A Most Fearsome Specter

More from Steven Ozment:

It is a great, self-serving myth of the modern world that the children in former times were raised as near slaves by domineering, loveless fathers who owed them nothing, the home a training ground for the docile subjects of absolute rulers. To the contrary, from prenatal care to their indoctrination in schools, there is every evidence that children were considered special and were loved by their parents and teachers, their nurture the highest of human vocations, their proper moral and vocational training humankind’s best hope. Parenthood was a conditional trust, not an absolute right, and the home was a model of benevolent and just rule for the “state” to emulate.

In the sixteenth century children were raised and educated above all to be social beings; in this sense they had more duties toward their parents and society than they had rights independent of them. This did not mean that the family lacked an internal identity or that loving relationships failed to develop between spouses, between parents and children, and among siblings. Privacy and social extension were not perceived contradictory. The great fear was not that children would be abused by adult authority but that children might grow up to place their own individual rights above society’s common good. To the people of Reformation Europe no specter was more fearsome than a society in which the desires of individuals eclipsed their sense of social duty. The prevention of just that possibility became the common duty of every Christian parent, teacher, and magistrate. 

How striking this last paragraph is when compared to modern rhetoric about rights.  Almost every child in this country is raised to think about themselves, their needs, their wants, and their desires. The fundamental question they ask is, “What can you do for me?” They come not to serve or do their duty to family, state, and community. Rather they come to be served. Service to their fellow man is the least of their concerns. Their own rights their greatest concern. In that way children of today are raised to have a fundamentally different orientation that children of the previous generations. The blame for our children turning out this way is to be found in Ozment’s last sentence. Parents, teachers, and magistrates fail to teach selfless duty and fail to model it.