In a recent online discussion, someone said that ‘children’s rights end where the sidewalk ends’. This is a variation on a common argument: children’s rights must be limited for their own protection. If we allow them to make their own decisions, they will hurt themselves.
That this argument seems prima facie true is a symptom of our cultural prejudices. It can be revealed as a prejudice through a simple allegory. Imagine an intelligent adult from a culture without cars is visiting your area and you have been asked to show them around. You are walking down the sidewalk together, and this individual suddenly steps into the street with oncoming traffic. What do you do?
Your response wouldn’t be any different than it would be if a child did the same thing.
This isn’t because an adult from a different culture should have their rights limited for their own protection. It’s not because if we allow them to make their own decisions, they will hurt themselves. It’s because an individual unused to our world hasn’t yet gained the experience and knowledge to protect themselves from our technology.
And you wouldn’t respond by limiting this individual’s rights. You would respond by taking immediate steps to protect them (despite their being an adult) and, in the longer term, educating them on how to protect themselves from the dangers of traffic.
You wouldn’t project from the fact that the individual needed protective intervention in this instance to limiting their freedom to set their own values or make their own decisions.
To intervene to protect the life of another human being is normal, no matter what age that person is.
However – if that same adult individual makes different life choices than we think they should make, we let them do so. We try to understand and respect their differences in values. We listen to them when they express an opinion and engage them in respectful dialogue instead of silencing them. If they tell us they feel we have done something unjust to them, we take the allegation seriously and consider whether we have and if we should make amends. We don’t think we have the right to coerce them into behaving in a certain way or engaging in certain activities because we value them or think them important.
Any individual deserves that respect, regardless of their age, and regardless of the fact that we’d intervene if they stepped off the sidewalk.