But are we protecting them?

This essay was originally published on February 21, 1996, as part of 24 Hours of Democracy. All the pages that it once linked to are gone, so I have slightly reformatted it, without changing the actual essay, to fit more smoothly into my own thoughts and musings pages.

My name is Jim Burrows, aka Brons. I'm almost 45 years old, married for a bit more than half that time, and the father of three sons. I live in Maynard MA. More details are on my home page.

But are we protecting them?

We're often told that the reason that we must surrender our freedom is "to protect our children". After all, who among us, especially those of us who are parents, wants to be guilty of endangering innocent little children. As parents we are used to making sacrifices for our children. It is both an important tradition in our culture, and an instinct in our genes. What, then, could be more natural than to sacrifice "a little liberty" for the sake of our kids?

Most recently, we have been asked to sacrifice "just a little bit" of our freedom of speech to protect our children from "indecency". As a parent of three boys, ages 10, 12, and 14, who have Internet access, I've thought a lot about this in the last several months. Do I really want them exposed to some of the worst of the sleaze on the net? No. I don't. They're teenaged (and pre-teen) boys. They are or soon will be interested in naked girls and women, and on the whole that's healthy. However to my mind there's a big difference between pictures that show people naked and pictures that are of body parts, dehumanized, and differences between both of those and explicit pictures of sexual activity, and finally differences among sexual activities. Some of the stuff I've come across on the net is well over my personal "indecency" line, stuff that's just pure sleaze.

So, given that there's stuff I really don't approve of out there and that I have sons on the net, I'm well primed for the argument that we should sacrifice in order to protect them. For a day or two, I even found the argument compelling. Then I stopped and thought about how I've raised my sons so far. The more I think about it, the less convincing the argument is.

When we were expecting our first son, my wife and I started to "baby proof" the house. We put locks on all sorts of cabinets and drawers. We threw out all sorts of poisonous household products. We bought gates for the stairs and the corridors. Finally we got to the wood stove in the kitchen. That was a real challenge to "baby proof". You could erect a fence around it to keep the baby away, but the fence would have to be very strong, non-flammable, and non-heat-conductive, meaning non metallic. If it was weak or weakly fastened to the floor the weight of a baby leaning against it could collapse it. A gate across a meter-wide corridor, or the top of a stair case can be pretty strong, but a fence that goes all the way around a wood stove? And if you can make it strong enough, you also have to make sure that it will neither catch fire, nor become hot itself when the stove is radiating on it.

We thought and thought, and in the end I had to swallow my engineer pride and admit I hadn't a good solution. So I asked my father, a far more experienced engineer. He had several ideas, but none of them practical. After the problem beat two good engineers, I decided that that meant we were probably trying to solve the wrong problem, and stepped back to revisit my premises. My conclusion was

You can't baby-proof a house.
So, I asked myself, what have all the billions of parents before me done?
Answer: House-proof the baby!
People have had both babies and fires for as far back as you can go and still call us people. The vast majority of those household fires were at least as dangerous as a modern wood stove. In all those thousands or millions of years, all those billions of parents have done the same thing: teach the baby to avoid getting burnt. And in the process, they've taught the baby a large number of other things, things like "it's a dangerous world", "you can be hurt", and "you can and should avoid being hurt".

Now, my babies are grown, and people are telling me what I have to do to child-proof the world. Well, I have news for them:

You can't child-proof the world.

And even if you could, it would be a bad idea.

It's foolish to think that you can keep adolescents away from everything that is indecent. If kids want to find pictures of naked people or real live naked people, then somehow they will. Children are small human beings. Human beings are the cleverest critters in all creation. If they want something bad enough, they will find it. If we're doing our jobs as parents and teachers, our children are better equipped than we are. We're supposed to pass all the good ideas and skills we know down to them. They, in turn, are supposed to have new ideas to add to the heritage and pass them down to their children and so on and so on. And that means that on the whole they will beat us in a battle of wits. No matter what we do to keep them away from the forbidden fruit, they will find a way around it.

Not only is it inevitable that we can't keep them away from forbidden fruit, but because they are children the very act of trying to keep them away from it will motivate them to get it. This, too, is natural and healthy. The process of growth can generally be summed up by three stages: dependence, independence, and finally interdependence. Children start out so dependent upon us that they can do nothing for themselves and don't even really have much self at all. In order to develope that self, they have to become independent, separate themselves from us. Once they have done that, then they are ready to meet us as equals and we can depend upon each other.

The dependence/independence/interdependence cycle means that pre-teens and teenagers will specifically find those things that are forbidden to them attractive. If we try to protect them from indecency by putting up barriers, they will take the barriers as a challenge. Because they are our successors, and because they are even more strongly motivated than we are, they will win, too. The barriers will not stop them.

After thinking about this a lot, I really believe that baby-proofing the house and child-proofing the world not only will not work, but that they are dangerous to and bad for our children. If we don't prepare our children for danger, if we don't house-proof the baby and world-proof the child, they will be hurt, and hurt more badly than if we did our jobs as parents and taught them how to avoid danger. Beyond that, the mere act of keeping dangerous things away from them will make the dangerous things more attractive and even more dangerous.

I don't mean to say that we should leave dangerous poisons around the house and leave the babies unattended. There are certain precautions that prudent parents, and non-parents who may be visited by children, will take. Don't keep unnecessary poisons around the house. Lock up poisons and weapons and so on. Just as importantly, teach your children about poisons and about weapons. Teach them how to recognize them, how to avoid them and how to handle them safely. By the same token, the prudent parent doesn't lock up things that aren't extremely dangerous or which can't actually be locked up.

Indecency is one of those things that a prudent parent doesn't lock up. It will only make it attractive. It focuses too much attention on it.

To sacrifice our freedom of speech in order to lock up indecency is the height of foolishness. We sacrifice one of our most sacred rights and for what, in order to endanger our children, in order to promote indecency, and make it more desirable.

The new restrictive laws that threaten our freedoms were passed because Senators and congressmen were afraid to come out in favor of indecency, were afraid to oppose protecting our children, were afraid to hold liberty higher than safety. This is tragic, tragic in the classical sense. It is not a question of protecting our liberty or protecting our children. Outlawing indecency, locking it up, making it the forbidden fruit threatens both our children and our freedom. The tragedy is that we sacrifice our freedom in order to harm our children.


Copyright © 1996, Jim Burrows
All Rights Reserved

Keywords: "Freedom", "24 Hours of Democracy", "Protecting", "Children", "Indecency", "Child-proofing", "Baby-proofing", "Brons", "Jim Burrows"