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Is American Childhood Creating an Authoritarian Society?

Overprotective parenting is a threat to democracy.

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 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 instilled 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.” Indeed, strong social pressures have so hardened against parents who believe in the value of a free, unsupervised childhood that psychologist Peter Gray likens them to past Chinese norms on foot binding.

Hard numbers illustrate these trends:

  • The amount of free time school-aged children enjoyed plummeted from 40 percent in the early 1980s to 25 percent by the mid 1990s.
  • The time young children spend in school jumped from 5-6 hours in the early 1980s to almost 7 hours beginning in the early 2000s.
  • By 2006, some 40 percent of schools had either eliminated recess or were considering doing so.

So too, do more qualitative indicators. Recent studies supported by the Alliance for Childhood 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 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“stranger danger,” and playground safety.

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, 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 in the number of overweight 6 to 11 year olds.

Experts meanwhile are linking increasing rates of anger, aggression, and severe behavior problems to a lack of free play. These outcomes are consistent with evolutionary psychology theories 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:

  • Parental fear in reaction to the crime wave of the 1970s, as well as high-profile televised incidents of abducted children.
  • An “ethos of socialization,” in sociologist Frank Furedi’s words, that is “increasingly reliant on therapeutic techniques,” and encourages children to interpret everyday problems as psychological in nature—all of which disrupt the process of maturity.
  • Environmental impacts on serotonin levels which, according to biologist Raymond Peat, are increasing “traits of the authoritarian personality” throughout the population.
  • Problematic parent-child relationships that are fostering an “anxiety-ridden worldview.”
  • Commercial development that limits children’s opportunities for unstructured play (the number of sandboxes in New York City, for example, is at an historic low.)
  • Angst over hypercompetitive college admissions.

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 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, 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. 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 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.”

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 of Nixon and George W. Bush administration figures, who popularized the work of Bob Altemeyer, the foremost authority on authoritarian personality.

Altermeyer himself, however, is careful to note that the authoritarian personality does not necessarily gravitate 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 increasingly get their first taste of independence. Since 2000, at least 240 campaigns have been launched 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 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 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 pchougule@theamericanconservative.com. Sign up for his email list here.