studies of German society under Adolph Hitler and Russian society with Stalin.

In the case of Adolph Hitler, few people who write about him have read the in-depth histories regarding his personality, leadership style, personal magnetism, and his actual philosophies.

Herr Hitler did not move to power as result of authoritarian parenting. He came to power because of a vision he had of Germany to alleviate the massive stresses placed upon her as a result of WWI and the subsequent world-wide depression that Germany suffered terribly under.

His vision worked and Germany revived itself to become the most prosperous European nation on the continent in 5 years.

Any study that ignores these underlying factors is mere nonsense.

Stalin on the other hand was a known psychopath even in his early days in the Bolshevik Party. Even Lenin, a demagogue himself, realized this and warned party members of Stalin but to no avail.

Culturally, Russia has been historically dominated by authoritarian types, which Russian peasants appeared to have been too weak to defy leaving a small Russian middle-class to be caught between the two.

In the United States we can see my own observations already in play as incompetent political leaders are continuously elected who tend to work against the interests of the very electorate that put them in office.

This is not a result of authoritarian parenting but the fact that such people have been insulated from the world at large while being inculcated with regional cultures and the general low levels of intelligence that populate such cultures. There is nothing authoritarian about such people. They are instead, simply stupid.

Look at Tim Ryan for example. He is lauded as the most intelligent Republican in the House by many. However, he is merely a reflection of the very stupid people who elected him. His policies are as bonkers as his statements.

Mitch McConnell is a classic example of the same in the Senate.

What idiotic constituency would put such morons in such positions of leadership? Like many of their fellow Republicans (and many Democrats) they are more interested in eliminating good government programs than refining them so they are more efficient.

So though the author has some very good intent in his writing, his conclusions to me appear to be quite off the mark…

#2 Comment By JonF On June 23, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

Re: It is not disciplined traditional Republican upbringing which is turning liberals into totalitarian Neo-Marxists.

OK, but who or what is responsible for turning so many on the Right into shameless liars, spreading fake news, blatant propaganda, vicious slanders, and conspiracy theories so wacko that they would embarrass Lyndon Larouche? Disrupting an Ann Coulter speech affects very, very few people (given that Ms Coulter and others like her are perfectly capable of publishing their words digitally and on dead tree, thereby reaching millions). Polluting the public square with lies and falsehoods corrodes the very concept of a shared polity and renders mutual action and negotiation and compromise impossible.

#3 Comment By Mia On June 23, 2017 @ 7:09 pm

“The really maddening thing is how free range type parents can be forced into more of a helicoptering model by the threat or reality of having the cops called on them and possible entanglement with CPS. The sad truth is that it’s so much easier to keep them inside most of the time attached to screens than let them outside and run the risk of some other adult misinterpreting what they see.”

I think this brings up another aspect I never see mentioned when discussing free-range parenting and that is the phenomenon of latch key kids. I was one, and it was the best thing ever since my mother was so needy she would have crippled me emotionally had I spent such intensive amount of time with her. One thing I notice now about it that has made me freer as an adult is the lack of feeling the need to answer the door or telephone when someone rings. In the latchkey environment, I was taught you never answer the door when mom isn’t home, and you are never obligated to tell anyone on the phone that she’s not home either. So I feel free now to ignore or answer either at will and am not a slave to salespeople or canvassers, for example. I also am not upset to eat alone even in public places because being alone isn’t uncomfortable or unfamiliar. It made me far more independent and responsible, I think.

While it does tend to push you toward TV, being a latchkey doesn’t have to, and it is definitely unstructured play time. Given lots of books to read, certain select friends in the neighborhood to visit or call, craft materials, and music to listen to, it can be as good as roaming around town where other risks are at hand, including snitches. Just an idea that it should be rethought as a useful option to overscheduled play time.

#4 Comment By Mia On June 23, 2017 @ 7:15 pm

“But this article is hogwash. I guess the author doesn’t remember that the concern back in the 80s, when these trends started, was “latchkey” kids, effectively abandoned by their parents in pursuit of selfish desires and ambition.”

I’m curious, what’s the actual difference between being left alone at home to mess around and being kicked out of the house all day to roam the neighborhood by your parents? How is being left at home “abandonment” while being pushed out into the neighborhood to fend for oneself virtuous? Same difference at the end of the day, except one is inside and one is outside.

#5 Comment By Colin Campbel On June 24, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

NPR had a story about Felix Mendelssohn and how he was the
most fabulous musical child prodigy of all time. Mozart was
good, but his greatest works were written in his adulthood. Mendelssohn wrote “Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream” when he was 17.

I keep wondering if/when we will see child prodigies again. Kids can do a lot more than modern culture allows them to do. George Washington became a surveyor when he was 15 and was appointed Surveyor General of Virginia when he was 17.

Today we have millions of children immersed in computer technology from the day they are born, and I keep expecting some prodigy to astound the world with a computer advance.

But we haven’t seen that yet. Maybe it’s because iPads are consumption devices that cultivate user passivity. Children just accept that there are five lights.

#6 Comment By Connie Hall On June 24, 2017 @ 8:22 pm

After nine years of raising a daughter in NYC, I don’t think I have ever encountered a child habituated to “unthinking obedience” in any socioeconomic group. Where are these children? For that matter, where are the parents demanding “obedience”? I’d like to arrange a play date!

Mr. Chougule’s commentary strikes me as a collection of variegated, incoherent half-thoughts presented without empirical evidence of any kind.

The greatest threat to freedom my daughter faces is in the NYC public schools in the persons of progressive, liberal teachers, staff and program providers spreading their visceral hatred for Donald Trump; their irrational support for illegal immigration; their preference for Islam over the Judeo-Christian traditions and even atheism; and these educators’ refusals to teach ANYTHING (as of the end of grade 3) about the United States, it’s culture, norms and history.

And I would add that, as a former child protective services caseworker, I can attest to the widespread nature of child sexual and physical abuse by adults and older children. Although these problems are, admittedly, concentrated WITHIN children’s families rather than without; and are more widespread among the poor and poorly educated.

I’m over 50 years old. I ran free and lived to tell about it, as people are fond of saying. But my parents were (and are) blissfully unaware of the idiotic things I did. And they know nothing of the Navy doctor who tried to sexually abuse me at aged 11 and from whom I narrowly escaped by the grace of God and owing to my good instincts and the would-be abuser’s reliance on seduction rather than threats and violence.

I won’t roll the dice with my child. I know better. I wish you all luck.

#7 Comment By SocietalNorm On June 24, 2017 @ 10:51 pm

Children need
1) Security and love
2) Known boundaries
3) The freedom to act within those boundaries
4) To know that there are consequences to their actions, both positive and negative. They should learn much of this from interacting with their peers.

Parents these days are not enough involved in 1 and 2, and too much involved in 3 and 4.
Authoritarianism as seen on college campuses is because of a quest for control over others because of a lack of a feeling of security and an inability to understand that others may have a legitimate different point of view.

We’ve come to the point where these younger people only feel secure when they are able to influence authority figures to control others. (mommy will make it ok)

The author completely misunderstands the Clinton/Trump divide. Clinton was promising to be the authority figure to take stuff from others (the deplorables, white people, the 1%, etc.) who had been mean to you and so make everything right.
Trump was promising to go back to a time where people weren’t forced by authority to do things they didn’t want – such as give their jobs up to foreigners (trade deals), give up driving their cars (global warming), give up pride in their country (globalism), and give up their guns (nanny state).
This may be nativism, but in no way is it an authoritarian message.
The authoritarians voted for Clinton.

#8 Comment By Susan On June 26, 2017 @ 11:23 am

It is important that parents are careful to protect their children from actual harm (running out into oncoming traffic, being exposed to harmful curricula which denigrates Western Civilization while exalting anything that sounds politically correct even if it is evil, and the like)but “protecting” children from the freedom to think their own thoughts and enjoy their own play times free from excessive adult regimentation is only hurting the kids.

#9 Comment By pipper donnie On June 27, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

this article reflect the brain damage paranoia anglo conservative mind. no wonder you folks cling to guns and god. it feeds into your fear due to the fact you choose to be ignorant! my mom and dad knew our passion. they new our friends. they’re were not rich but they try to provide us the time, place and people that will build our interest. lateral thinking, anticipatory socialization and real world skill building is why we are not a 3rd world country! that fact of building a better future for your child of laying out work ethics is what the middle class’s future of America is. lazy rich white people living off of trust fund have no need to set their kids off on the path of work and development. they’re write articles to justify their laziness like this piece of joke! superficial analysis, oh ya. gets the pay check in the mail. dare right!

#10 Comment By JonF On June 28, 2017 @ 4:30 pm

Re: This may be nativism, but in no way is it an authoritarian message.

It most certainly is an authoritarian message to people who are not part of the “Chosen People” Trump was promising things to- they are the ones who would have things taken from them so that Trump’s folks could pretend it was 1958 again.

#11 Comment By Beth Brand On June 29, 2017 @ 10:32 am

The hard numbers listed first are the main culprit. The public schools start to indoctrinate students into an authoritarian mindset from Kindergarten. Easier to control with 25 children in a classroom but universities are seeing lack of critical thinking skills as a result. As an older parent, we were still singing songs in elementary school and riding bikes without helmets. Imagine my surprise when my child entered kindergarten and a student talking in line gets sent to the principal’s office. Not to mention lack of free play and recess, focus on homework, which is handouts based on curriculum as old as me!

#12 Comment By Iyad On July 4, 2017 @ 3:39 pm

I can’t agree with everything said. I was raised in Syria: Socialist country. Everything that is social in teaching I saw in Syria i see in Educational System in USA. No one cut the recess thank God. Even the ill Common Core was introduced in the 2000s.
Still I grew up as a Republican and became more Republican. that means Im a real liberal, real accepting of Others. lefties aren’t and are intolerant to others. Voters for Trump are not the ones who suppress others. it’s those who are the product of Hippis of the 60s and 70s who are.
We were brought up in a very strict way. We appreciate it more. We are trying to bring our children in the same way. that has nothing to do with democracy. Respect is needed. Fearing God in Love not in Horror is needed. At the same time my father brought us to be real man and not some one who cries over everything and blame others for our problems. We were raised to accept every idea and respect it’s believer. He wasn’t a religious man but man of science who respected God.
I don’t believe in any kind of Dictatorship and refuse it. Now in war against terrorism, thats completely a different topic.